Why Discussion Boards can be More Effective than Synchronous Conversations in Digital Classrooms

Do you dread discussion board conversations from students because they devolve into students latching on to one good answer and all simply agreeing with it–or, worse, running the whole sentence through a thesaurus so they each say the same thing in a slightly different (and increasingly wordy) way?

It doesn’t have to be that way. And you probably know this because you’ve had lively, smart conversations online somewhere, whether on Facebook, the comments of a blog, a chatroom, or elsewhere. If you’ve had that experience, rest assured that your students can have it in your online classroom too.

File:Backlit keyboard.jpg

Above, fingers type of a backlit computer keyboard.

© User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons

In fact, you can have even BETTER conversations online than in person! And, in a digital classroom, they are far better than you can have in a synchronous chat. Here’s why:

  • Students who are quieter or slow to respond in class have time to gather their thoughts online.
  • Students don’t have to compete with the class loudmouth (a term I use endearingly, as someone who struggled to sit in silence and let others gather their thoughts as an undergraduate), so you have you are less likely to have one person dominating.
  • Students who struggle to follow a fast-moving dialogue in class can take their time reading written comments from peers without getting lost or overwhelmed.
  • Students who are cautious with their words have time to think them through.
  • All students have the opportunity to slow down their thinking, select their word choices carefully, and revise their thoughts before they post them.
  • Because students aren’t engaging face-to-face, some physical barriers fade away. No one is worried about their accent, the sound of their voice, or their appearance.
  • When students aren’t having an in-person interaction, they are often more vulnerable with what they share.
  • If you set the expectation that everyone will participate in discussion board, you’ll hear from more students than you typically do in class.
  • When students get to think more carefully about their answers (often reading the question days in advance and thinking about it before they right), they give more thoughtful answers.

Having taught both online and in person for years (including different sections of the same courses), I have found that the online discussions my students have are richer, more thoughtful, and more respectful, with a broader range of voices. I hope you discover the same!

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2 thoughts on “Why Discussion Boards can be More Effective than Synchronous Conversations in Digital Classrooms

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  1. Hey! Great article! What are your thoughts about using things like audio for discussion boards?

    This is something I’ve studied in detail, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness in discussion boards, but I’d love to have quantity as well as quality. In my creative writing classes, I ask them to read everything and quickly comment something specific and encouraging, and then to workshop 2-3 pieces. In my last doctoral class, they allowed us to use short audio clips, which functioned in much the same way. But that was not ADA compliant, even partially, I’m sure.

    What are your thoughts about quantity vs quality in discussion boards, and can we see similar social constructivist-like growth in online classrooms?

    Thanks in advance!!

    1. I think audio can work, but, as with all tech responses, we have to make allowances for students who cannot participate. And the ADA issue is a real problem. It could be that you have students who have disabilities that didn’t create a barrier for a F2F class but do create a barrier now, but if students are off campus, they may not be able to easily get Disability Services to issue a letter for accommodations. So even if you don’t know if someone needs an accommodation, following universal design for learning (UDL) principles is best.

      I like quantity a lot, which is one reason I do holistic grading. For example in my Sociology of Sex course, students write 40 discussion posts in a semester (3 per week, for a 15 week online class). They are often working out ideas, so I don’t expect them to be gems; I expect them to be works-in-progress where they are exploring an idea. Some of them don’t get developed very far, but some of them turn into papers and other larger works for the course. When they are doing a lot of low-stakes writing, they can feel freer to get playful, explore, and posit something without having to argue it, which works for that class in particular.

      For a pivot to remote teaching, I think lots of online posts can be a fine way to create a low-stakes way to determine if students are reading and thinking, but it probably also depends on what else they are doing in class. In my Soc of Sex class, it’s reading/journaling/discussion board and a final paper. If I had exams or something else in there, I might cut back on the number of posts. But they work really well in fostering my outcomes (which include being able to talk about the soc of sex respectfully and across lines of difference) and students really like them. So in that case, I use them a lot!

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