Text Discussion Boards in Higher Ed – Really?

One of my students this week pointed out the incongruity of using text-based discussions in a course focused on educational technology. And yes, I recognize the irony of writing about this in, let’s face it, that same kind of format. His point was that, outside of class, people use Instagram, Facebook, Vine, Twitter, texting, etc. to communicate thus providing a multimedia experience and one that ensures they are understood. Then they attend an online course. They are expected to leave all forms of expression but one at the door – text.

I’ve heard the arguments from my peers; we must teach them to communicate like professional teachers so their colleagues, administrators, and students’ parents will have faith in their abilities. For me that’s the purpose of writing assignments. My question is, what should be some primary objectives for discussion boards in undergraduate classes; more specifically, online undergraduate courses? Most of the discussion literature will lead you to social learning theory. As discussion boards represent the majority of the social discourse in an online class, one obvious goal is to provide a place for the students, with the instructor as facilitator, to come together to promote critical thinking and conception building around course topics. A second goal is to provide a social atmosphere. But how can students fully communicate, and how can that social atmosphere be built, if students are required to abide by formal constraints imposed by some instructors as well as the text-based communication format itself?

This type of discussion format does not appear to be evolving any time soon. My university will be upgrading its version of Blackboard, still without any embedded social media apps or capabilities. We also have Google integration, without Google+, thereby blocking integration of that social communication pathway. There were several presentations at #AERA13 on various methods used to improve class discussions, one with a very interesting graphical interface, but they still revolved around text-based discussions. Trust building and social presence have been shown to be important components for effective discussions and what better way to help build that trust than by providing the means for students to communicate authentically?

I am not advocating a free-for-all, there does need to be some structure to prevent those who stray easily, and I know that proper spelling and basic grammar are still values to strive for in the text-based social media choices. What I am advocating is a way to introduce authentic discourse by allowing students to use the same communication tools they use in their lives outside the classroom.

About Cynthia Clark

I hold a doctorate in curriculum & instruction, with an emphasis in educational technology and science education. I work for the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as the Evaluation and Assessment Specialist for the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Assessment. My current research interests include qualitative responses to course evaluations, both the development of open-ended items and their subsequent analysis.
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