In Class and Online: Using Discussion Boards in Teaching
JOHN SULER, Ph.D.
Discussion boards provide instructors a unique opportunity to extend their classrooms intocyberspace. This article offers some observations about student behavior in these online fo-rums and practical suggestions for the instructor, including the creation of rules and structurefor the online environment, factors influencing student participation, and strategies for facil-itating discussion. Critical concepts for understanding the effective functioning of these on-line groups, such as confidentiality, the disinhibition effect, and the integration of the onlineand in-person settings, also are explored.
CYBERPSYCHOLOGY & BEHAVIORVolume 7, Number 4, 2004 Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
ONLINE RESOURCES for education and computer-mediated teaching techniques are as diverse asthe Internet itself. In this article I will focus on theuse of one of the oldest online communication envi-ronmentswhat used to be called bulletin boardsor message boards, now often referred to as forumsor discussion boards.
The original term bulletin board metaphoricallycaptures how these systems work. A person entersa specific location on the Internet and posts to theboard a message consisting of a subject title, authoridentification, and a message bodyanalogous tohow one might pin a note to a corkboard. Whenother people arrive at the board, they can read andpost a message in reply to that subject, or place amessage introducing a new subject with a new sub-ject title. Multiple posts referring to one particularsubject is called a thread of discussion. The seriesof messages can evolve into a very complex, multi-layered, and animated conversation among severalpeople, in some respects similar to face-to-face con-versations and quite different from the much morestatic cork bulletin board. Hence the newer termdiscussion board.
Teachers have devised many creative techniquesfor using this communication environment. Thestructure and purpose of discussion boards vary
according to teaching style and course objectives.Because a variety of software are available, rangingfrom bare bones freeware to sophisticated commer-cial products, the complexity of the available featuresalso plays a crucial role in structuring the educa-tional environment, determining what can and canthappen. In this article, I will focus on basic ideasand strategies that apply to almost all environments.
STUDENT MOTIVATION AND ABILITY
When the instructor creates a discussion board,students may or may not actively participate. Insmaller classes, especially when course activitiesencourage discussion and getting to know eachother, students tend to carry over that desire to com-municate to the online group, resulting in an activediscussion board from the start. Those studentswho rarely visit the forum may begin to feel out ofthe loop when interesting conversations occur on-line, which sometimes motivates them to join in,and other times leads to an increased feeling ofalienation that holds them back from participating.
In large in-person groups, students might be re-luctant to talk in front of the whole class, which cangeneralize to the discussion board. Students mightalso neglect the online forum because, in their
Department of Psychology, Rider University, Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
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mind, it is something superfluous, not really theclass per se, but rather some kind of separate, peri-pheral activity that can be ignored if they so choose.If the instructor tends to feel the same way, con-sciously or subconsciously, students will detect thisattitude quickly. Although instructors might feelgood about adding modern technology to theirteaching repertoire, simply setting up a discussionboard without effectively integrating it into thecourse, and without taking specific steps to generatemotivation to use it, will probably end in a trickleof posts that quickly fade to complete silence.
Instructors presence and facilitation
The instructors presence online, much like that inclass, can help inspire productive discussions. Theinstructor may have to encourage students online,draw them out, ask questions, set an exampleact asa good facilitator as they call it in online communi-ties. In many but not all respects that facilitating roleis similar to moderating a face-to-face discussion. Infact, instructors might choose to alter their teachingstyle while online, speaking and acting in ways viatext communication that are somewhat different thanwhen in-person. This online persona may attractstudents to participate, and may also give the in-structor an opportunity to experiment with newteaching stylesfor example, being more (or less)Socratic, casual, humorous, or personal.
The instructor might offer incentives to motivatestudents. Online participation may determine partof the students grade. Extra credit points can beawarded for participating. Of course, the bonuspoint system that instructions use will vary accord-ing to their grading methods. In those classes inwhich I adopt this strategy, I usually award half apoint per post, with a cap on the number of bonuspoints possible. To qualify for extra credit, I set therather lenient rules that a post must consist of atleast three sentences and must pertain to the coursecontent.
Although instructors would rather not have touse such a system to reinforce discussions, it bevery effective. Sometimes enthusiastic students willcontinue posting beyond the point of attaining themaximum number of bonus points, indicating thatpure interest in the course has taken root. Sometimes,once they hit the cap, students stop posting. If theinstructor sets a specific date as a deadline for post-ing in order to earn points, be prepared for a flurryof activity during the hours before that deadline.
