Pittsburg State University

Pitt State Takes a Modern Approach to Online Discussions to Build a Thriving Online Learning Community

Pittsburg, KS

4-Year Public, Medium

Feature Highlights
  • Course Discussion Boards
  • Video Creation & Annotation
  • Autograding for Participation
  • Milestones for Multiple Due Dates
  • Integrated Turnitin Plagiarism Checker
  • Seamless Canvas Integration

Founded in 1903, Pittsburg State University is a public university in southeast Kansas. With over 400 faculty this semester, the institution serves approximately 6,000 students and is a member of the Kansas Board of Regents.

In addition to more than 200 different academic programs within its 4 colleges, Pitt State offers over 20 online degree and certificate programs. Blending quality, accessibility, and flexibility to meet the needs of its student population, Pitt State integrated Harmonize, a suite of online discussion and collaboration tools, within Canvas to power better student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions and engagement.

Pitt State Pinpoints Key Challenges to Improving Student Engagement in Online Discussions

Prior to implementing Harmonize, the institution used its LMS for online course discussion and collaboration activities. The layout proved to be monotonous and because of its ability to only set one due date, instructors were inundated with last-minute responses, which resulted in long, scrolling threads for discussion. Without a Turnitin integration or ability to see the entire discussion in Canvas’ SpeedGrader, instructors found it challenging to evaluate the quality and authenticity of student work. ‘Discussion fatigue’ had set in for students and instructors.

Recognizing these challenges, Pitt State sought to deliver an online experience that could better engage students in their learning, without creating more work for instructors. To do that, the University focused on:

To achieve these goals, Pitt State looked for a solution that was easy to use and:

Instructor Support + Quality Matters Standards

As early as 2013, Pitt State implemented Quality Matters (QM) standards. Quality Matters is a non-profit quality assurance organization helping institutions deliver high-quality online offerings using best-practice rubric standards.

Pitt State’s eLearning Academy is a yearly cohort training program that trains faculty on the QM rubric. Each person builds a course that is put through an internal QM review. Coupled with this professional development, 13 instructors across 24 different online courses began using Harmonize to facilitate more interaction and collaboration, and in the process, could better address these key QM standards — including several essential three-point standards:

With QM for online course design quality, the University also began exploring the tools and resources that would help instructors make their courses more engaging, while saving time and without burdening them with more work. Harmonize allowed instructors to increase student participation in their online course discussions using multiple milestone due dates, to improve the quality of student contributions using discussion rubrics, and to more easily evaluate the quality of student work using auto-grading and plagiarism integration capabilities.

Student Engagement

For Pitt State students, the key to a better online learning experience centered on ease of use, connection, and clear expectations. Students wanted to interact and engage in their courses in ways that felt modern and familiar to how they already communicate online. To do that, the University leveraged the rich multimedia discussion capabilities of Harmonize to better connect students and get them excited about their learning.

From the ability to easily create and add videos and audio snippets to discussion posts, to annotating other’s videos and communicating directly with peers, Harmonize made it easier for students to express themselves in the ways that worked best for them. With multiple milestone due dates, students knew exactly when to post as well as how many posts, comments, and reactions to make. Plus, its familiar looking interface and modern discussion board layout encouraged students to participate.

In addition, Harmonize made it easier for instructors to break students into groups to discuss specific topics, as well as to support student-led discussions, giving students the opportunity to collaborate with one another directly. Facilitating online collaboration this way has given students more opportunities to share their work, both giving and receiving richer feedback.

Seamless Integrations

In addition to better equipping instructors and creating a better pathway for students to engage, Pitt State looked for a solution to seamlessly integrate with existing course technologies, including its LMS, Canvas, and plagiarism detection tool, Turnitin.

Harmonize integrated easily and fully with both Canvas and Turnitin. With Single Sign-On as well as SpeedGrader integration and plagiarism detection, instructors could use a discussion tool specifically designed to increase engagement in their courses, while saving time and eliminating the many manual tasks often associated with using disconnected tools.

Simple setup, less clicks, mobile-first, and a cohesive experience with course technologies for both students and instructors have helped increase adoption across all online courses and drive student participation rates.

“As an instructor, I wanted to shift away from the dreaded threaded online discussions. With Harmonize, we’ve engaged our students in more meaningful discussions and have seen students post well beyond the requirements. In fact, my class intro discussion had the most interaction and engagement I've seen in my 20 years of teaching online!” Dr. Susan Dellasega Director, Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology

Favorite features

In-app Plagiarism Detection

Integrates seamlessly with TurnitIn to save instructors time and surface this information to students for greater accountability.


Intentionally guided students through a series of interactions designed to practice 1:1 & group collaboration and provided faculty with an option to add multiple due dates.

Discussion Boards

Built into the natural flow of courses allowed cohesive discussion around relevant coursework while exposing students to diverse perspectives.

Rich Multimedia

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

Increased Student Participation Fosters a More Connected Learning Community

Once Harmonize was introduced in online courses, instructors saw the frequency and quality of student participation skyrocket. Instructors used Harmonize to create more unique opportunities for students to interact with their peers. Using multiple milestone due dates to guide students, instructors were also able to prevent the rush of last-minute, surface-level posts.

As a result, students felt better connected to their peers and instructors, building a stronger learning community in courses. In survey feedback from students, they indicated that Harmonize was a main factor in their increased participation. They appreciated the guidance in the system and the opportunity to learn online in this way.

“Harmonize made me want to keep reading everyone’s posts.”

“Harmonize is easy to use and saved me time.”

“Harmonize shows when your initial response and replies were due and gives you a green check for what was completed.”

Similarly, instructors indicated feeling better equipped to increase engagement in their courses. Built-in communication capabilities made it easier to interact with students. Plus, auto-grading features, as well as integration with Canvas’ SpeedGrader and Turnitin eliminated manual tasks and saved instructors time so they could focus their energy on instruction rather than course discussion administration.

“Some of the best online discussions I’ve seen – students giving meaningful feedback and replying to replies!”

“Auto-grading my low-stakes discussion assignments was a huge time saver.”

“Students were posting and commenting above the number of required times.”