Using the Columbo approach on Discussion Boards

As pat of our ongoing development of an electronic laboratory manual at Edinburgh, I decided this year to incorporate discussion boards to support students doing physical chemistry labs. It’s always a shock, and a bit upsetting, to hear students say that they spent very long periods of time on lab reports. The idea behind the discussion board was to support them as they were doing these reports, so that they could use the time they were working on them in a more focussed way.

The core aim is to avoid the horror stories of students spending 18 hours on a report, because if they are spending that time on it, much of it must be figuring out what the hell it is they are meant to be doing. Ultimately, a lab report is a presentation of some data, usually graphically, and some discussion of the calculations based on that data. That shouldn’t take that long.

Setting Up

The system set-up was easy. I had asked around and heard some good suggestions for external sites that did this well (can’t remember it now but one was suggested by colleagues in physics where questions could be up-voted). But I didn’t anticipate so many questions that I would have to answer only the most pressing, and didn’t want “another login”, and so just opted for Blackboard’s native discussion board. Each experiment got its own forum, along with a forum for general organisation issues.


A postgrad demonstrator advised me to allow the posts to be made anonymously, and that seemed sensible. Nothing was being graded, and I didn’t want any reticence about asking questions. Even anonymously, some students apologised for asking what they deemed “silly” questions, but as in classroom scenarios, these were often the most insightful. Students were told to use the forum for questions, and initially, any questions by email were politely redirected to the board. In cases close to submission deadlines, I copied the essential part of the question, and pasted it to the board with a response. But once reports began to be due, the boards became actively used. I made sure in the first weekend to check in too, as this was likely going to be the time that students would be working on their reports.

The boards were extensively used. About 60 of our third years do phys chem labs at a time, and they viewed the boards over 5500 times in a 6 week period. Half of these views were on a new kinetics experiment, which tells me as organiser that I need to review that. For second years, they have just begun labs, and already in a two week period, 140 2nd years viewed the board 2500 times. The number of posts of course is nowhere near this, suggesting that most views are “lurkers”, and probably most queries are common. Since students can post anonymously, I have no data on what proportion of students were viewing the boards. Perhaps it is one person going in lots, but given the widespread viewership across all experiments, my guess is it isn’t. The boards were also accessible to demonstrators (who correct all the reports), but I’ve no idea if they looked at them.


The reception from students has been glowing, so much so that it is the surprise “win” of the semester. (Hey, look over here at all these videos I made… No? Okay then!) Students have reported at school council, staff student liaison committees, anecdotally to me and other staff that they really like and appreciate the boards. Which of course prompts introspection.

Why do they like them? One could say that of course students will like them, I’m telling them the answer. And indeed, in many cases, I am. The boards were set up to provide clear guidance on what is needed and expected in lab reports. So if I am asked questions, of course I provide clear guidance. That mightn’t always be the answer, but it will certainly be a very clear direction to students on what they should do. But in working through questions and answers, I stumbled across an additional aspect.

One more thing

Me, when asked an electrochemistry question
Me, when asked an electrochemistry question

Everyone’s favourite detective was famous for saying: “oh: just one more thing“. I’ve found in the lab that students are very keen and eager to know what purpose their experiment has in the bigger context, where it might be used in research, something of interest in it beyond the satisfaction of proving, once again, some fundamental physical constant. And in honesty, it is a failing on our part and in the “traditional” approach that we don’t use this opportunity to inspire. So sometimes in responding to questions, I would add in additional components to think about – one more thing – something to further challenge student thought, or to demonstrate where the associated theory or technique in some experiment we were doing is used in research elsewhere. My high point was when I came across an experiment that used exactly our technique and experiment, published in RSC Advances this year. This then sparked the idea of how we can develop these labs more, the subject of another post.

Again I have no idea if students liked this or followed up these leads. But it did ease my guilt a little that I might not be just offering a silver spoon. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I am certainly going to continue with discussion boards for labs while I work it out.

My experiences of teaching online: A case study

My paper on taking a module that was taught in class and moved online has been published in CERP (free to access). The paper aims to share my own experiences in teaching a module online so that others considering this approach might find some information of use.

The paper is set against a background of what I consider to be a general disaffection for online teaching among staff and students. This is apparent from surveys by the DRHEA—which reports that the main use of VLEs is as content repositories; the UK HEA (pdf)—where students ranked “e-learning” as the least enjoyable and least effective method of teaching; and large scale US study which reports a disappointing level of criticality in considering the effectiveness of online engagement.