Students online skills
Knowing our students have grown up during theage of computers and the Internet, we might as-sume they all have the knowledge and skills theyneed to work with a message board. This is not nec-essarily true. Some students may have limited ex-posure to computers, feel uncomfortable with them,or not have much experience specifically with on-line communication. Even those who have spent agreat deal of time online may be skilled at Webbrowsing, E-mail, or instant messaging, but maynot have much experience with message boards.Each of these online environments is different fromthe others, requiring a different set of skills andknowledge. Similarly, no two discussion board sys-tems are exactly alike, so any student who is not fa-miliar with the system used in the course will needtime and perhaps some coaching in order to adapt.
Some students like the challenge of experimentingwith new software and new styles of online commu-nication. Others are more wary. These attitudes maypersist throughout the semester, resulting in the on-line forum becoming a unique subgroup within thewhole class. A two classes in one phenomenon canoccur in which the atmosphere of the classroom andforum diverge due to the evolution of two slightlydifferent subcultures of students: those skilled in andenthusiastic about the discussion board, and thosemore comfortable with the in-person classroom.
CREATING STRUCTURE AND RULES
Providing students with clear guidelines aboutposting can help ensure productive discussions.Without such guidelines, many students, especiallythose new to discussion boards, may be unsure andsometimes confused about what the instructorwants them to do. What constitutes a good postwill depend on the individual instructors goals.Different instructors may expect different kinds ofposts in the forums for their courses, so these ex-pectations need to be made clear to the students.Some issues to consider include the following:
If posts result in a grade or extra credit, what ex-actly constitutes a worthy post? For example, howlong should it be?
Should a post involve a statement, an opinion, ananalysis of some kind? Can students simply ask aquestion about course material, or do they needto provide some background to the question?
Are socializing, simple chit-chat, or discussionsunrelated to course content permissible?
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Should practical questions about the course (examdates, course requirements, etc) be placed in thediscussion board?
Do the students need to be careful about spellingand grammar, or is more informal writing per-missible?
Does the instructor want to specifically encour-age students to talk to each other, rather than di-rect comments and questions to the instructor?
Because people sometimes act out online, shouldstudents specifically be reminded to be helpfuland friendly to each other?
Privacy and confidentiality
Another issue that deserves special considerationis the privacy level of the discussion board. A firmgroup boundary tends to enhance the developmentof cohesion, trust, and open discussion, so the in-structor needs to evaluate, especially in small classes,whether the board should and can be accessed bypeople outside the course. How might outsiders whogain access to the group be detected, and removedif necessary? Because people sometimes perceivemore privacy in a discussion board than actuallyexists, the instructor might want to inform studentsabout the realities of who can and cannot gain ac-cess to the group.
Might students discuss people outside of the class?In courses that contain material that applies to thestudents livesespecially psychology and relateddisciplinesthey may want to talk about friends,roommates, and family. The perception of privacyas well as the disinhibition that occurs online mightmagnify this temptation.
The anonymity and confidentiality of peopleoutside the course needs to be protected, especiallygiven the fact that a discussion board, unlike in-person conversations, is a semi-permanent recordthat people can read, analyze, save, print, and for-ward to others. The instructor needs to inform stu-dents about what people can and cannot bediscussedand how specifically the anonymity andconfidentiality of people can be protected, for ex-ample, by not mentioning specific names or identi-fying information. In most cases, the instructorshould explicitly discourage gossiping that has noacademic purpose, which will be tempting to somestudents in an online environment.
Creating different rooms
Many discussion board systems allow the creationof a collection of boards, each one being a differentroom that might serve a specific purpose. The in-
structor might use this feature to facilitate and or-ganize different types of interactions within the class.Rooms can be devoted to discussions of particularreadings, topics, or assignments. Separate roomscan be created for smaller work groups within theclass.
A Practical Q&A room may enable students toask questions about course requirements and activ-itiesfor example, exam dates, details about assign-ments, text readings. In classes in which I assignbonus points for participating in academic discus-sions about course content, this Q&A room enablesme to separate out practical questions for whichbonus points are not awarded.
Setting up an area for socializing may encouragestudents to spend more time in the online environ-ment for the course, especially if students also havethe opportunity to socialize with the instructor inthis more casual atmosphere. The instructor maysee opportunities to stir up an interesting educa-tional discussion, which then can be carried over tothe academic discussion board. In general, socialenergy generated in the casual atmosphere canspread throughout the online environment for thecourse.
The instructor may choose to set up an area forplaying a game of some sort, ideally one thats edu-cational in nature and enhances the course. In mygroup dynamics class, we play word associationin which anyone is free to post in the title of a mes-sage a single word that is an association to theword appearing in the title of the message preced-ing it. Students enjoy the game, which also servesas a kind of social barometer revealing interestingaspects of the groups dynamics.
