How to Create an Effective Online Discussion Board.

Berta Carrasco

Modern and Classical Languages

Hope College

Discussion boards are one of the most effective, most used activities – in a class that is either hybrid or fully online. The theory about online discussion boards and how to create effective ones is extensive and easily accessible. Several universities or institutions that have decided to go hybrid for many of their courses have created explicit guides for faculty to follow. Some examples are:

In this article I am not going to cover the theoretical aspect of online boards, which are covered in the web pages listed above.  Instead I offer my personal experience using them, why I believe in them, the mistakes I have made, the solutions I have created, and the perspective of my students. With that I hope my experience serves to help other colleagues who have had similar experiences, who are considering introducing online discussion boards, or who simply want to read more about this practice.

Why online discussion boards?

Many schools are feeling the urge to move toward hybrid instruction for various reasons that appeal to both administrators and faculty: it frees up space on campus, saves resources, allows professors to better distribute the time spent in the classroom, allows students to use technology with an academic purpose, etc. However, it is not easy to create an effective hybrid course. Before the semester starts, professors need to have a well-developed plan for the entire course, test the technology, have secondary options, and make sure they create activities that connect the hybrid with face-to-face methods.

Dr. Berta Carrasco and Dr. Stacey Johnson, in their monograph Hybrid Language Teaching in Practice, establish what the steps are to create an online discussion board. These are some of the most important aspects to consider: 1) Establish a routine, so discussion boards are part of your regular classroom assignments. If you do just one or two, students will not see the purpose. For example, my Spanish class meets 16 weeks and they do 8 discussion boards. 2) Organize resources, decide on the topics, and then research the best resources. This point is the most time consuming, as there are many resources on the Internet. 3) Motivate discussion: it has been proved that this activity works better if graded and if the professor refers to it during the face-to-face time. It is also important that the students find the topic interesting.

In light of these considerations, one could wonder whether it is really worthwhile to introduce online discussion boards in a course. My answer is yes. The boards are a place where students can express themselves without many restrictions. Everyone gets a voice, the shy and the outgoing, and everyone gets an equal opportunity to get the professor’s attention. Students have expressed that they feel safe in this environment, and I believe it is because, in a sense, they are hiding behind the screen. Some professors may consider this a negative point, but I think one benefit is that students are at least talking and communicating. They are used to talking over text, email, chats, so discussion boards are just another way of communicating for our digital natives.

Online discussion boards also allow time for students to read, think, research, plan an answer, and express themselves without the time limitation that we face in the classroom. Having time for thinking gives students the opportunity for higher-level answers, and that is something I am positive every professor values. Moreover, through online discussion boards, the professor has the tool to open the world to the students. Many times we prefer not to spend time in class watching a 10-minute video. As a language professor, I also try to avoid situations when my students read by themselves in class, since I think they should be involved in some kind of communicative activity. The online boards are a solution to this problem, since this work could be done in this platform, freeing some time to discuss in class.

First experience: what did not work, and solutions

The first time I used discussion boards, I made the mistake of seeing this tool just as a way of reflecting on the cultural aspect of the course, and not as a tool by which my students could practice their writing skills in Spanish. I assigned readings and videos about Hispanic culture but mostly in English, due to the difficulty of finding suitably accessible material in the target language for second-semester students. Knowing these limitations, I did not want to miss on a good, deep, and insightful discussion on cultural topics. At the end of the course I grew disappointed in myself because I realized I had only used the discussion boards to half of their potential. I kept asking myself these two questions: Why sacrifice Spanish if this is the target language of the class? How to make discussion boards better without compromising the critical thinking that my students could only do in their native language?  After some thinking, I decided to try to change all my discussion boards to have 50-50 of each language. I was happy with the deeper-level thinking that was produced in English, but I created some questions that had to be answered in Spanish. For example, one of the discussion boards is about Holy Week in Spain. Anyone who has visited Spain during this time knows the seriousness of this celebration and the fervor of the Spanish people in this moment. My students watch three videos and react in English. However, after that they also need to answer to basic Spanish questions:

  1. ¿Cómo celebras tú la Semana Santa? (How do you celebrate Holy Week?)
  2. ¿Qué te gusta de esta celebración española? (What do you like about this Spanish celebration?)
  3. ¿Qué te interesa de esta celebración? (What does interest you about this celebration?)
  4. ¿Hay algún aspecto que te llama la atención? (Is it any aspect that attracts your attention?)