The rationale for moving the module online is presented. It was found from practice that the online version of the module opened up new possibilities, especially in the domain of transferable skills. A table of learning outcomes, and how they are aligned with assessment is given. Implementation of the module online followed Gilly Salmon’s Five-Stage model, which was useful in this case because the online delivery was supported primarily by discussion boards. Notes and reflections from my experience of implementation are incorporated.

Finally, evaluation aims to capture what went well and what could be improved—both from my own perspective and that of students. One of the great benefits was observing a growing sense of independence among the students, and their ability to move beyond structured problems to being able to tackle unfamiliar ones. Some suggestions about encouraging engagement from all students are presented.

If you read it, I hope you enjoy the paper. It has certainly been an interesting module to deliver over the last number of years. The fifth version of the online delivery begins in a few weeks!

Supporting Virtual Communities: Reflection on Module

As we complete the Supporting Virtual Communities module, we are asked to reflect on our learning during the module, by replying to some of a range of prompts given. Two prompts are considered in this report: “The Muddiest Point” and “To the Future”. While they draw on different aspects of the module activities and my own learning, they focus on my main interest in e-learning – namely the facilitation of discussion boards. References marked with an asterisk are ones that are new to me and I have included them in my annotated bibliography.

The Muddiest Point

Why do we interact online?” This was the question posed by White (2002*) who argues that pre-planning of interaction spaces online is important to identify the tools and expectation of what is wanted from an online space. I’m not convinced the large majority of e-tutors (including myself!) know what exactly to do with discussion boards (hence I am doing this module!). It was an issue that arose from one of our scenario activities in the Supporting Virtual Communities (SVC) module, when we were asked to consider the time we spent online for the module. In response to this, I posted the following:

…what do we want the discussion board for? If it’s a support mechanism, well then it’s probably fine to have non-critical messages… But if we want to use them to encourage discussion, and the zone of proximal development et al, … the only way is to link it in with assessment. My worry there is that if you do this, do you discourage discussion at a trivial but useful level. As an example, if you [module tutor] had said, I want anything you post to be backed up by a reference/example from literature. That would no doubt enhance the apparent criticality of the discussion posts, but very much reduce the volume. [25 May 2010]

Learner-learner interaction is an important aspect of distance education, along with learner-content and learner-tutor interactions (Moore, 1993, pp 20 – 22). I have written before (Seery, 2010) about some problems I see arising out of discussion boards, citing the work of Angeli et al (2003) and Kanuka (2005) who examined the contributions to discussion boards by both students and tutors and found that in general the level of discussion was low. However, I tended to lay the blame at the door of technology, or see assessment as a key to encouraging participation. In the discussions in this module, an interesting reference to a subsequent paper by Kanuka (Clarke and Kanuka, 2007*) was highlighted. This identifies three barriers to critical discourse – a confusion or lack of clarity on the nature and purpose of discussion posts; critiques of other posts were considered an attack and time constraints. The work suggests using highly structured activities to encourage critical discussion. The scenario-based activity in the SVC module was structured so that while it required reflective posts, based on a consideration of one’s own approach to scenarios, it also required that we respond to others’ contribution – hence encouraging dialogical interactions (Pena-Shaff and Nicholls, 2004*). Reviewing my posts on the scenario based activity (which was highly structured), I felt I engaged in a meaningful dialogue with others and learned a lot from their contributions to my posts.

Clarke and Kanuka (2007) also found that students in their study found use for the discussion board beyond critical discussion. Like the students in their study, I found that discussion posting and engaging in others postings helped clarify my own thoughts on an issue. I posted this when reflecting on the use of discussion boards:

…With a discussion post, you have to commit to something – clearly (and concisely) outline your case. It’s there, then for all to see, so you tend to read it through others eyes more than you might if it was just a notion in your mind. [5 June 2010]

A thought-provoking response to my post about discussion boards from a classmate argued that discussion boards had a role in aligning module delivery with Salmon’s five-stage model (Salmon, 2002) – in particular that it had a role in the knowledge sharing and construction phases, but perhaps was limited in the in-depth analysis (stage 5) of peer’s work. I think this resonates a lot with what White, Rourke and Kanuka (and indeed Salmon herself) have written about, as discussed in the preceding paragraphs. The pre-planning of what we intend to use discussion boards for, and the subsequent structuring of activities and support around these plans, mean that the potential is there to use them effectively in the later stages of Salmon’s five-stage model.