Sage on stage and the Socratic method
Students tend to carry into the forum the sage onstage notion of a typical classroom settingthat is,the teacher stands at the front of the room and at thehub of the dialogue, with students directing almostall comments and questions to the instructor. In mydiscussion boards for my classes, I try to steer clearof this style of interacting with students. Not onlydo I believe in the educational value of students ac-tively sharing ideas with each other, but I also wantto avoid spending many hours typing in answers tonumerous questions arising from a need to pas-sively absorb information from an authority figure,which is an all too common attitude in our educa-tional system as well as on the Internet.
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The techniques for stimulating an online discus-sion are similar to those used during an in-personclass. In Socratic fashion, the instructor may en-courage students to reflect on their ideas and ques-tions, providing just enough information to getthem thinking about deeper or broader answers.The instructor may encourage other students to re-spond to a question or idea from their classmate,especially if it is a question that, much to the in-structors dismay, is something already discussedin class, perhaps at great length, so it is safe to as-sume other students know the answer. Remindingstudents about that discussion can facilitate the di-alogue. Rather than directly providing information,the instructor can post a link to a website that con-tains information related to a students question orcomment, then ask the student to report back to thegroup about what they learned from that site.
The Socratic method stands as one of the mostchallenging teaching strategies, requiring quickthinking and concisely directive questions. The goodnews is that it is easier to execute online. Due to theasynchronous quality of communication within anonline forum, the instructor is not on the spot to im-mediately and accurately facilitate the discussion.There is more than sufficient time to ponder an ef-fective way to mediate with Socratic wisdom.
A message board discussion, like any discussion,ebbs and flows, sometimes in predictable patterns,sometimes not. At the beginning of the semester,instructors may find themselves clicking into thevarious discussion boards for their classes (mak-ing the rounds, as I like to call it), looking forposts, but none appear. Students tend to be over-whelmed during those few two weeks. It may takesome time before they feel able to participate.
Silence tends to breed silence. Not many studentswant to be the very first to post. The instructor mighthelp by offering a few inviting, even humorouspromptsfor example, Hey where is everyone?,or Come on in, the water is fine! or Tap . . . Tap . . . .Is this thing working?
Most of the time I allow students to bring upwhatever topics they wish to discuss. That unstruc-tured atmosphere may make some students uneasy,but I like to leave the door open for whatever mightbe on their minds, even if its a topic thats not di-rectly related to the course material. Sometimes Iseed the discussion board by creating a new threadpointing to an issue left over from class that needsfurther exploration or clarification, or I create the
new thread if the online group needs a stimulus tohelp it out of a sluggish period.
Once a productive discussion among studentsstarts rolling, the instructor can simply sit back andfollow along, deciding when, how, and if any facili-tation is needed. The instructor will be tempted tooffer corrections when students present mistakeninformation, or when they ask difficult questions,but I sometimes allow these discussions to unfoldon their own without interfering, allowing the op-portunity for students to work through the chal-lenges with each other. Because they may wonderwhether Im following the discussion, I eventuallywill post a simple encouraging comment such asGood discussion!perhaps adding a question orthought to promote its continuation. If mistakenideas persist and grow, Ill intervene. When a stu-dent raises an important question, the instructorcan flag that post as unread (a feature offered inmany software systems) in order to keep track ofwhether other students offer an adequate reply. Ifnot, the instructor can respond to the question.
Students have different reactions to online textdiscussions. Some may be frustrated by the tediumof having to type everything they want to say, feel-ing a face-to-face discussion is easier and morethorough. Those with superior writing skills have acommunicative advantage. They may not be thesame students who have the verbal advantage inthe classroom. Those who are ignored or interruptedduring class discussion may have a stronger voicein the discussion board. Those who dominate an in-person meeting may lose some of their influenceonline. The group dynamics in cyberspace may bevery different than in-person. Encouraged by theinstructor, a straightforward and empathic discus-sion of these issues may help students adapt to theforum and to each other.
To reply or not to reply
When students post a message and receive no re-sponse, they may feel reluctant to post again. Noone likes to be ignored, especially if it happens sev-eral times in a row, the student is shy and sensitive,or in any way students feel they are taking a risk byposing a question or suggesting an idea. Getting noreply in a message board is one type of black holeexperience in cyberspace.1 It stirs up insecurities,anxiety, projections, and transference reactions, oftendiscouraging the person from posting again.
The instructor may intervene by replying to thestudent, but when? Because it can take several daysfor another student to respond, the instructors pre-
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mature interjection might preclude that opportu-nity for students to talk to each otheror it mightbias the ensuing replies from students. The instruc-tor might adopt the strategy of waiting severaldays before replying to a student who needs areply, perhaps marking the students post as un-read as a reminder to return to it later.