It happens that this is the unit where we learn the use of verb gustar and similarly, to like, so these questions serve two purposes: use a new structure, and use grammar in the context provided by the cultural topic. Overall, I am satisfied with this change. After my first experience, all my online discussion boards have two parts: the English one as a reflection of the culture, and the Spanish one, in which I try to apply the vocabulary and grammar we are learning to the questions I introduce. So far, it is working.

Assessment of discussion boards.

One important aspect of the discussion boards, and often one of the hardest aspects, is how to assess the student’s contributions. It is clear that no matter how much you ask them to write, the activity has to be assessed for the students to take it seriously. Giving them the rubric before they write is also a good idea, since it lets them know how their contribution is going to be graded. However, most of these boards, at least mine in Spanish, measure ideas, perceptions, opinions, in general subjective knowledge that sometimes is hard to assess. In the course of the four years I have changed the rubric almost every year. It is now that I feel comfortable with it. My grade is based in three parameters:

  1. The contribution as a whole. The comments need to be mature, respectful, well thought out and related to the topic.
  2. Relevance. The content needs to be relevant enough to promote other students’ contribution and further discussion.
  3. The involvement with the subject. The students will get all the points in this part when it is obvious that he/she has taken his/her time to complete the assignment. I discourage answers such as: Yes, I think so, yes I agree, or I have never thought about that.

For the part they write in Spanish I do assess the form and the use of vocabulary. They are not questions that require a long answer, as the examples above make clear, so I feel the student needs to do his/her best to use the structures properly.

One last thing I would like to add to the assessment part is the requirement for answering to other students. At the beginning of the class I put them in groups of three and they work with the same group for the whole semester. After each entry, they need to read what the students in their group have answered and comment on it. The comments have to be based on their reaction and need to express some similarities and differences in the way they see the subject.  Students have reported that they enjoy this approach since they like to see how their peers look at the same issue.

Students’ perspectives

During the Spring semester of 2016, I taught Beginning Spanish II. This course is hybrid and meets three times in the classroom and once online. The discussion boards are part of the hybrid component. They usually have five parts:

  1. Students usually have to watch a video, read an article or listen to a song.
  2. They complete some activities: answering questions, reflecting on an aspect, etc.
  3. They compare the cultural aspect they are learning about with their own culture.
  4. They answer some questions in Spanish, and
  5. They react to the input of 2 other students.

At the end of the semester I passed a survey to evaluate this activity. One of the questions was: “What makes a discussion board interesting for you?” 60% of the class said that the most interesting part is when they can relate the topic to their own life. According to the survey, they enjoy writing about their own experiences, and through these boards, they learn the Hispanic culture through comparison to their own culture. Moreover, 30% of students also said that something effective is to react to other students’ comments to see different points of view. They like to be validated, and compare perspectives.

In summary, discussion boards are activities that professors and students both find effective and educational. The advantages are many: everyone has a voice, time for higher-level thinking, a platform to the word, etc. Contrary to what some may believe, they do help to create a community in the classroom – a community that connects students with the outside world, and a community within the walls of the class. The challenge is to make them interesting enough so students get involved and benefit the most.  With all the resources out there this is not hard, but time consuming until you choose the very best material. Discussion boards for sure help the professor to go from having passive students to ones interested and involved with the material. For all this, I think they are great activities to include in the curriculum and adaptable to very different subjects.