Brown University Enriches Online Discussions to Improve Student Engagement

Providence, RI

4-Year Private, Medium

Feature Highlights
  • Course Discussion Boards
  • Rich Multimedia Creation
  • Autograding

About Brown University

Founded in 1764, Brown is a leading Ivy League research university where students and faculty collaborate to address the defining challenges of a changing world. Serving nearly 10,000 students, the University offers more than 2,000 courses each year.

Brown offers 80+ undergraduate degree programs, 84 doctoral and master’s programs, two hybrid — online plus face-to-face — degree programs, as well as pre-college and non-credit online courses. Courses across multiple disciplines use Harmonize, a suite of collaboration tools integrated with the Learning Management System, Canvas, to elevate the teaching & learning experience for both faculty and students.


The Focus on Richer Online Opportunities

Since 2013, Brown has gradually expanded the online components of its courses while further modernizing its digital learning experience. Brown is focused on providing students with richer opportunities to collaborate and engage beyond the classroom.

To support that goal, many instructors use digital storytelling as a primary learning activity in courses. To facilitate digital storytelling, staff from the Sheridan Center for Teaching & Learning provisioned independent WordPress sites for instructors. Staff members were responsible for teaching both instructors and students how to use HTML code and post to their instances of WordPress, creating considerable resource strain.

In addition, instructors use online discussions to engage students. Unfortunately, the lack of integration between existing tools and the seemingly never ending threads of discussions in Canvas created heavy workloads for instructional staff and instructors.

Brown sought to enable instructors with the kind of tools that could power their instruction more effectively, while supporting a more engaging learning experience for students. To do this, the University looked to:

  • Provide faculty with easier-to-use digital teaching tools for both F2F and online courses
  • Support a wider variety of learning activities, that included digital storytelling
  • Improve the online discussion experience
“For faculty looking for a great discussion platform, Harmonize is our recommendation. It’s a robust tool with a strong engagement model. That’s core for us.” James Foley Director for Digital Learning & Design, Brown University

Instructor Enablement

For Brown, engaging students in their learning started with support and mentorship for instructors. At the core of this work is a commitment to equity and access through evidence-based, reflective practices and the use of digital tools to improve learner success.

In addition to professional development workshops, Brown chose to implement Harmonize — giving instructors a digital tool designed to enrich the learning experience that also saves them time. Harmonize integrates with Canvas so instructors had more control over how to set up and evaluate discussions in their online courses.

This gave instructors increased flexibility and the ability to incorporate a wider range of discussion and collaboration activities in their courses. Instructors can limit discussions by section or groups, break students out into discussion groups by topic, and support student-led discussions. They also have the option to use the linear style discussion or set up discussions using a grid-like layout for better organization. With such flexibility, formatting, and integrated auto-grading for discussions with Canvas, instructors saved a substantial amount of time on course management and assessment — which meant more of a focus on richer elements of course instruction.

Student Engagement

Brown is equally focused on supporting the learning journey for students. For Brown, this means further elevating the learning experience by providing students with unique ways to reflect, collaborate, and engage in their learning.

With Harmonize discussion boards, students have the built-it communication and collaboration tools needed to engage in their coursework in the ways that best suit their learning styles. Students can create a variety of in-app multimedia, including photo essays for digital storytelling, video and audio snippets, and use social media-like reactions and tagging to respond to others.

Harmonize also brought the digital storytelling activity inside a supported platform that required no additional training for students and provided a wider variety of intuitive in-app content creation tools. As a result, creating digital stories and photo essays became easier — allowing students to focus more intently on the quality of their work.

Language Courses Use Case

As an example, the language department relies on direct practice and conversation during class. Add growing online course sizes to the equation — sometimes more than 200 students per course — and it was becoming increasingly challenging for language instructors to build the kind of community and engagement needed to help students achieve the course’s learning outcomes.

With Harmonize, students have access to rich multimedia and interactive features that allow them to practice their language skills outside the physical classroom. Students could post, respond, comment, react, make, view or annotate others’ videos, create audio, and receive feedback all from one system. Facilitating language courses this way gives students the opportunity to share feedback with one another, interact in two-way or group conversations, and in the process, improve their language skills just as they would in an in-person classroom.

Favorite Features

Discussion Boards

Allow cohesive, organized discussion around relevant coursework while exposing students to diverse perspectives.


Harmonize integrates with your LMS to ease the administrative burden on instructors.

Multiple Milestone Due Dates

Keep students on track and engaged in more vibrant discussions.

Tagging & Reactions

Gets students’ attention, is familiar from social networking, and draws out meaningful inputs from students.

Rich Multimedia Creation

Provides students multiple options for expressing and producing assignments, including in-app image and video creation — supporting a variety of learning styles.

“Harmonize elevated our course discussion experiences for students. Harmonize is flexible, makes it easier for instructors to grade, and has the kind of built-in social engagement that increases student participation.” James Foley Director for Digital Learning & Design, Brown University

Increased Student Engagement

When Brown implemented Harmonize and faculty began using its discussion board capabilities, replies and conversation became better and more frequent. With features familiar to students, like the ability to post and reply with in-line media, tagging, and social-media reactions, students felt comfortable participating voluntarily — oftentimes without being prompted.

As a result of frequent participation in discussions, students began connecting with one another and their instructors — creating a sense of community and better engagement.

Reduced Administrative Burden

When Brown integrated Harmonize with Canvas, it reduced many of the manual tasks involved with assessing student work and providing opportunities to collaborate digitally.

For example, prior to Harmonize, when instructors assessed discussion contributions, they often had to search through 60-page threads. To assess photo essays, digital storytelling projects, or other assignments, they scoured other tools that  did not integrate with Canvas for grading. While it worked, it meant additional hours and the manual task for entering grades in Canvas.

With Harmonize’s ability to integrate with Canvas’ speed grader, instructors save hours assessing student work, and the instructional technology staff save  hours providing support and training.

Instructors had an easier way to see students’ posts, alongside subsequent responses and contributions to the course, which provide a holistic view of how well students are developing and mastering course material. Easing the administrative burden on faculty has also helped increase adoption across disciplines.

“Harmonize just works in a way that people expect,” says James Foley, Director for Digital Learning & Design. “Traditional online discussion platforms can be hard to navigate as discussions grow complex. Discussions get pinched; they’re hard to find. And Harmonize is built purposefully to foster better engagement in online discussions. Our instructors are seeing this firsthand.”

Brown demonstrates that the right combination of technology and support can elevate the learning experience. Through intentional course design and the use of digital tools in Canvas, the University has reduced administrative burden on instructors and increased student engagement through unique opportunities to collaborate.