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Discussion Boards and Discussion Board Audits: Increasing Student Engagement in Online Learning

While traditional lecturing can be a very isolating experience for educators, engaging students in an online discussion board allows students to engage more with the learning and lets educators get to know their students and their work better.

The following interview is with Hayley Lake and Patrick Lordan, a Lecturer and Instructional Designer, respectively, at Eastern Washington University. Lake and Lordan designed and implemented a Discussion Board and Discussion Board Audit for an online course on Addiction Studies run by Lake, and experienced very positive results. They will be speaking on the topic at the upcoming Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning and discuss the approach and their upcoming presentation in a little more detail with us.

1. In your experience, have you found students to be more engaged with the material through the online delivery method, or in face-to-face classes?

HL: I found that students are more engaged in the online education process. In the classroom, I find that students can passively sit in the back row and you always have the few small percent—four or five percent—that participate in class, and the other ones appear to be zoning out and not always participating. So in the online class, especially the discussion boards that you’re required to participate in, you have to be engaged in the course and specifically the discussion board audit that we designed.

In the class, they have two discussion boards a week, and with that they have an initial prompt that they have to respond to and then they have 24 hours later that they have to reply to at least two other students. They do that twice a week, so they’re writing six discussion board responses a week. … And then, in the audit they do at the end, it kind of wraps it all together.

PL: We’re talking about undergraduate students here in a 300-level course, so they’re juniors. But there are also some non-traditional students in the class and I think a lot of them haven’t had to do a discussion board assignment on a regular basis—something that’s structured so they really do have to participate—and they’re also held to a certain level of participation. They can’t simply say, “I agree with Hayley on this one.” That’s just not a response. …

2. When you switched your face-to-face class to incorporate elements of the online class, did you find their engagement with the material to improve?

HL: Absolutely. They’re forced to do this; it’s going to reflect in their grades. Some struggle with it and they don’t like it at first but then I get positive feedback on that because, as I said, it seemed like my face-to-face class was easier. My online students in the same class were working harder doing these discussion boards plus a weekly assignment, but my face-to-face class was sitting there listening to me lecture. So I thought, “Why not get them involved and improve their writing skills with the discussion boards online?”

Some of them didn’t do as well because you also have to manage your time and get your posts in on time… but those that did it are definitely more engaged.

3. From your perspective; do you find you have a stronger connection with your online or in-class students?

HL: My online students. I can see my face-to-face students every day but I may not hear them talk in the classroom ever. There’s a small majority that participate and do a lot of the talking in the class. … Online, I hear their voices through their writing and I know them from the first day because they’re allowed to free-write a few questions about themselves and tell what their major is and why they’re interested in taking the class. So I already get their writing style and then I see their writing throughout the course and with that they reflect their values, their beliefs and all kinds of little things about them that when they’re sitting in a classroom just listening to me, I’m not getting to know them.

I connect with them by the feedback I give them to, so I believe that yes, I have a better online connection.

PL: I think also that many of us in our day-to-day lives, particularly students, don’t write a lot, not on a daily basis. To kind of tag-team on what Hayley’s saying; requiring students to write on a regular basis coupled with the opportunity to think through what they’re going to say before they submit their post—in effect publish it—and also since they’re writing for a real audience out there who’s going to read it; not only the teacher but they’re writing to their classmates. And they’re having to take a position and argue for it. They can’t simply say “Well, I think” because they have to use some outside sources, they have to reference the book or a practitioner of a particular treatment strategy, so they really are forced to think and write carefully.

HL: One of the things too that I think it does to them is the relevancy; when they can make it relevant to their lives. …

4. Do you have many adult students in your classes? Both online and face-to-face.

HL: The majority are traditional-age college students but I do have more non-traditional students returning because…we’re not a degree-program, we’re a certificate that people can get that enhances their opportunities for employment—from people that are counselors and social workers, school counselors, human resources, things like this—they can get this certificate in the state of Washington and it increases their marketability. With the economy the way it is now, these people are coming back and this is one of the courses they do have to take.

