Many instructors have adopted online discussion boards as a tool to encourage students to communicate with each other, share ideas, and participate in peer review. It’s also one of the few ways to check in on students to make sure they are actually reading their assigned texts (though the effectiveness of this is debatable).
Plenty of students will admit that participating in discussion boards is pretty low on their priorities when juggling multiple courses, campus life, eating, and maybe getting a wink of sleep every now and then. In my experience, these discussions counted for a fairly minute portion of my grade, which translated to me posting first on these discussion boards in order to write something that was articulate but not exactly insightful.
Genuine, thoughtful discussion can be beneficial to developing critical thinking skills and challenging students to question both their knowledge and their patterns of thought. This, however, is not something that can be forced.
Creating dynamic discussion online is not an easy task, but if done correctly these discussion boards can become an invaluable resource for students to become both better thinkers and writers.
So this question remains:How can instructors make online discussion more than a perfunctory task?
Use Small Groups In some of my best classes, splitting the class into groups of four to six students eliminated the anonymity of posting. With the knowledge that my posts would have a specific audience, I was more likely to actually put effort into my responses and try to give helpful feedback to my peers.
Ask Thoughtful Questions This may sound obvious, but I challenge you to examine the prompts that you are giving your students. Are you challenging them to think or guiding them toward a specific response?
Relate Their Coursework to Their Real Lives Students are more likely to actively engage with a text if they believe that the topics and themes are relevant to their lives on a personal, professional, or political level. If you find that students do not engage with specific texts it may be time to reevaluate what you are using in class.
Like anything else, discussion boards can be incredibly effective when used well. Make sure you are reading your students’ posts and starting good discussions yourself. Consider doing the discussions within the e-Book itself to further foster reading and critical thinking. Bring up interesting topics in class to prove that you have read the discussions, and that will likely prompt students to be more thoughtful in their responses. And think about making the discussion boards worth more of students' grades if they are helping you achieve your goals.
Let us know if you have other ideas to make discussions even better!