Hack Your Discussion Forum

I’m procrastinating.

Right now, at this very moment, I’m supposed to be writing a post for a discussion forum. The problematic “initial post.” You know the one—it’s due, like, halfway into the academic week. You respond to a prompt, which in theory requires you to have reviewed the assigned texts, then you read the responses of others and comment on them before the final “response post” due date at the end of the week.

I’m procrastinating because, frankly, I’m over it. And I’m writing about it because I’m guessing that if you’re in an online program, you’re over it too. I think we should do something about that.

Version A

I’ve done some thinking about the problem—as well as some reading and a little informal research (procrastinating, remember?). The consensus opinion seems to be:

Discussion forums aren’t inherently bad; they’re made bad.

In their ideal form, asynchronous conversations online provide a unique opportunity for interaction between students who couldn’t otherwise meet each other. Instead of managing commutes and schedules to gather in local classrooms, we use the great and powerful internet to thus thwart the boundaries of space and time.  Modern Marvels, prep your script.

The trouble is that asynchronous conversations online rarely exist in their ideal form. More often, we compose our posts and respond to those of our peers in something like a scene from The Hangover, if we’re single, or Cheaper by the Dozen, if we’re parents. (Just imagine the mashup for those of us who are both.) All sorts of things hinder student participation in conversations online that just don’t come up in university classrooms—including the not uncommon requirement for online students to participate in several discussions at once.

So what can we do about bad discussions online? 

We can hack them. Below, I’ve listed some of my thoughts on ways that we, as students, can bring our best to the discussion forums—because, let’s face it, we’re the ones creating the conversations. In addition, I’ve listed some thoughts on ways that our professors can stop setting us up for discussion drudgery—because, after all, they’re the ones making us write about “the future of libraries” over and over…and over. Gloss my suggestions, then post your own in the comments section. Then, spread the news: we want to bring an end to crappy online discussions. Come on, most of us are introverts: interacting from behind our computer screens should be right in our comfort zone.

Version B

Five ways we students can improve the quality of class discussions online:

1. Schedule our participation—twice. 
In my experience, most class forums require students to write an initial response to an assigned prompt before a preliminary deadline and a second (or third or fourth) response to a peer’s post before a final deadline. Many of us miss those deadlines though. Pick two good days in your week, and visit the forum on a schedule. Turn off the annoying e-mail notification option, and give yourself a break from the chaotic flurry of other people’s last-minute posts for the rest of the week.

2. Do the reading some research in advance. 
Doing the assigned reading is, in my experience, overrated—at least as far as class discussions are concerned. Too often, we all end up recycling the same facts and quotes. Things get much better when we bring our unique perspectives into play. Reference that article you read last week. Link to the video you were watching while procrastinating earlier. Mention the conversation you had with your coworker. All of those resources are more interesting than one more redundant recitation of the same quote. Of course some instructors require that you respond to something from the reading, but that’s no reason not to also mention the interesting things you’ve picked up elsewhere.

3. Write our posts before we read others’. 
I think we read other students’ posts before writing our own for one of two reasons: fear or laziness. Sometimes both. In a recent class though, the professor set the forum to hide others’ posts until we had written and posted our own. It was both scary and hard, but it was also awesome. We rarely repeated each other. And when we did, it was validating rather than boring.

4. Share resources in our posts. 
We’re in graduate school for a professional degree. The experience and knowledge each of us brings, regardless of our varying academic skill, is almost always valuable. Some of the best articles, organizations, and opportunities I’ve found have come from my classmates.  The more we share with each other, the more potential value we can reap from the discussions.

5. Manage our tone.   
More than once, I’ve posted angry. I think it comes with the territory. But that’s not a reason to sound angry. My frustration with a post or a person or the program or, you know, life in general at that pre-dinner moment is no excuse for being less than polite and professional in the discussion forum. At the risk of making the entire readership of this blog break out into song simultaneously: we’re all in this together. We might as well be nice to each other while we are.

Version C

Five ways you professors can help us:
(In the mosaic negative this time. For fun.)

1. Don’t run more than one forum at a time.
Most of us take more than one class at a time. Those of us who take only one do so because of limitations in our schedules. Good discussion posts and responses take time to craft. Managing multiple conversations simultaneously can become overwhelming fast. Far better to choose a single, high-quality prompt and facilitate one excellent discussion than to oversee three simultaneous conversational catastrophes.

2. Don’t ask closed-ended questions. 
Quizzes are for closed-ended questions. They are the place to ask for summary, explanation, and even analysis. Discussions are for open-ended questions. They are the place for opinions and explorations and multiple perspectives. Good discussions can’t come from prompts that ask for specific information.

3. Don’t provide prompts with a clear correct-incorrect binary. 
Good discussions must recognize the potential for plurality. Even an open-ended question can be limiting sometimes. A prompt about whether libraries are valuable or not and why might be open-ended, but it’s not likely to produce a varied set of opinions. Controversy is a much better spark for good conversation online than consensus.

4. Don’t forget to write to your own prompt. 
The best way to understand a prompt is to write to it—even if you’re the prompt-writer. And if you’re thinking, “No way am I writing a response to that. I just don’t have the time,” it might be time to consider whether it’s necessary for us to.

5. Don’t be afraid to participate in the conversation. But…
Remember that you’re not really one of us anymore. Your insights are exceptionally valuable, not least because you grade our work. But we can’t interact as peers. When you ask questions, we feel obligated to answer them. And when you post your opinion, your word is pretty much The Final Word. It’s great to engage in conversation with our professors, but please remember that it can be a little tense too.

Flickr QuinnDombrowski

Post your best practices below, and spread the word. I’ll see you on the discussion boards.

30 replies

  1. One of my profs right now makes us post our initial response in the first half of the week. Then she posts the names of 5 people and you take your pick of those 5 to really engage with the whole class on their post on the 2nd half of the week. It has worked really well and it is a heck of a lot more engaging than posting responses to 20 initial posts randomly.

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  2. I’ve had been resorting to many of these steps on my own so I can attest to their success. Any time I lapse in scheduling, I find myself posting halfhearted or less-than-well thought out responses that few people could pull any interesting conversation from.

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  3. Great post, Jay! I was saving reading it to read until I worked on my own discussion posts this week (and I’m not even in an online program!) and it was certainly worth the wait. Thanks for the sane perspective on a seemingly insane process.

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  4. Interesting post – I find discussion board posts a bit counterproductive mainly because they don’t seem to actively encourage discussion. However my professors usually don’t require a response, just a post, so once you do that there’s not much motivation to go back and see what others have wrote. However an upcoming assignment is a discussion board post where we also have to respond to someone else so that will improve things hopefully.

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    • Yeah, Megan: I can’t see much incentive at all to read others’ posts if you aren’t required (and thus aren’t encouraged) to reply. I hope your upcoming discussion is a good one, but either way I’d love to read your thoughts after the fact.

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