Finally, the situation I found myself in as a participant on the SVC module was one where I knew my classmates well from other modules and had built a good rapport. I wondered about the importance of this rapport in the determining the nature of the group’s interactions, in a reflective post to the boards:

…for an online module where participants did not know each other, I wonder if some sort of induction/initial exercise would be required to develop this level of trust and awareness of each other – so that they will seriously consider opinions posted in the process of  challenging their own. [5 June 2010]

In Rourke and Kanuka’s study (2007), they describe a participant who at the start of the module explicitly invited other participants “to feel free to critique her work” (p. 119) so that they could all learn, but as the module proceeded, only three of her 97 contributions involved a disagreement with someone else’s post. Another participant who himself did demonstrate critique in his postings also explicitly requested that people change from a “tone of politeness” (p. 120). Reflecting on my own contributions to the discussion boards, I felt comfortable in making comments/disagreements where I wanted to because I knew the class members well from face-to-face discussions, and when they made their contributions, I could almost imagine their non-verbal interactions from the classroom! Therefore I think for a module where participants do not know each other, early structured activities (perhaps organized around induction) prompting responses from participants, perhaps led and demonstrated by the tutor would be useful to break the ice a little on demonstrating how to offer a counter-opinion without the worry of offending other class mates.

To the Future

The question for me now is what can I take from this learning for input into my own practice as a teacher? Considering the range of activities and reflections from the module, I can draw out three themes.

The first builds on the concept of structured activities discussed above. I think there is a great deal of merit in using suitable structured activities, for example in a problem- or context-based scenario. A specific example would be present a scenario involving an analysis in a module I teach which covers a wide range of techniques, asking students to provide a response to how they would approach an analysis, and comment on others responses in a guided peer-review. This concept has been used in the MyExamopedia site (MyExamopedia, nd), which aims to help students structure their exam answers, although I would direct this discussion towards a more general concept of building an awareness of critical analysis, rather than specifically for exam questions (although I recognize that exam question work is a great motivator for students).

The second theme is to use the online interactions and discussion to better prepare learners for in-class activity. Dietz-Uhler and Bishop-Clarke (2001*) describe a study where students were given assigned reading to discuss, with some students having an online discussion prior to the in-class discussion and others who did not. They found that the students who had the online discussion prior to the in-class discussion had a greater range of perspectives and enjoyed the face-to-face activity more than students who just had the face-to-face discussion. I think this method points to a useful aspect of discussion boards – providing learners with a range of learning styles more time and opportunity to discuss issue relevant to their learning than a purely face-to-face session might allow for.

A sub-component of the second theme draws from my experience from my involvement in the group activity in the SVC module. This demonstrated that even very experienced learners can lose direction in a collaborative group project. Reflecting on the activity in my blog, I posted this:

When we give our own students group presentations to do, I am disappointed in cases where a group break a presentation into three parts, each member take a bit to work on and then marry it together at the end just before the presentation, the glue of the uniform theme of Powerpoint still wet. It looks like three pieces and it sounds like three pieces – with little internal reference to each other, and possibly in the worst cases little knowledge of each others’ contribution. But having completed an assignment in this way in our own group, I can see how easily it is done. [24 May 2010]

Students need very detailed guidance and scaffolding if they are to really engage with each other in developing a group project (rather than cooperating to produce a product). The same arguments for encouraging critical discussion would appear to apply here – students need guided structured activities to guide them through the process of group work. I think an online discussion space would prove invaluable in this regard.

Finally, the overall message from several aspects of the SVC module was that online work requires more pre-planning than equivalent in-class activity with the instructor shifting from the role as content provider to facilitator (DeVries and Lim, 2003*). Because interaction by students with the materials is asynchronous and can happen at any time, and the scope of materials is much broader as students can access information on the internet, the tutor cannot hope to be an expert in every aspect of what students may bring up, but move to a position whereby students can be guided through such material. In this regard, online tutoring is generally more demanding on tutors time than in-class work (Mandernach, Dailey-Hebert and Donnelli-Sallee, 2007*).

