For many, the college experience changed immensely in 2020. While some students had already enrolled in online programs and courses, COVID concerns and policy changes led plenty of students to experience online education for the first time. A recent survey conducted by Best Colleges and published in the 2021 Online Education Trends Report found 37% more students in online classes in 2021 compared to 2019. With more students taking online courses as part of their degree programs than ever before, encouraging engagement and enthusiasm on their behalf has become even more necessary, and more of a challenge.
One of the biggest challenges facing instructors in e-learning environments is engaging their students in profound, meaningful discussions. Of course, the most widely used learning management systems (LMS) have built-in features for discussion boards. Unfortunately, LMS discussion boards are clunky, encourage quantity over quality, and often fail to do their part to improve students’ analytical skills. These factors can make LMS systems a burden to the instructor rather than something that brings value to the course.
Why most LMS discussion boards are insufficient for today’s university e-learning environment
Participation in the discussion board is one of the most common assignments across online courses. Most instructors post a reading, case study, question, or prompt that the students must respond to, and usually, there is a requirement for students to respond to each other’s posts. They are critical, particularly in asynchronous classes, because it provides a checkpoint each week for the instructor to assess which students are properly engaging with the coursework. Unfortunately, many instructors would tell you that discussion boards on the LMS are becoming the least valuable component of online classes. Students and lecturers alike go through the motions to check the participation box.
Fruitful discussion requires genuine collaboration, engagement, and moderation. There is a significant quality issue in many LMS discussion boards; It’s often a necessary activity for a participation grade that incentivizes word count over persuasive arguments, making the discussions repetitive and shallow, with minimal student-to-student interaction. LMS systems don’t contribute to the students’ abilities to improve their analytical skills and leave instructors with so much manual assessment work that they don’t have time to improve the discourse meaningfully.
The issues with discussion boards boil down to practical considerations. Another point on the instructor’s side is that discussion posts on the LMS are challenging to track and grade due to the many posts they need to read and evaluate each week. COVID constraints exacerbated this problem, with more students enrolled in distance learning courses. The biggest problem with discussion boards, though, is, by far, the limitations in the way LMS systems present them visually. Threads and conversations are tough to follow, and the LMS itself doesn’t do a great job of pushing students towards being better collaborators and instructors towards being better facilitators.
From the student perspective, even well-meaning participants can struggle to have their voices heard during the mandatory weekly discussions. LMS also generally lacks automated feedback mechanisms to help students self-measure their engagement quality to improve their e-learning participation skills.
AI and analytics are empowering classrooms with better, higher-quality discussion.
There are many ways to improve classroom discussion and facilitation. Still, one of the quickest ways to deliver immediate value is to leverage better technology specifically designed to deal with the contemporary challenges of e-learning environments. Many students and instructors already see the benefits of better tool sets that leverage AI and advanced analytics to deliver a vastly improved discussion experience in the classroom. Capabilities like automated tracking and assessment can free the instructors of the overhead of large class sizes, allowing them to focus their time on valuable instruction and facilitation.
Students benefit from features that track and provide constructive feedback based on their engagement and collaboration within the discussion. Students could receive feedback if they write posts without much thought or insight into the debate or advance the discussion. They may be encouraged to spend more time on their argument rather than check the box for a participation grade.
Discussion Boards can be a powerful tool for online education and can drive organic student engagement, and drive students’ critical thinking. Look for a platform that increases student engagement by encouraging open conversations and deep discussions that can be integrated into your existing LMS. You should be receiving automated assessment recommendations, a tool that encourages students towards self-improvement with individualized and class analytics that give a cognitive map of progress, showing how collaborative they are, where they excel, and where there’s room for improvement.