5. Do they approach the material differently than traditional-age students?

HL: I don’t see a lot of difference between the students. …Both traditional and non-traditional students are juggling so much these days. The non-traditional are working and have families and things like that, and the traditional too now are working and juggling a lot of things, too. Everyone’s got a lot on their plate. But obviously the non-traditional students, they come back with a little more intrinsic motivation, they participate more, but they also have their life experiences that they bring in too which enriches the discussion board. It’s a strong learning environment there because the traditional students get the benefit from the non-traditional and the non-traditional students almost take on a mentoring type role.

PL: I think that that life experience allows them to draw from—let’s say—they have a person in their life, a relative or an acquaintance who’s had a problem with addiction, they just have that familiarity. They know that a certain number of people are going to encounter that in life so they can reference that information and bring it into a discussion. They also have more hindsight. …

If you look at our entire online program at Eastern Washington University, there are about 1,000 enrolled in 80-100 courses per term, and about 50 percent of those are non-traditional students. More than half of them are female. So that may give you a bigger picture of the population we’re dealing with.

6. Do you have to take account for the ages of the students in your classes when developing the material and course curriculum, or when you’re designing a course?

HL: No, I don’t. The non-traditional students they have more life experience and that, but I believe that—especially with this discussion board audit—it’s been official to them and the traditional-age students. I haven’t had to do anything different with this.

PL: I think those kinds of decisions about the material, the course curriculum, are driven by the subject matter. If they want to get this certification, they have to perform at a certain level and know certain things; that’s really the deciding factor.

7. On the design side, does age make much of a difference when you’re designing a course?

PL: It’s pretty similar for each audience. We do try to accommodate—since I’m in my 50s, it’s helpful to me to be able to read a slide or read a handout—so we try to use text size that’s legible or at least can be modified by the user. That’s an example, but it’s not so much content as design.

HL: For this class, specifically, with traditional and non-traditional students, it’s the content. They have to know this content and as far as design, I think relevance is most important for retention in classes. We try to make the discussion boards relevant to their lives so they can see the importance of the content of the class.

PL: We use questions, for example, that a range of students can respond to. It wouldn’t be asking them about their experience in a dorm because we don’t want to assume they’re all living on campus.

HL: Designing the discussion board prompt is a challenge in and of itself, to get a good, clear prompt for every one. That’s evolved over time… asking the right kind of question to elicit deeper thoughts.

PL: And extended discussions where there isn’t a right answer, for example. Or there are variations on how people can respond to it. The discussion board audit assignment, really, anyone who’s participated through the course can answer it. It basically consists of collecting all the responses that students have made over 10 weeks and analyzing their writing and doing some kind of a synthesis or reflection on that. That’s really the focus of our SLOAN Conference presentation because it seems to be an innovative way to assess student growth in several areas over a term.

HL: Students really like the discussion boards they can relate to and they can see in their life. … I got to thinking the other day, a lot of people, they talk about math and they say, “I’m never going to use it, why do I have to take it?” … If even an instructor had questions that they could say, “How do you see this applying to your life?”… to make it relevant to the student, that they can say, “Wow, this really is important! I might need this when I get out of college.” … They start relating to each other and it’s not just a talking head or a professor telling them they need to know this, they start saying, “Yeah, here’s an example where I saw this in the community” and they start sharing it. I think it increases that deeper learning and they retain it more and walk away thinking, “I got something out of this class” rather than jumping through a hoop getting a few credits.

PL: One of the opportunities in an online course is where students can interact with other students without the instructor jumping in and making a pronouncement that kills the discussion. …

8. Do you have anything to add about the value of the discussion board audit to the online learning experience?

HL: Obviously I’m a big fan of discussion boards because I see the growth that comes out of these and when I read the discussion board audits, I believe any age can benefit from this. You share ideas together; it’s like sitting here brainstorming with Patrick. …It goes back to the relevancy for students. … I take classes myself and I participate in discussion boards and I learn from other colleagues and other people, it just increases the learning.

PL: I would say that it’s important to craft your discussion prompts and provide enough structure in the assignment that you get what you want from the student and it takes a certain finessing or facilitating those on an ongoing basis so that it’s effective.

Hayley Lake and Patrick Lordan will be presenting “The Discussion Board Audit: How Will I know What I Think Until I See What I Say?” on Thursday, October 11 at the SLOAN Consortium’s International Conference on Online Learning. For more information on their presentation, please click here.

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