Changing message titles
The forum may be filled with bursts of activityjust before and after an exam, when assignmentsare due, when students feel confused about some-thing in the course, or when something interestingor controversial comes up in class. Students maypost more messages as well as longer, more complexmessages that address a variety of issues. If mes-sage titles are ambiguous and threads migrate tonew issues that no longer relate to the original mes-sage title, the instructor might change the title ofthe thread or create new threads with new titles thathelp highlight and organize the different issues athand.
Using quoted text
When replying to someones post that containsseveral important ideas, instructors can cut and pastetwo or three key sentences from their messages intomy message, with my comments interjected be-tween the quotes. This keyboarding technique canlead to an interesting interweaving, multi-layereddialogue.
Quiet spells may follow spurts of activity. I findthat posts typically die down for a few days, thenpick up again. Complete silence for a week or moremay indicate a group thats dying out completely.The instructor needs to do some active facilitatingonline and in class to revive it.
E-mailing students privately
To stimulate activity in the forum, the instructorcan privately E-mail a handful of students who typ-ically do participate in class discussions, or usuallyhave good ideas, in order to encourage them topost. I let these students know that Im countingon them to share their thoughts and questions, andto get some discussion going. This strategy seemsto work well, both in stimulating online and in-classdiscussions. These students often feel flattered.Contacting people via a new communication path-wayas in E-mailing someone whom you rarely orhave never E-mailed beforemay feel like a special
communication to them, as if you are attempting toconnect on a different level.
The absence of face-to-face cues has a major im-pact on how people communicate in discussionboards. You cant see other peoples faces or hearthem speak. All those subtle voice and body lan-guage cues are lost, which makes the nuances ofcommunicating more difficult. But humans are cre-ative beings. Over the years people online havedeveloped all sorts of innovative strategies for ex-pressing themselves through typed textwhat Ilike to call expressive or creative keyboarding.2 Thesetechniques include:
Parenthetical expressions that convey body lan-guage or subvocal thoughts and feelings (sigh,feeling unsure here)
Voice accentuation via the use of caps, asterisks,and other keyboard characters in order to placevocal *EMPHASIS* on a particular word or phrase
Trailers to indicate a pause in thinking . . . or atransition in ones stream of thought . . .
Emoticons like the smiley : -) winky ;-) and frown: -( which are seemingly simple character setsthat nevertheless capture very subtle nuances ofmeaning and emotion
LOL, the acronym for laughing out loud, whichserves as a handy tool for responding to some-thing funny.
These techniques enable a lively conversation thatsimulate a face-to-face dialogue. Some studentsmay not be aware of such techniques, so the in-structor might model how they can be used effec-tively. Of course, instructors who prefer that studentsdevelop their skills in traditional grammar andcomposition might need to discourage text-talk,which will be tempting to those students experi-enced in casual online conversation.
THE DISINHIBITION EFFECT
People say and do things in cyberspace that theywouldnt ordinarily say or do in the real world. With-out having to deal with a face-to-face encounter, theybecome more uninhibited, express themselves moreopenlya phenomenon that has been called the on-line disinhibition effect.3 Sometimes people sharepersonal issues about themselves or express an opin-ion that otherwise they would keep to themselves.
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However, the disinhibition effect is not always so be-nign. People are rude, critical, angry, even threaten-ing. The disinhibition may indicate an attempt tounderstand and explore oneself, to work throughideas and personal issuesor it simply turns into ablind catharsis, an acting out of needs and wisheswithout any personal growth at all. In some cases theambiguity of text communication results in transfer-ence reactions in which people project their own ex-pectations, wishes, and anxieties onto the ambiguousfigure sitting at the other end of the online connec-tion. They misperceive that figure as being like somesignificant person in their lives.
Moderate levels of disinhibition tend to be com-mon in educational discussion boards. Students tendto ask questions and express opinions that dontcome up in class. They tend to engage in more honestexchanges with each other and more freely describepersonal experiences related to the course material.Some students may be more willing to debate withthe instructor, including students who otherwise arevery quiet in class. Students who are shy in-personmay especially benefit from this disinhibition effect.
Insensitive and hostile remarks also may surface.Instructors might decide to explicitly state in therules for the discussion board that helpful andfriendly behavior is expected. The disinhibition ef-fect might be explained to them. The instructorsearly intervention when interpersonal frictions sur-face can help prevent the eruption of blatant con-flict. For this reason, instructors should probablynot leave their message boards unattended for longperiods of time.
