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