Discussion Bored

3 mins reading

Photo by Owen Spencer on Unsplash.jpg
Photo by Owen Spencer (free use via Unsplash)

You know when you’re chatting to someone on WhatsApp and you click on a message only to wait 5 seconds before you’re able to read it? Oh, wait, that’s not Whatsapp.

You know when you’re searching for a recent conversation you had on Facebook and need to scroll through a long list of identical-looking contacts and posts to find it? Oh, wait, that’s not Facebook.

But you must know when you’re sharing an image with someone on Twitter and you end up waiting between 20 seconds to a full minute for it to upload? Hang on, that’s not Twitter either.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the ‘click… wait… click… wait…’ of discussion boards. The ‘traditional’ digital forums of many a Learning Management System (LMS) have limitations that anyone who has ever used them is well aware of, so I don’t want this to turn into a rant. But I do want to present a perspective on this very common facet of digital learning – and not primarily my own perspective either.

The problem(s) entailed in discussion boards in terms of lack of accessibility, a bland aesthetic, and so on, can be exacerbated by their actual implementation. As former student Kathlene Murphy wrote in her blog on this subject:

[T]he following message is posted above the discussion boards:

Just some advice for contacting me during the trimester – I check discussion boards twice a week – but am on email Mon-Fri  during working hours – so if you need an immediate response, email thisaddress@thisuniversity.

The discussion board remains empty. […]

We may be witnessing a ‘crisis of engagement‘ at universities, but students still have many valid points to add to academic discussions. These conversations are essential to encourage critical thinking and to facilitate deep understanding of complex concepts, and online students miss out when unit participation is limited to the foreign and sometimes deserted territory of university discussion boards.

Nobody wants to yell into the void.

Scream by Melissa O'Donohue (CC BY-ND 2.0).jpg
Scream by Melissa O’Donohue (CC BY-ND 2.0)

At the time of my writing this post, almost 2 weeks since the LMS sites of both Digital Media units I’m currently teaching opened – and with almost 400 students combined in these units – there are currently zero messages in their discussion forums. Usually that would be an observation that highlighted a severely worrying level of student engagement, but for me this is a positive sign that things are working.

Except for an assignment question every now and then, I rarely find myself visiting discussion forums. I subscribe for instant email updates and will reply quickly, but the need to do so is rare. Instead, I use social media (namely Twitter, complimented by other platforms) to encourage more accessible, efficient, frequent, informal, and productive interactions between students, which often occur in real time no matter the geographical distance.

Twitter Canva (jpeg).jpg
A Canva image I made after being inspired by the words of former student Steven Veltmeyer.

Building student communities beyond an LMS can take a variety of forms. These can be open and closed communities – I’ve known of Slack, Vanilla, Disqus, Facebook, and similar applications being used to provide alternative means of student-teacher and student-peer conversations. There will no doubt be others out there that I’ve never heard of or have only just been conjured into being.

So it’s worth keeping in mind Kathlene’s experience of what another student once described as ‘the limited realms of the (abysmal) university forums’. There is no one catch-all, cookie-cutter solution for every digital learning context, but facilitating authentic and meaningful communication and community is always a goal worth building towards.

Thanks for reading this provocation. How do you get students talking in online spaces? I’d love to hear about your own experiences and experiments! 🙂

 

Featured image: Frank, when he actually looks interested.

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