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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Effective Strategies for Using Online Student-Discussion Boards

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 23, 2020 8 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What are specific strategies, lessons, and tools that you have used to encourage asynchronous classroom discussions in a hybrid or remote learning environment?

In the midst of the pandemic, most of us are either teaching virtually full time or in a hybrid environment, where we have students half time face to face in the classroom and half time where they’re doing asynchronous work. Even others are in the impossible situation of teaching some students face to face and others online at the same time.

Having asynchronous online discussions can be a benefit to teachers and students alike in any of those situations, and today’s column will explain the do’s and don’t’s of how to do it effectively.

Today’s contributors are Dr. Theresa Capra and Dr. Taurean Branch. They were also both guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

“Simple tweaks in design can make a huge difference”

Dr. Theresa Capra is a professor of education and clinical supervisor for teacher-candidates. She is the founder of edtapas.com, which focuses on research, trends, technology, and tips for educators:

Asynchronous discussion forums, or boards, are frequently used in virtual courses to engage students in the content and to assess learning. They are also a great way to kindle student-to-student interactions and build camaraderie. A caveat is that it’s very easy to overuse and abuse this go-to tool, resulting in superficial outcomes. However, a few considerations, or tweaks if they’re already part of your repertoire, can assure they are effectively implemented to reap the benefits.

What’s the point?

It’s a common-sense question but one commonly overlooked. Ask yourself, why a discussion forum? If the goal is to simply have an assignment due, or enforce attendance, there are better methods. For attendance, create an activity or fun quiz during a specific time frame. If the goal is to ascertain whether or not a student read a textbook chapter, watched a recorded lecture, or completed his or her homework, a discussion board is the wrong tool. Instead, individual assignments or timed quizzes are better choices. Forums that require students to track down sources, analyze and offer different perspectives, and apply concepts to scenarios should be the objective.

What’s the difference?

In traditional classrooms, instructors tell, students memorize, and then demonstrate their knowledge acquisition in some manner (test, paper). Conversely, in problem-based classrooms, instructors present an issue or pose a problem, necessary information and sources are identified to work through the issue, and finally learning is reinforced through application.

This methodology is perfectly suited for discussion boards and can be applied to almost any subject in virtual formats. Because this method can be time-consuming for instructors and students alike, having fewer, deeper discussions is better than littering your course with a plethora of shallow ones.

What’s the big idea?

Simple tweaks in design can make a huge difference, and the big idea is to help students view discussion boards as more than a chore. Accordingly, it’s necessary to inform students that they cannot be made up—they are not merely tasks for teacher eyes; they are asynchronous peer interactions that happen in real time.

Finally, the burden of design does not have to fall completely on the instructor—students can take the lead with support. Place students in teams to tackle a learning module, lesson, chapter, topic, etc. The teams should be tasked with tracking down sources and creating open-ended discussion prompts for their classmates to answer while they facilitate and respond to postings. Students can work in Google Docs and virtual breakout rooms to collaborate. When students create the discussion boards and identify the sources, the result is a personal connection to the material.

If the skills or content are initially too challenging for students to tackle head-on, lead a synchronous session and then task the teams with crafting challenge questions for their peers.

In many ways, remote and virtual classrooms provide increased opportunities to empower students, and discussion boards, when used prudently, can lead to more engaged learners.

“Online discussion boards integrate several instructional best practices for students and teachers”

Dr. Taurean Branch is an instructional coach in the Baltimore public schools. He is passionate about empowering teachers with tools and strategies that impact student performace. He also hosts the podcast show Copy Jams, which you can find on your favorite streaming service:

Asynchronous and hybrid models can be effective environments where students can engage in learning. There is a lot of research on the benefits of engaging students in a hybrid asynchronous/synchronous model. For years, classrooms across the country have been embracing this “flipped learning” model. With coronavirus here, schools are forced to implement some of these best practices with online learning tools. Whether your school district uses Blackboard, Schoology, Edmodo, or even Google Classroom, online discussion boards are great ways to have students engage in these asynchronous conversations.

Online discussion boards integrate several instructional best practices for students and teachers. Here are three of the main benefits of using online discussion boards in your classroom. All students are required to respond to prompts and respond to their peers. Students then have more time to formulate opinions and thoughtfully respond to others. Students will spend more time crafting grammatically correct responses, which improves their writing. Let us dig a little deeper into each of these benefits.

In most traditional classrooms, teachers do not have enough time to call on every student to respond to a question. The teacher wants to ensure all of the students have an idea, and we often use strategies like think-pair-share or turn and talks. Online discussion boards allow all students to engage in the conversation by answering the question. This means no student is left out of the conversation. Additionally, introverted students who are less vocal in the classroom can share their answers in a way that does not force them to be more extroverted. Students are required to respond to their peers, which helps build a sense of community even in an online space.

Another challenge with questioning in the classroom is oftentimes teachers do not give students enough wait time to think about the answer and then formulate a way to respond. Students often shy away from answering the question because they are worried about their delivery. Using online discussion boards, students have the time to craft a response that can adequately answer the question and use research or data to support their responses.

Writing is often the Achilles Heel of our student performance. Many of them can articulate an answer when questioned aloud but struggle to answer it on paper. By using an online discussion board, students get the much-needed practice of writing their answers. Whenever we get back to standardized testing that requires students to respond to text or prompts, this practice with typing a written response will benefit them.

So, what do you need to do? Think about how you can use the tool and strategy of online discussion boards with your students. Even if you are in a face to face classroom in the fall, a discussion board could still benefit students in your classes. Your discussion board must require all students to answer the question, respond to peers, and use correct grammar and mechanics. Online discussion boards integrate several instructional best practices for students and teachers regardless of current engagement levels.

Thanks to Dr. Capra and Dr. Branch for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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