5 Tips for Better Online Course Discussion Boards

Avoid the flood of 11:59 PM submissions and keep students engaged throughout your course.

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Today, instructors are being asked to get their feet wet with online learning–whether that’s diving into the deep end with a fully online class or delivering pieces of course content remotely. All while, trying to learn new platforms, technologies, and communicate with students in new ways.

Here are five tips on how to reach and engage your students in your online discussion boards:

1. Get Personal

Let’s take the “distance” out of “distance education.” Good online teaching isn’t really about the tools. It’s about how you use them to make a connection with your students. If you want your students to be open, engaged, and willing to get their hands dirty, you’ll need to demonstrate that “being online” is simply another mode of “being a great teacher.” Ultimately, how you do that has everything to do with what you know about teaching.

But here are a few tips for using the online discussion board to create a more personal and welcoming space.

  • Post messages to the discussion board regularly. If you can swing it, post a quick welcome video. If you’re new to the world of online education, say so. You’re likely to make a few allies.
  • Let your students know what you expect of them and be clear about your priorities for online discussions. If you’re grading participation, let them know what your criteria are. If you are all using this technology for the first time–and in the middle of the semester–don’t expect too much–of yourself or of your students.
  • Your class will be a lot more fun (for you and for you students) if you’re all participating actively. Don’t be afraid to try out the tools you have at your disposal–use audio, video, annotated images, and text. It can help you be something more than the person who posts the discussion prompts.
  • Students love personal stories. Now is the time to share one or two.
  • Positive feedback is key. Thank students appropriately for their participation. It’s respectful–and it’s motivational.
  • And don’t forget to engage and react to comments in the discussion board threads. If you want your students to show up, you need to show up too.

2. Learn New Ways to Engage

Yes, your students are probably pretty comfortable using social media tools to stay in touch with their friends. But they aren’t always as facile with a platform they aren’t as familiar with, so it’s up to you to provide a little coaching for how to have lively and productive online discussions.

Keep in mind some of these suggestions:

  • To get the discussion started, design open-ended questions that ask students to share their experiences, consult different sources, or identify a “muddy” area that they are uncertain about. Make the discussion more collaborative by asking students to respond to each other. Be directive: ask them to pose a follow-up question or think of an example that helps illuminate the discussion. In other words, pre-empt the  “I agree with Jane” responses.
  • Be responsive. We suggest logging into the discussion boards between 2-3 times a day if your schedule allows (you might want to set up notifications). If you respond to students quickly and consistently, they are more likely to stay engaged.
  • Change it up. Use images and video. Take a poll. If your class is large, divide students into smaller groups. This helps assure that all students get a chance to be heard. And you can have these smaller groups “report in” to the larger class.
  • Host a live session or record a video. (Use a cool, white light to avoid looking like Smoking Man from The X-Files.)  It’s an easy way to build a relationship with your students, who might be feeling disconnected to the course.

3. Keep Your Students Involved

While we’ve all known a student who is reluctant to participate in a classroom discussion, it’s a lot easier for that student to disappear when we move those discussions online. Some students experience discussion as conflict. Some don’t see the value of discussion as key to learning. Still some don’t understand exactly how to respond in a way that moves the discussion forward. If you want to avoid having your students ghost you, try these strategies to keep them involved.

  • Acknowledge that your students have lives beyond the classroom. They’re busy, stressed, and dealing with the same sorts of daily disruptions you are. Be compassionate. Don’t assume the quiet student is simply disengaged. They might be doing the best that they can.
  • Nominate one or more of your students to facilitate at least a few discussions. Students really do respond to peer-to-peer learning and handing them the reins encourages active collaboration. You might need to provide them with a simple framework to get started (see ‘open-ended questions’ above).
  • Make it a team effort. Ask a group of students to complete a task or solve a problem together. Help them use features of the discussion board to check in with each other, present and comment on ideas, and post their findings–whether that’s a written report, a short podcast, or a video presentation. Suggest ways for them to work together but let them take the lead on how they want to proceed.

4. Take Advantage of Rich Media Tools

Did you know that 65% of learners are visual? Not all students learn the same way, so think about how to use different media on the discussion boards.

  • Post an image, video, or, heck yeah, an animated GIF. Your students will notice. But more important, they might experience course concepts in a new way.
  • Let students know they have the option to video and audio as a response to a question. If TikTok is any indication, this is their natural habitat. They might just surprise you with their creativity.

5. Integrate your Synchronous Teaching with Asynchronous Activities

If you plan to hold “live” virtual class sessions, take some time to consider how you’ll weave together those synchronous sessions with asynchronous tools like the discussion board. Remember that, for a variety of reasons, not all students will raise their hand to engage in a live session.

  • If you can, record your synchronous session and post it directly to the discussion board. Not every student will have a schedule that syncs with yours. As well, students who attended the live session, can review the material at their convenience.
  • Synchronous sessions don’t have to be lectures. You can create mandatory meetings, optional meetings, and ‘special focus’ meetings for students who might need to brainstorm for a project. Just be sure to communicate the objective of the virtual meeting.
  • Use the discussion board after your synchronous session to give students additional opportunities to respond to the presented material. Give them adequate time to formulate a response and engage with classmates.

Interested in learning more about Harmonize and how it helps to enhance traditional discussion boards through an LTI plugin? Discover Harmonize today!