Is There Still a Place for Discussion Forums in Online Learning?
Dear discussion boards: I’m sorry for the bad rap.
I have always been on the fence about the use of discussion boards in online courses, in the same way as I was on the fence about MiniDiscs (remember those?) back in the ‘90s. Sure it’s something different, but what’s the point? Don’t we have a faster more efficient way to communicate ideas and build virtual communities?
Perhaps, not at first, we didn’t. Not back then, when internet forums (evolved from bulletin boards) initially surfaced and throngs of like-minded gamers and fashionistas (to name a few) flocked as fast as their dial-up connections would allow to post their latest Easter egg finds and fashion faux pas sightings. But hasn’t today’s online learning community become more technologically savvy with the advent of technologies like smart mobile devices, tablet computers, video conferencing, and social networking?
I was recently asked to create some documentation for online instructors on how best to utilize their course discussion boards. Unenthusiastically, I started looking into the literature on the use of discussion forums in the online classroom, as well as examining the different ways our instructors had already been making use of their forums. Much to my surprise (and chagrin), I found that some of our instructors had been using the discussion board functionality in truly new and unique ways (a topic to be discussed further in a future post). Mind you, we’re not talking headline-making news here, but I began to question my hasty judgement of discussion boards and their validity in today’s online classes.
Up until this point, my mental list of discussion board pros and cons had been leaning decidedly toward the cons side, yet with a renewed interest in the topic, I was able to start picking out distinct advantages to support the use of discussion boards in the online classroom today. Below I list a few.
Accessible/intuitive communication method.There’s a reason instructors and learners alike keep going back to discussion boards: they’re familiar, they’ve been around for a while now, and let’s face it, people like what they know.
Provides environment for learners to get involved/interact with course content and with one another.Time and time again, research has shown that learners are more motivated to learn as well as retain more information when they are actively involved in a topic (e.g., posting ideas on a weekly reading or topic and/or commenting on classmates’ contributions) versus passively clicking through pages of information.
Discussions are threaded and can be organized by a variety of topics.Instructors can use this to their advantage by managing and categorizing topics related to both the course content as well as the housekeeping (administrative) aspects of the course.
Discussion topics and replies are visible to all.There are at least two reasons this is great. Firstly, if one person in the class has a question, chances are others do too – this keeps individual learner-instructor emails on the same topic to a minimum. Secondly, people tend to behave better when they know others can see them.
DB software often comes with additional interaction tools.I initially complained about discussion boards because of their lack of interactivity, but now with the addition of polling and survey tools, as well as chat functionality, that argument no longer holds water.
Software frequently includes customizable settings, permissions, security features, etc.Today’s discussion board administrators do not have to be held hostage by out-of-the-box default settings for their forums. The robust customization settings in most DB software today can make these forums appear and function seamlessly when integrated into an online course.
Leaves time for ideas to marinate.This is a big one. In today’s go-go world, we’re often quick to react without really taking the time to reflect on the different facets of an idea, chew on it for a while, and then offer a well thought-out reaction or contribution. The fact that discussion board communication is not always instantaneous (in real time) lets us do just that.
Of course, the list goes on, and although I’m not suggesting a massive hostile take-over by discussion boards in online learning worldwide (I love my blended learning and synchronous e-learning tools too much!), I believe there is very much still a place for them in online learning, as they continue to become more customizable, more modularized, and more feature-rich. I’d be interested to hear what praise others would give this not-so-glamorous, comparatively-low-tech component of online education. And while you’re doing that, I’ll be here eating a slice or two of humble pie.