The case for discussion boards

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In this post, Fiona Hartley discusses how to better engage students in online discussion boards, based on her action research and personal experience as an online learner.

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When I was teaching face to face, group and whole class discussions were an integral part of my lessons. As the social constructivist theory of learning underlies my teaching, providing opportunities for my students to share ideas and negotiate meanings so as to build their knowledge collaboratively were commonplace.  Learning is a dialogic process where students move from external interactions in their environment to the internal process of acquiring knowledge. Hattie (2012) carried out much research into what helps improve learning and he found ‘classroom discussion’ was one of the top 10 influencers of success.  Many other researchers have stressed the value of interaction in education, so why is there so little uptake of discussion boards in the online environment?

As a lifelong learner junkie, I have taken numerous online learning courses and am still currently enrolled on many. In most of these courses there is the ubiquitous discussion board where you are either recommended to make comments or are required to take part in discussions as part of the course completion.  These discussion boards are generally stagnant with the rare participant engaging in more than a one turn exchange.  Why is this?  I have heard people say that discussion boards are clunky and it is much easier to Tweet or post on Facebook, but is this where knowledge construction is taking place?  Are these platforms not just places where people feel comfortable airing their views, or are they in fact learning and building knowledge together?  This is something beyond the scope of this blog, but surely, in the educational context, if the VLE is set up as a learning community where there is trust and support, the discussion board is a more suitable place for students to engage in the exploration of academic ideas?

So how can we get students to engage more in discussion boards?  I believe the starting point to promote more engagement is at the entry point of the course.   The establishment of guidelines and goals of the course can maximise student engagement and participation in discussion boards. To this end, Salmon (2001) developed a five stage model of the steps students need to go through before they can fully engage in the online environment.  The model is a process of scaffolding the student experience to give them a chance to develop an online learning community, which is essential for deep and meaningful learning (Garrison, 2006). This step-by-step process helps students to build their online identity and form relationships with their peers and develop a sense of trust before they embark on collaborative knowledge construction.  Students are given opportunities to work through their cultural and social expectations of the online environment all of which can put them in a position to make the most of their online learning experience.  Even if students are familiar with using technology for social purposes, when it comes to online learning, certain parameters need to be made obvious and these can be negotiated with the group. Taking the time to establish this community of learning will potentially provide a stronger base for richer communication.

A strong social presence can be built up by moving though Salmon’s five stage model.  However, social presence alone will not lead to deep learning, other elements are needed to make online discussions more successful.  Garrison et al’s (1999) community of inquiry model includes the need for social presence, but also for teaching and cognitive presence in online teaching and learning.  It goes without saying that students need to feel the teacher is there to provide direction in the online discussion, if not they will not feel valued and will stop contributing or leave one-lined comments as I see so often in the courses I do.  However, there also needs to be more critical discourse for knowledge to be built and this will involve more cognitive presence where students are encouraged to follow threads and weave their responses into what has gone on before.  The discussion task needs to be a trigger to engage more cognitive presence and here it is worth considering Bloom’s taxonomy in our question design.  More in depth discussions will result if students are asked to analyse or evaluate an issue as opposed to them sharing knowledge.

A recent personal investigation involving action research indicated that asking students to solve a problem and come up with a solution that the group agreed on prompted more sustained and in depth discussion in the online discussion board. This appeared to elicit more evidence of negotiation of meaning as opposed to when I asked them to simply give their opinion about a topic, which usually elicits a far more restricted response.

A principled design of discussion triggers that promote cognitive presence, alongside teaching presence can add educational value to discussion boards by first developing an all-important sense of community which can drive collaborative knowledge building.  I would welcome any comments in your experiences of discussion boards.

Fiona is a Learning Technologist in the Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education at the University of the West of England.


Garrison, D. R. (2006). Online collaboration principles. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks10(1), 25-34.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The internet and higher education2(2-3), 87-105.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Salmon, G. (2001). E-Moderating. London: Kogan Page

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