Tips for Online Discussion Boards

Online learning isn’t for everyone, yet it can be the only option at times. Whether in a residential program that is phasing into in-person classes as the pandemic rages on or a 100% online program, discussion boards and how to use them are an essential skill to succeed.

Before starting library school, I had only taken one online class that only required a post or two every week. Now that I’m about to start my last year of my online program with thirteen classes under my belt, I feel like I’m just getting the hang of how to communicate with my classmates on our discussion boards. Earlier this year, Sheri shared ways to avoid the discussion board trap. Here are a few additional things I’ve learned so far that will help you make the most of them:

Bring personality into the “classroom” whenever you can. By uploading an avatar or an actual photo of yourself to your Canvas profile (or other online learning platform), your classmates see that there’s a real person behind the discussion boards. Most online courses will also ask for an introduction just like if you were in a physical classroom. When this happens, take advantage of the situation and upload the usually-dreaded introduction video. Your experiences, whether you’re working while in school, how many mouths you have to feed (human or otherwise), and anything else can help your classmates understand your perspective. Additionally, almost every student has a whole lot going on in their lives, and using the audiovisual component in an introduction can help set boundaries once group projects start.

Keep up to date on optional discussion boards. These “living room” or “fun stuff” discussions help in understanding your classmates’ interests, which can then be used to find group members for course or capstone projects. These boards can also help you stay up to date on news articles related to LIS, or even help reduce your stress level when major assignments are due. One of my classmates is known for posting LIS-relevant memes and GIFs on these boards and seeing them immediately makes me laugh.

Practice concise language. Discussion boards, particularly in classes with more than twenty students, can become overwhelming before half of the class has even had a chance to post. Weekend warriors (like myself) are going to reply to the posts they feel they can connect with the most, and oftentimes, length of the post is a major factor. Also, if you’re noticing that discussion boards are too overwhelming when an initial post plus responses is required every week, ask the instructor if the class can be split into groups. Fewer people on a board also allows for verbose individuals to express themselves and get valuable responses from classmates.

Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to add your own tone to someone’s discussion post, especially when the topic is heavy. When we’re dealing with text-based communication, we lose all of the nonverbal aspects that help us understand what the other person is trying to say. If a post reads negative in any way, take a break from the computer so that your response doesn’t make the situation worse or have someone else read it out loud to you so that the tone in your head isn’t determining your response. Another option is to wait until someone else has responded to see how they interpreted it, or ask the person to clarify their post. During my orientation, someone said everyone wants you to succeed, and I’ve found that this is absolutely true on discussion boards. It’s easy to become your own saboteur in an online environment.

If there’s one thing to know about online communication, it’s that there’s always room for improvement. Whether you’re just starting library school or getting ready for another year, I hope these tips will help you make effective use of your discussion boards. For those already familiar with discussion boards, do you have other tips to share?


Conrrado is an online MLIS student at the University of Washington iSchool and an Adult Services Specialist at the Natrona County Library.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

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