If the instructor has set a deadline for posting inorder to earn points, the flurry of activity occurringjust prior to the deadline may include posts involv-ing self-disclosures and emotional content, ofteninduced by the stress associated with the end of thesemester and by the fact that students feel more un-inhibited with each other. The instructor may needto pay special attention to these posts, which meanssetting a deadline that enables the instructor to de-vote time to the discussion board on those days.
Outside the discussion board, in private E-mailor in-person, the instructor might need to mediateand help clarify the situation when hostile trans-ference reactions and other conflicts occur amongstudents. A students transference reaction to theinstructor can help the instructor understand thatstudents behavior in the course.
Modified and anonymous posts
Some discussion board software systems includea feature that allows students to modify or delete
their messages after posting them. Besides beingable to correct composition errors or unclear writing,students also appreciate the chance to modify ordelete the opinions, ideas, and feelings they express.I recommend the 24 Hour Rule to students: If youfeel any discomfort about a message youre about topost, dont post it right away. Save it in a separatefile. Wait a day, then read it again to decide it youwant to post, modify, or delete it. Sleeping on itand rereading the message with the psychologicalperspective of a new day can make a big difference.
Some discussion board software systems alsoallow anonymous posts. Giving students completeanonymity may intensify the disinhibition effect,resulting in words better left unsaid. I find that stu-dents very infrequently post anonymouslyandwhen they do, their candid remarks tends to bevaluable rather than deviant. Anonymity can helpsome reluctant students say something that needsto be said.
The disinhibition effect also may lead to obtuse,confused, and vague questionsquestions with ob-vious answers, that were already answered manytimes before, or require a book-length reply. It wouldbe understandable for an instructor to feel annoyedwhen many of these questions start surfacing. Onthe other hand, they do give the instructor a glimpseinto whats happening, or not happening, in theminds of some students.
INTEGRATING THE CLASSROOM AND DISCUSSION BOARD
Because the discussion board and classroom feellike different environments involving different stylesof communicating, the two may become dissoci-ated from each other. What is said in one domainmay not be said in the other. Although topics dis-cussed in the classroom may easily carry over intothe discussion board, the reverse isnt always true.Students may experience the forum as a separateentity, a subgroup of the class, something not con-nected to the course. What is said there stays there.The disinhibiting effect of text communication maylead students to express ideas and opinions onlinethat they actively refrain from bringing to class.
The instructor may need to make special efforts tointegrate the online discussions into the classroom.The instructor might mention important issues thatcame up in the discussion board, perhaps referringto the people who were involved in that discussionand encouraging students to continue the dialogue.
While online students may discuss topics thatwere covered in class many days or even weeks
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earlier. Ideas and questions have been lingering intheir minds, the material is just beginning to sinkin, or perhaps students simply are responding toold posts. Bringing these discussions back into theclassroom may feel like an awkward digression orregression. A better strategy might involve facilitat-ing these dialogues only in the forum, resulting in acompilation of asynchronous discussions that stretchacross the developmental history of the course, ide-ally culminating in an overlapping and synthesis ofideas that may not be possible in classroom teach-ing, which typically follows a more linear temporalpath.
Sometimes the discussion board evolves into asubconscious voicing of problems actively avoidedin classfor example, differences of opinions orpersonal conflicts among students. The instructormight be able to help students work through theseissues in the forum, or via private e-mail, allowingthe beneficial effects to seep into the classroom with-out openly discussing them in class or in-person.The best approach is to head off this type of dissoci-ation before it becomes too deeply entrenched. On-line and face-to-face, the instructor can addresspotential problems before they escalate. In fact, thedisinhibited manifestation of these problems in thediscussion board can serve as diagnostic opportu-nity for early detection and intervention.
Under ideal conditions, in-class and online dis-cussions will complement and enrich each other.
Students will recognize the pros and cons of eachenvironment. They will learn to maximize the ad-vantages and minimize the disadvantages of each.When the group moves fluidly from one realm tothe otherwhen both environments combined giveexpression to a wider range of ideas and voicesthen the class has succeeded in extending itself intocyberspace.
1. Suler, J.R. (1997). The black hole of cyberspace [On-line]. Available: www.rider.edu/suler/psycyber/psycyber.html.
2. Suler, J.R. (2004). The psychology of text relation-ships. In: Kraus, R., Zack, J., Stricker, G. (eds.), OnlineCounseling: A Handbook for Mental Health Professionals.London: Elsevier Academic Press, pp. 1950.
3. Suler, J.R. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. Cy-berPsychology & Behavior, 7, 321326.
Address reprint requests to:John Suler, Ph.D.
Department of PsychologyRider University
Lawrenceville, NJ 08648
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