Hi, you’re doing it wrong: Discussion Forum

As I’ve explained, I started my master’s program three weeks ago. Through an online program, I’ll have a Master’s of Teaching and Learning in Curriculum and Instruction in 14 months. It’s my first time in an all-online learning environment. They’re doing it wrong.

There were stone tools, there was the wheel, there was online learning, there was the discussion board.

Instructors looked at this and said it was good.

Learners looked at this and said was annoyingly restrictive at times.

The discussion board for my current master’s class looks like this:

The standing assignment for the discussions says:

The “Education Specialist” has contributed to this discussion board this many times:


Here’s why “Education Specialist” needs not worry about joining in:

Learner’s options for posting new threads to the discussion board look like this:

That’s right, we can’t.

Some thoughts:

  • I don’t always have 250 words in response to the posted discussion questions that are often meant only to check if we’ve completed the reading.
  • Requiring me to reply to 2 people means I tend to reply to the two folks who posted their responses earliest and never read the responses of those who follow.
  • Knowing people are responding to what I wrote because they were required to spend 100 words on my thinking cheapens it.
  • Inferring that my discussion log is going to be used to check for completion and not quality of discussion cheapens it.
  • Not being able to post what I like when I find it cuts out the possibility of organic discussion and learning.

I don’t find future contributions from “Education Specialist” likely either. There’s no pushing of thinking, there’s no questioning of our premises, no “Oh, I found this link to this article related to the reading for this week.”

The others in the class have picked up on the hoop-jumping nature of the discussion board assignment as well. Posts are empty, enough words to get by and then done. Not about the ideas, but about the word count.
Not that the questions lend themselves to real depth.

The one assignment from the course where I’d like to have seen and responded to my peers’ work and have them do the same for mine was the drafting of our philosophies of teaching. These documents outlining who we are as teachers and where we come from could have led to some interesting discussion and thinking.

The philosophies went straight to the assignment dropbox. Why collaborate on those?

I’ve used the moodle discussion forum in teaching many times. I’ll throw a forum up for sharing resources or giving feedback on drafts of essays or discussing readings. I’ve done the whole “respond to two other people” thing. I don’t know that I’ll be doing that again. I’ve come to realize it’s the online equivalent of forced mingling. The worry could be that people won’t respond to one another if not required to. If you have to require someone to use the tool and they wouldn’t normally do so, you might be using the wrong tool. Maybe content matters?

I’ll certainly be keeping this experience in mind the next time I use the discussion forum in class. Discussion isn’t enough. It seems we need actually be saying something.

Hi, you’re doing it wrong.


14 thoughts on “Hi, you’re doing it wrong: Discussion Forum

  1. When I taught an online class to adults, I found the same reaction to the required 2 replies to 2 different postings. The class gave me just enough to get by. But, there were a few that went the extra mile and they were used as examples for it. I read and created a response to each students posting and often the replies. I felt not responding to what my students were writing was disservice to them. I got a lot more out of my third graders by leaving a notebook in the back of the classroom. I wrote on the cover of the book “Write In Me”. Then, on the first page I created the first entry explaining that this is a mystery book. Feel free to write in it, but don't tell anyone that it is here. Let them discover it on their own just like you did. At the end of the first 9 week period, I read to them what they had written. It was a wonderful experience. I actually stole this idea from a children's book. It worked!

  2. You bring back memories…memories of a time in the not-so-distant past when I had to complete an online English Lit class in order to be certified to teach science in PA. As you know, since I probably complained to you about it, I had a similar discussion board experience, including the lack of participation from the teacher. Since then, I have spared my students of the pain of “respond to 2 other people's posts” in my classes.With all those minimum word count hoops to jump through, on a topic that you may not actually be interested in, to say these “discussions” are forced is an understatement. I'm sure there's a way to do it well, but I have yet to experience it.(On the other hand, Moodle discussion forums work pretty well at SLA for asynchronous faculty planning and discussions. How can we take what works for the faculty and turn it into something that works with our students?)

