Discussions can take place on any module studied at Middlesex University. My Learning/OASISplus has discussions embedded on all modules. Discussions allow communications between tutors and students, and allow students to work together as a group or in smaller groups. Discussion boards are thus ideal for group activities such as group assignments and project work.

How Discussion Boards Work

A discussion board is a communication tool. It works very much like email. A user writes a message and sends, or posts it. Instead of sending it to a named recipient, it is posted to the discussion board. This message can then be read by all the members of that discussion board. The sender of the message may not necessarily know who all the members of the discussion board are, nor whether there will be subsequent participants joining the discussion board and reading the posting. The sender of the message should therefore regard the posting as "public".

Just like email, discussion boards are asynchronous in nature. This means the sender of the message should not expect an immediate response, nor should they expect any response at all. Successful discussion boards provoke responses from participants compelled to express their views; unsuccessful discussions quickly become moribund.

A particularly useful feature of discussion boards is that they show responses to postings indented and thus allow a full trail of postings to be reviewed in a structured and organised way, illustrating the "thread" of the discussion topic.

Discussion boards have existed for many years, originally on dial-up bulletin board systems in the 1980s, and then on internet based systems from the 1990s onwards. They are therefore regarded as a first generation communications technology, though they can easily be classified as a Web 2.0 technology as their operating principles are very much the same.

The My Learning/OASISplus Discussion Boards

Discussion boards in My Learning/OASISplus work in very much the same way as traditional discussion boards. They also offer the following features
  • discussions can be configured to allow postings to be re-edited
  • discussions can be configured to allow postings to be anonymous
  • postings can include attachments (like emails can have attachments)
  • discussions can be released to closed groups (which can facilitate group assignments)
  • discussion postings can be graded (which can be used for summative assessment)
  • there are blog type discussion boards (public web log type journal)
  • there are journal type discussion boards (private journal)
  • topics can be locked, making them read-only.

Pedagogic Value and Theory

Of all the technologies available, discussion boards are the most able to facilitate Chickering and Gamson's "seven principles for good practice" in higher education, in an online environment. They
  • encourage contact between students and faculty,
  • develop reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  • encourage active learning,
  • give opportunities for prompt feedback,
  • emphasise time on task,
  • communicate high expectations, and
  • respect diverse talents and ways of learning.

The discussion topic, and the context in which it is set, determines which, and how many, of these principles are in effect at the time. The task/discussion can be anything, limited only by the participants' imagination. Some typical tutor-initiated discussion topics may include
  • general open forum
  • introductions
  • noticeboard
  • news-based topics
  • lecture forum
  • seminar questions
  • tutorial questions and answers
  • open group discussions
  • private group discussions
  • formative group assignment
  • summative group assignment

Whilst discussions can be very rewarding for supporting students in achieving learning outcomes, particularly through active learning, they can also be the most difficult to make successful in achieving such outcomes. There may be many reasons for this, including student disengagement from the task (it's boring, what's in it for me?, can't be bothered, I'll see what others do first, etc), tutor disengagement (a passive approach to facilitating discussion activities), no rules, no activities, no expectations, etc. Posting up a "Welcome" message saying "here is where you can discuss your problems...etc" and then leaving the discussion unattended is a good way to ensure the discussion board will be unproductive.

To avoid this and to make the discussion more productive and of value to the students, consider not only the above topics, but also posting into them, regularly, with questions, challenges, assignments and tests which engage the students and provoke a response from them. This is called seeding the discussion. This "seeding" is a translation of the traditional seminar/tutorial classroom activity into the online environment - the discussion board. It provides additional benefits for students in that, as it is an asynchronous communication channel, it allows greater "thinking time" and thus better considered responses. Students can also provide more detail within their responses by linking to rich content, such as posting an attachment or linking to articles on the internet, to reinforce their views.

Building up a discussion based culture within an online module environment involves building the confidence of the students to participate without fear or embarrassment. This can be done with formative exercises which lead into the main task. The main discussion based activities should be tied in with the module's teaching, learning and assessment strategy, as described in the module and programme handbooks. This may include the setting of a summative assessment group activity.

Examples of Good Practice

Penny Kent, lecturer in Law in the Business School, has been making extensive use of discussions in her LAW2112 module, the European Single Market. With a cohort size of just over 100 students, the students are organised into six groups and then each assigned a range of formative and summative group assignments. The formative activities introduce the students to the discussion boards and build their confidence and the summative assessment involves the students analytically building their group assignment responses. The quality of the students' postings are very good because they are engaged in a summative activity rather than a surface based activity. The strategy results in approximately 1,000 student postings to the discussion topics per year. The following image shows sample screen captures from this module's discussions.

OASISplus Discussions - sample screenshots from Law module, used with permission

Resources and external links

Using a discussion board, Kate Boardman, Learning Technologies Team, University of Durham, 2005 [accessed 28.6.2010]

http://www.ukcle.ac.uk/resources/trns/discussions/index.html [accessed 28.6.2010]

Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson, 1987 (from University of Illinois, Springfield website) [Accessed 4.9.2012]