Fostering online communities with Discussion Boards

The Master of Agribusiness has been offered in an online / intensive capacity through the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences since 1999. A key challenge in online teaching is developing an online community to break down the isolation students can feel. Peter Mcsweeney shared his experience on how the LMS Discussion Board is used to create engagement and to foster student connections and community within the Masters.

In online subjects within the Master of Agribusiness, 20% of the final mark is allocated for participation in an online forum. This is similar to compulsory tutorial attendance which is used in many campus-based subjects. Students participate in eight consecutive discussion forums across the semester, with each discussion being open for 10 days. In the last delivery of his subject Peter had eight assessable discussion forums with 23 participants and 528 posts. Forums are used also for student self-introductions, subject ‘housekeeping’ questions and other topic-related question and answers.

In the subject’s recent history, discussion forum participation has averaged about 20 posts per student.

Year Students Discussion forum posts Sign-in/General Q & A
2013 35 737 126
2014 36 695 90
2015 23 528 50

Peter provides students with clear guidance on marking criteria:

  1. Frequency / timing of contributions
  2. Level of analysis on discussion topics
  3. Building on others’ comments
  4. Use of experience / external resources
  5. Providing support for other students.

In addition to community building, the discussion board is intended to develop student understanding of key concepts and promote an inquiry based model for engaging with the subject material. Other skills developed throughout the masters include writing, academic discussion, critical analysis, decision making and the practical application of theory. Early on in the semester Peter finds that students tend to summarise the readings and discussion. Through encouragement and feedback on their contributions, Peter sees students move beyond synthesis to dialogue with inquiry and critical discussion, by applying the theory to their practice.

Peter reads the discussion board contributions daily to ensure the discussion forums stay on track. He replies to posts, providing his own thoughts which are aimed at broadening the discussion. He finds this is necessary to ensure the discussion flourishes and to establish forum protocols. In 16 years of monitoring discussion he has had approximately six inappropriate posts that have needed to be removed, in consultation with the student. He finds the discussion forums a useful communication channel to share timely and relevant resources, news articles and blog posts on the current forum topic. Sharing these resources becomes part of his broadening of the discussion.

The subject Peter teaches varies in size with the last iteration having 23 students. It takes approximately one hour to read, grade and give feedback to all students. With 8 forums and a total grade value of 20%, this means participation in each forum is worth 2.5% of a student’s grade. Grading decisions are made easier through a clear grading structure based on the marking criteria that Peter communicates to the students. Achieving consistency in grading is a challenge. Feedback is given to students via the grade centre within four days of a forum topic being closed. This enables students to develop the skills the forum is promoting.

In the past Peter has done a summary post of each forum when it is closed. The summary has been appreciated greatly by the students, but is time-consuming to write. Peter plans to design a new summary format to reduce the time required.

With the evident success of using discussion forums, Peter can’t imagine not using a forum to help develop an online community. He is able to get a clear sense as to whether students understand the material presented, and also where they are struggling. Peter argues that compared to tutorial participation, the online discussion is more thoughtful and provides him with a clear record of progress. Student satisfaction with the discussion board activity has not been measured specifically, but the subject scores well in the Subject Experience Survey (SES) and consistently students SES comments specifically praise the discussion board activity.

Resources

LMS Discussion Board guides: http://www.lms.unimelb.edu.au/teaching/communication/discussions/

Discussion Board in Blackboard

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