As I polish off the last of my assignments for the first year of the MSc, I ask now: am I ready to become an e-Teacher? At times there is a bewildering array of information, often conflicting about what works and does not work. In our final debate, the motion “it is straightforward to teach online – if you are a good teacher in the classroom, you can be a good one online too!” I agreed, against initial general consensus, with this motion. When we think of online teaching, we tend to think of the gadgets and tools and swirly diagrams (well maybe not those). At the heart of good face to face teaching is a motivated tutor, who wants to create a dynamic learning environment whereby students can feel free to ask and discuss materials made available in a structured, engaging manner as pre-prepared by the teacher. But the lesson I have taken from this module especially and the year as a whole is, these are at heart the same qualities of a good online teacher too.

References (references marked with an * are included in the annotated bibliography)

Angeli, C., Valanides, N. and Bonk, C.J. (2003) Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34(1), 31 – 43

*DeVries, J. and Lim, G. (2003) Significance of Online Teaching vs. Face-to-Face: Similarities and Difference, E-LEARN 2003, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, November 7-11, 2003.[PDF at]

*Dietz-Uhler, B. and Bishop-Clarke, C. (2001) The use of computer-mediated communication to enhance subsequent face-to-face discussions, Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 269–283.

Kanuka, H. (2005) An exploration into facilitating higher levels of learning in a text-based internet learning environment using diverse instructional strategies, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(3), article 8.

Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

Moore, M. (1993) Three Types of Interaction in Distance Education: New Perspectives, eds. Harry, K.,  Hohn, M. and Keegan, D., London: Routledge.

MyExamopedia (nd) (June 2010).

*Pena-Shaff, J. B. and Nicholls, C. (2004) Analyzing student interactions and meaning construction in computer bulletin board discussions, Computers and Education, 42, 243 – 265.

*Rourke, L. and Kanuka, H. (2007) Barriers to online critical discourse, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2, 105–126.

Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: the key to active online learning, RoutledgeFalmer: London.

Seery, M. (2010) Interacting Online – problems arising out of discussion boards, (blog post) (June 2010)

*White, N. (2002) Defining the purpose of your community, (June 2010)

Supporting Discussion Boards – Some Literature

The following is an annotated bibliography for the Reflection on Learning post for the module Supporting Virtual Communities. Links to references are available at:

  • DeVries, J. and Lim, G. (2003) Significance of Online Teaching vs. Face-to-Face: Similarities and Difference, E-LEARN 2003, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, November 7-11, 2003. [PDF at]

This conference paper compares face-to-face teaching with online teaching and notes many similarities. Some strategies for encouraging learner-learner interactions, which the authors discuss as a very important interaction in online learning, are outlined – including pairing/grouping new learners to seed discussions and build on these to generate discussions to the group. The role of the instructor is to provide guidelines and guidance, and weave the discussions to keep them focussed. While the paper lacks an element of criticality, it is a useful guide and “call to arms” reassuring lecturers new to an online environment that they already have a lot of skills in their repository to approach online teaching.

  • Dietz-Uhler, B. and Bishop-Clarke, C. (2001) The use of computer-mediated communication to enhance subsequent face-to-face discussions, Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 269–283.

This paper explores the value of online discussion and/or chat prior to an in-class activity by using a quantitative experimental study, where some of the class do not interact online prior to a discussion, and others do. The work is in the context of social psychology, and the impacts of this on the nature of social communication – for example, that individuals communicating online feel less inhibited. Students were required to read a short article. Two groups communicated online (one chat, one discussion board) and one did not communicate prior to the class discussion. While no difference between the two online groups were observed, when these groups entered the face-to-face component of the activity, they felt more confident, got more enjoyment and were able to discuss several different perspectives when compared to the group who only discussed the article face-to-face. The authors argue that this method could be useful for improving in-class discussions.

  • Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

This paper aims to determine the time involvement in facilitating an online module (rather than developing). Courses from a wide range of disciplines were studied.  They foud that instructors logged in on average 5.46 days a week, consisting of an total online time of 3.12 hours in the weekly period. The authors argue that while this is less than the equivalent the instructors would be spending in class, these interactions are over and above the learning students are engaging with through the online materials. In addition, while the weekly interaction (5.46 days) appears to correlate with a “face-to-face week”, the tracking noted that instructors logged in over the seven days, resulting in a significant shift in workload for instructors. The paper therefore provides some useful data to the debate about equivalence of face-to-face and online teaching.

