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You Shouldn’t Use Discussion Boards in Online Courses. Yeah. I said it.

I have a question for you.

Be honest.

When was the last time you said, “My online courses have GREAT posts on the discussion board”?

Five times? I mean, based on the conversations I’ve had with instructors, if you’ve said it more than twice, you’re in exclusive company. However, having said that, I bet you keep having discussion boards as a part of your online course. Every.single.year. Like a dang crazy person.

We can do better! So let’s ask ourselves some simple questions to get us going in the right direction.

What is Your Discussion Prompt?

It all starts with the right kind of question you ask your students. Are you asking them a question to which the answer can be found by using Google? If so, you are practically begging them to not use their brains and plagiarize. Can the answer be found in the textbook? Again, don’t expect anything beyond regurgitation.

How about having them watch a video and show how it relates to the concepts in the textbook? Or maybe a scenario/case study that is an example of a theory from the text? Using a real-life example of something that links to a learning outcome is a great way to force them into critical thinking. You could even have THEM provide a real-life occurrence (life experience, current event, etc.) and have them connect it with facts from the textbook.

How is Students Responding to Students Working Out for You?

Again, be honest.

Would you have students respond to other student’s comments out loud for a grade in a live classroom? If you would, please record it and send it to me. I love watching painfully awkward real-life events.

Having students respond to other students is going to end up poorly, because without direction, students tend to do the bare minimum. Put yourself in your students’ place. You’re doing a discussion board assignment for the fourth week in a row. You’re sick of it because it’s basically the same assignment over and over and over. What would you do??

This is why you need to consider something other than a discussion board to get students to interact with one another. If you really want them to interact, do a group project. If you want them to actually read and think about what their classmates are saying, have them do a critical analysis of the discussion thread responses. You could even have them do a peer editing assignment. All of these would help you avoid the canned responses we all love to hate in our online courses.

What is the Educational Value of your Discussion Board?

We need to take a hard look at all of our assignments, but most specifically our discussion boards to determine what we are expecting our students to learn from them. So what exactly is the point of your discussion board? What are you expecting your students to learn from it? If you can quickly answer that question, stay with the activity. If you had to think for more than 30 seconds, well….

Unfortunately, I think we have told ourselves that discussion boards are the only way students can interact in our courses, so we have to use them. I’ll counter that argument with: Why do students have to interact with each other in the course? I made it through plenty of courses in my undergrad degree without talking to anyone. I was an introvert and had it down to an art form. Quite honestly, students are there to learn, and interacting with others may or may not be needed. Step back and consider this.

What is a Better Way to Have Students Critically Think?

Obviously, we hope that the wheels will start turning in our students’ minds with each and every assignment, and they become smarter with every task we give them. I can say that I drift into unconsciousness when dealing with discussion boards. I just don’t find most of them helpful.

So what can we do?

Let’s start with not having a discussion every week. I’d suggest every other week, with the goal of over time, taking it down to less than that.

Also, look at the topic for each week. What is the BEST way for students to learn that topic? Is it a quiz? Essay? Presentation? Truth be told, a discussion thread may work for that topic. But it won’t work for every topic. Take your course topic by topic and use the tools that work best for each one.

I’ll say this bluntly: YOU DON’T HAVE TO USE DISCUSSION BOARDS IN EVERY ONLINE COURSE. Feels freeing doesn’t it? I have exorcised the demons! This house is now clean.

Now let’s give our students the type of assignments that will blow their minds with learning!

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