    • If you aren't using discussions as a springboard for interactivity, what are you using? When I taught photography online (the lab was face to face but the work was online), discussions were a major part of getting students to interact with each other and to help them overcome shyness and fear. I created discussions on topics I knew they would be interested in (what kind of camera do you own and why did you purchase that brand) and that would help them to understand other students in the class.I found that those that sat in the back of a room during a live class and said nothing were the ones that posted the most online. By the end of a semester, they had blossomed and sat in front and interacted with the class. I attribute this to their need to find themselves and be comfortable discussing topics, something they could do semi-anonymously online through discussion boards.Any thoughts?

  3. Ugh, sorry Zac. That sounds miserable. I hear you in terms of the joy killer minimum word counts are, but as someone who's going to be teaching a high school class that's partially online, I wonder about how to convey the expectations for online participation. Obviously, I'm going to model participation, but I feel like I might need to do more than that. Ideas? Is there a middle ground?

    • Meredith,Thanks for the sympathy. I've actually shifted the paradigm to the idea thatonline learning and not “classroom management” is the focus of this course(for me, anyway).One of the things that Bill said in his comment seems key to me. Commit toreplying to your learners' posts in the discussion forum. Part of what makesit rich is the ability of the teacher to give individual public feedback. Idon't mean criticism. I mean feedback. I can respond to a learner's ideas ina forum in a way that others can see benefit from. This means I have to pullback my teacher voice and use one that is much more tuned to participant inthe class. That's a good thing. I can make me less threatening.As for encouraging online participation, I think that's more about theculture of the class. If I can create an assignment where my learners aremore interested in feedback or feel pride in completion than they areinterested in their grades, something's gone right.Are you using the discussion forum because you need it as a teacher orbecause the learners need it to deepen their understandings? Is it shared insuch a way that they see the need/value in it or do they feel you're makinganother demand on their time? It's tricky. It's also difficult to give up.From the Trying to Capture Lightening in a Bottle Dept.:What is it that gets our learners to comment on an online video or afriend's status message? If we can find that and adapt our online teachingmodels to something with that type of intrinsic interest, we'll be well onour way to building better online classrooms.Thanks for this.-Zac

  4. I repeat my comment from your last post: “Somewhere in this huge push for more and more distance learning, someone ought to take stock of the number of educators who really know how to effectively facilitate learning online.”

    • Jon, I'm in extreme agreement. Though the master's degree I'm to end up withwill be in C & I, each time I post about the class, I realize my trueeducation is on the delivery and teaching of online courses. Unfortunately,each pieces has been non-exemplar after non-exemplar. I'll be the first topost when I get to a piece that's done correctly in this or the subsequentcourses. I just hasn't happened yet.I'm honestly starting to believe that the best way for teachers to see howterribly wrong online learning can go is to force them to enroll in andcomplete their own courses.I'm learning, but not what they think I'm learning.

  5. Pingback: Class blogs should be open spaces at Autodizactic

  6. I was one of the first to use discussion boards for my students, nearly 20 years ago I guess. There is no way in the wide world that I would ever use this mode of interaction for assessment though I was involved in units where it was.. Doing so makes it competitive and turns it into a charade.

    People happily joined in if they chose. Not everyone did. I had areas for specific topics and even one for a sort of Facebook-type interaction, though I kept an eye on that one as some got a little too enthusiastic at times. Choice was the main consideration.

    Assessment via this method? Madness.

    • I’m with you on this Denis. It’s nice to know it was an actual forum in your class. Wish I’d been there. Strangely, in such settings, I find myself attempting to become a provocateur and curator to draw out real conversation. It rarely works, given the nature of the contextual constructs, but I keep hoping.

  7. Welcome to edumacation in the dwindling light of 1990s ELearning theory. You have to realize a lot of people wrote papers on how great this crap is, so doin anything else says they were not as smart as they have clearly shown. Forums are crap, the world over. Bottom line, if it ain’t assessable, ignore it. 90% of questions are about what font size anyway. Welcome to hell. Tick the boxes.

    • Thanks for the welcome.
      It doesn’t feel like dwindling from this side of things. Maybe more upsetting is the fact so many of my peers aren’t arguing against it. If this is how we’re taught, how will we teach?
      What do you mean about assessable?

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