Discussion Board “Engagement” in Online Courses Is Holding Online Education Back

Note: This essay is also posted over at Medium. There have been some great responses offering up further insights and ideas on how to improve engagement in online courses. Definitely worth checking out.

I recently did a “guest lecture” stint for an online course. It was done via the Blackboard platform, which felt old and clunky and was an overall frustrating experience.

This is how my guest lecture was presented: Two essays and a powerpoint were posted up for review, and the 21 students in the course were then tasked with posting three questions each in the discussion board area.

My job was to answer these questions via the “reply” function in said discussion board area.
This is how a lot of online courses work, and that in and of itself is a problem. The students’ questions/comments and the instructor’s responses are siloed into a container that is isolated. Students are really only looking at the responses to the questions they posed. And even if they wanted to look at all the other questions and responses, it would be a pain via a discussion board experience, especially in a platform like Blackboard, which is antiquated and essentially a deeply flawed user experience, both for posting and viewing.

Another issue is the time it actually takes to answer all these questions in written form. If this had been an in-person class, and I had spent just 3 minutes answering each question (3 questions X 21 students = 63 questions), it would have taken over three hours — that is not how in-person classrooms are run. Actually writing out responses to 63 written questions takes longer. To give the answers depth, and make the whole “discussion” worth it, you need to provide context and examples — and that’s not always going to just roll off the fingertips. It takes time and effort.

At least in a live class, you know all the students are benefitting from the exchange. But in an antiquated, siloed discussion forum, it’s a totally inefficient learning exchange that in the end is unsatisfying for both the instructor, and more importantly, the students.

While the questions from the students were decent, sometimes it felt as if they were simply phoned-in to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. I am sure part of this is just being uninspired by a platform that lacks any innovative solutions to fostering dialogue.

Duplicate questions were also an issue. Totally understandable that several students would have similar lines of inquiry, but the platform didn’t have an easy way of allowing me to point to the place where a question was already addressed.

One element of Blackboard that really annoyed me was how hard it was to simply create a link in the discussion board. In every response I was referring to multiple sites or articles — I would have to highlight the text, select the hyperlink option, wait for a pop-up box, fill in two fields, hit “Insert,” and then wait for the pop-up to close. Blackboard should be embarrassed about this — a learning platform that makes a basic tenet of digital interfacing unbearably inefficient is not worthy of use in any educational institution.

I could go on and on. The short of it: learning management systems that employ antiquated discussion board forums to foster exchanges lack the functionality — and the vision — to offer a truly dynamic, engaging online learning experience.

There is so much opportunity with online learning, and we clearly have a long way to go with making it a truly enriching experience even with the best of the online education platforms. Offering up a way to showcase a rolling dialogue based on a unique set of questions is a good place to start — One only needs to look at a Twitter chat, a Q&A via the Facebook Newsfeed, a Reddit AMA, or a Product Hunt Q&A to see that there are much better solutions than the tired old discussion board.

Which online learning platforms are doing the best job of fostering online course engagement? I’m very interested in hearing about the more innovative platforms and online course strategies. Let me know via Twitter @jeffyamaguchi, or leave a response over at Medium.

This just occurred to me: I certainly wouldn’t want to have this “discussion” in the discussion board area of most online course platforms.