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Why “Discussions” Fail: Reconsidering Online Discussion Best Practices

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

why discussions fail, reconsidering online discussion best practices

Many degree programs and courses include online discussion board spaces with weekly assignments and prompts to attempt to engage students, promote critical thinking, increase topic relevance, help students network, and allow them to otherwise “interact.”

Often students and instructors treat these as “check-the-box” assignments and they rarely spur anything resembling real conversations. Subsequently, these assignments rarely meet their intended educational or social aims.

In reality, this well-worn framework itself actually creates a cascade of unintended but self-reinforcing and highly damaging behavior patterns. Without avoiding these consequences and promoting positive behavioral change in the majority of the learner population, traditional “discussions” are practically doomed to failure.

The primary issues created by the traditional “1 post and 2 comment” assignment framework are:

  1. Students write for the wrong audiencetheir instructor rather than their classmates.

  2. The framework over emphasizes the Community of Inquiry element of Teaching Presence, while minimizing the equally important aspects of Cognitive and Social Presence.

  3. Specific deadlines allow students to procrastinate without any impact on their personal course outcomes and discourages early participation, a key to good back-and-forth discussion.

  4. Restricting discussion boards to one topic per week constricts the blending and integration of topics across the course and provides less new material for students to consume.

  5. Regular deadlines and topic shifts often extinguish a good conversation just as it is starting, only to try to start a new conversation that may or may not be more interesting or relevant to students.

Why should a professor care about the framework they use for online discussions?

The first problem, that students write for the wrong audience, is driven by the fact that grades in traditional discussions typically assess post quality according to an instructor’s rubric. These rubrics rarely assess whether a post was read a lot, interacted with by others, or if it created actual discussion, despite these being obvious goals behind authoring the posts to begin with.

Accordingly, assignments and grading compel content generation but do not propel content consumption or conversations. Back-and-forth conversations are clearly vital to the vast majority of the purported benefits of peer discussions and are, in fact, a defining element of the word discussion itself. Yellowdig’s database clearly indicates that a higher proportion of commenting drives voluntary participation, often well beyond the course requirements (e.g., Kampa & Verdine, 2020; Verdine, 2018). Importantly, research from partners also indicates that it is consumptive behaviors and comments, not posting, that are most associated with better course grade outcomes, student satisfaction, and student persistence/retention (e.g., Martin, Martin, & Feldstein, 2017; ASU Efficacy Report, 2019).

For understanding problem number two, let’s break down how current online “discussions” reflect the three required elements for a strong community stated in the Community of Inquiry (CoI) Framework: Cognitive, Social, and Teaching Presence.

Teaching Presence: The highly structured nature of traditional discussions heavily favor the instructional management and direct instruction that is considered part of Teaching Presence.