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Help or Hinder? How Discussion Boards Affect Online Student Engagement

Jan 24, 2020 6:12:30 AM

Online learning holds incredible promise—not only as an educational pathway for all students but also as a growth driver for universities. While overall college enrollments are declining, the number of students taking online courses is increasing: according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than one-third of all students took an online course in 2018. Students of all abilities and ages are seeking virtual learning options, and colleges are increasingly delivering.

But, skeptics of online learning argue that course discussion will never be as rich as it is in on-campus classes. We wholeheartedly disagree.

This statement overlooks how today’s students process information and collaborate, pulling in content from all over the web for reference, speaking in memes and animated gifs, recording short video snippets, and curating their content before it ever goes out into the world. Research indicates that students want their instructors to incorporate social media into learning, and social media can improve higher-order thinking skills and build critical classroom connections that contribute to student engagement and retention.

Most importantly, the argument pitting online versus on-campus learning against each other falsely equates the two approaches. One can’t replicate the other, nor should it. Online learning provides advantages that in-person courses can’t, and vice versa.

Kevin Gannon, history professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching & Learning, wrote that educators shouldn’t view online and face-to-face instruction and discussion through the same lens. He noted that once he embraced the opportunities that online learning presents, his teaching experience improved.

8 Strategies to Boost Online Engagement

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Online discussion boards are the foundation of online courses and provide five critical teaching and learning benefits:

  • Inclusivity: Based on an analysis conducted by Professor Hong Zhou at the University of Texas at San Antonio, most students participate more online than they do in person.
  • Flexibility: Students can participate when and where they can, so they can adjust based on their schedules, which may be impacted by work, child care, and other constraints.
  • Time: With asynchronous discussions, students can take the time they need to formulate responses and contemplate ideas. Additionally, instructors are not limited by confining meaningful learning to a 60-minute class and can extend learning time by providing additional resources throughout the day, week, or semester.
  • Professional experience: Professor Zhou also found that online discussion was collaborative and constructive, with students supporting each other. The personal and academic gains students make in an online course reflect the professional communications process they’ll experience in the workplace, which is also becoming increasingly virtual.
  • Individualization: Students are able to further pursue discussion topics that interest them, engage at a level to which they are comfortable, and develop self-motivation.

It’s critical as online learning has evolved that strategies for the use and deployment of discussion boards change along with it to meet the needs of students as well as instructors.

Inside Higher Ed tackled the role of discussion boards in a recent article highlighting best practices for instructors to adapt for their online classes. Among the insights, instructors noted it’s important to engage students early on in the course, be comfortable with letting the conversation wander, and be an active participant in getting every student to dig in and go deeper. The instructors emphasized that new technologies, such as live one-on-one chat and annotated videos, can help ensure universities are meeting new federal rules mandating “regular and substantive interaction” in online courses.

In addition to these teaching strategies, technology is one of the key factors that makes a significant difference in the online learning experience, but the tools must be up to the task. As with any tool, it can either be a help or hindrance. Used effectively, discussion boards with integrated applications can foster academic conversations and community content rather than simply another assignment.

That is why we built Harmonize: to leverage the unique capabilities the latest technologies can bring to online discussions and foster a robust and effective online learning environment. We envisioned a powerful discussion platform for students where they can have a richer, more in-depth, and equitable discussion around the academic topics that interest them than they can in person.

As online course enrollment steadily climbs, identifying and implementing ways to improve engagement is critical to student and school success. Interested in learning more? We compiled eight strategies to improve student engagement in online courses from higher education professionals across the country into a guide for you:

Download Our Guide Today!

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