Alternative Ideas for Discussion Boards: Reinventing a Classic Online Class Activity

Woman discusses class with man on computer screen.

If you’ve been around higher education for very long as a professor, instructional designer, or student, you know there’s one activity you can never seem to get away from in an online course: Discussion Boards. 

You’ve probably seen instructions similar to this in a syllabus or Discussion Board prompt: 

Your initial post should be X number of words and is due (Insert day of the week) at 11:59 p.m. Your responses to X number of classmates should be X number of words and are due by (Insert day of the week) at 11:59 p.m. 

In my experience, professors are not always as rigid on word counts. But I’ve had classes where they expect me to respond to up to seven classmates. In some classes, I am expected to respond to multiple discussion prompts and multiple classmates for each prompt in the same week. This “discussion” is in addition to readings and other course activities and projects, not to mention my full-time job and what little time I have left for a social life. 

When you respond to so many initial prompts and classmates, the conversation can end up looking more like this discussion board meme

The University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program (2017) asserts that Discussion Board activities should teach students “how to listen to others, how to paraphrase, and how to involve other members of the group” (p. 4). They also note that the Discussion Board can be one of the richest elements of an online class, offering a unique opportunity for students to be ‘heard’” (p. 6). Unlike the face-to-face classroom, students don’t need to raise their hands and wait to be called on when participating in the Discussion Board (p. 6). When created and implemented with intentionality, the Discussion Board provides students with an opportunity to think carefully about what they want to say and look it over before they post it. If all students had the ability to be this intentional in their initial Discussion Board posts, they would have time to consider the contributions of their classmates more thoughtfully and go back their classmates posts again when a second reading offers clarification and a deeper understanding of what their classmates said (p. 6)

If I’m being honest, I would prefer to intentionally respond to one initial discussion prompt with around 350-500 words and then intentionally respond to two or three classmates with 250-300 words. However, I also believe there are alternative options for the Discussion Board that are more creative and intentional, which I want to offer in my post today. 

Alternative 1: Have Only Certain Students Post Initial Responses 

Last fall, I helped a subject matter expert overhaul an online course. One of the weekly activities that we updated was the Discussion Board. To ease the load allocated to this tool, rather than having all the students respond to the discussion prompt each week, students were divided into groups. Let’s use 4 Groups as an example. Group 1 was assigned a prompt. Each Group 1 member individually responded to their week’s prompt. Then the students in Groups 2-4 were required respond to a Group 1 member’s initial post. 

Alternative 2: Presentations and Responses 

One of my personal favorite reimagined Discussion Board assignments was used in two graduate classes in my Strategic Communication program. Each week, certain chapters from the textbook were used as the focal point of the Discussion Board. At the beginning of the semester, students signed up to present on a chapter (or chapters) from the book and then posted a video presentation about the chapter(s) for their initial post during the week the chapter(s) was assigned. Students who were not assigned to present that week were required to respond to one or two classmates’ presentations to foster interaction and engagement with peers. 

Unlike traditional, text-only Discussion Board assignments, this option provides a more personal approach because it allows students to see and hear their classmates. In addition, Alternative 2 not only reiterates what students have read, but also gives the presenters an opportunity to help their classmates remember the key concepts and ideas of their assigned chapter(s) in creative ways. 

Alternative 3: Flipgrid/Video Responses

The final alternative I want to offer includes Flipgrid, a program I had not heard of until my brother was required to use it for a Discussion Board activity in his online Instructional Design and eLearning graduate program. Flipgrid allows students to record their responses, both to the initial prompt as well as their replies to classmates in a video format, and then submit them in the Discussion Board. Like the app Marco Polo, both the initial poster and those that respond to the post can see and hear each other rather than just reading the responses in text format. Flipgrid provides as much of a face-to-face interaction as you can get in an online Discussion Board. 

Conclusion

The Center for Teaching and Learning at The University of Colorado Boulder observes that 

“Discussions, at their best, challenge students to develop critical thinking skills: to weigh evidence, test propositions, and reach their own conclusions.” They conclude, “While being knowledgeable about the topic under discussion is important for leading meaningful discussions, creating an environment in which students feel comfortable engaging with ideas is even more so.” 

While there is nothing wrong with the tried and true text-only Discussion Board activities, too much “discussion” in this format can either result in an “I like bread. I like bread too” conversation, or it can be a quote fest where students are simply throwing quotes into their initial posts or classmate responses to reach the required word count. 

Each of the three alternatives leans more toward a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach, as they provide students with more options and opportunities for more original, creative, in-depth discussion. As a result, rather than dreading discussions or just trying get through them, students will more likely look forward to interacting in weekly discussions as well as retain the content and ideas discussed.  

Do you have any creative, alternative ways you’ve used the Discussion Board in your course? We’d love to hear about them! 

References: 

Center for Teaching & Learning. (2020). Discussions. University of Colorado Boulder.

University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program. (2017). Generating and facilitating engaging and effective online discussions (1-11).

Author: Ann Broda, Instructional Designer

Ann is pursuing her PhD in Communication through Regent University and also teaches speech online at Olivet Nazarene University. In her free time she enjoys spending time with family and friends, participating in theatre, drinking coffee, biking, traveling, and reading.

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