  • Pena-Shaff, J. B. and Nicholls, C. (2004) Analyzing student interactions and meaning construction in computer bulletin board discussions, Computers and Education, 42, 243 – 265.

This paper provides an analysis of knowledge construction of student posts in an online module, in the context of the alignment of computer conferencing with social constructivist theory. The results show interesting finding on the timing and contributions of posts, including a higher proportion of posts at the beginning of the module, and replies to posts after a week tended to get no subsequent reply. Knowledge construction for students involved clarification, and elaboration, with students tending to post “reflective” rather than “dialogical” posts. The work provides some interesting things to consider in scaffolding critical discussions – structured activities are recommended to encourage dialogical as well as reflective postings, along with clear objectives for the discussion based activities.

  • Rourke, L. and Kanuka, H. (2007) Barriers to online critical discourse, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2, 105–126.

This paper examines the level of critical discourse observed between students in a fully online graduate humanities course. It includes a useful literature review on the scope and rationale for encouraging online discussion. In line with previous work, they found that there was little evidence of critical discussion observed on the discussion boards. This was attributed to three reasons.

The first was that the students had “competing orientations” towards contributions to the discussion boards. Only one of the five students interviewed incorporated any level of criticality – evidenced by referring to others posts, to literature, presenting an argument based on these, etc. Second, critiques of others’ posts were interpreted as attacks by the students concerned. Thirdly, the time limitations of the students mitigated against making contributions that they would have otherwise made. In addition, some participants felt reluctant to post a critique of others comments where they felt the other had more time to read prescribed texts.

The paper notes that the students found positive outcomes from contributing in discussion boards, even though their contributions were not critical in nature. These included clarifying thoughts on writing, relieved isolation and stayed on schedule with tasks. However, the authors point to work that demonstrates that a higher level of critical discourse is observed when students are given highly structured activities.

This essay prompts the consideration of the purpose of online interaction, giving several ideas for consideration – the intent for the group interactions, the target audience, the type of interactions, the time frame and the guidelines and governance. She argues that these are some considerations that should be developed prior to delivery of an online module and consequently matched with the tools (discussion board, chat room, etc). I would have added here for a learning perspective, that the assessment and activities would also be matched in with the purpose of the discussion boards.

Photo Credit

Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

Interacting Online – problems arising out of discussion boards

I wanted to post some thoughts on the use of discussion boards in VLEs – both from the perspective as a learner and as a tutor. My impetus is that if online learning is to be truly beneficial in place of in-class learning, interactivity is the core driver. Discussion boards are fantastic in this regard, but I have come across some problems in recent usage.

Discussion boards architecture

Discussion boards are a useful locus for interaction between peers and between tutor and learners. In my role as tutor, I feel I have used them well in terms of providing students with support, and allowing them freedom to interact with each other in discussion materials. this is mindful of work by people like Angeli and Kanuka, who have written some nice critical overviews of academics’ uses of discussion boards with their students. Angeli talks about “levels” of interaction on the part of tutor – from very basic (confirmations or acknowledgement) to advanced (getting students to tease out their understanding) – see table below. Kanuka reports on a large scale survey of use of discussion boards in the US, reporting that their potential is underused.

Levels of engagement in discussion boards

As a student on the MSc (E-learning) course, the discussion board is a useful portal to keep in touch with peers as I am out of class for the first five weeks. I am involved in two module boards – a general course one and a specific one on academic writing, where we are expected to develop group responses to academic articles. In the former case, the board started off with a rush – lots of useful exchange of ideas. This died off after a week, and I am wondering why (apart from the obvious factor that nobody had any more to say!)

One element may be the architecture of the board itself, and it worth considering how this may be optimised. The arrangement is similar to one I use myself – different discussion topics for different sections of the course. As a tutor, this makes perfect sense; discussion posts relevant to particular topics are in appropriate sections. The problem I find as a student is that when logging into the VLE, new posts are displayed. One can read these as a group (i.e. not specific to section topics), but it is not possible flag them. So if there is no time to post a response at that point, it is difficult to remember (or indeed find) the post at a later stage when there is time to reply. The VLE (webcourses (a WebCT-Blackboard hybrid) is primarily to blame in this instance I think – as the discussion board options (flagging, subscribing to threads, email alerts, etc) are very limited compared to standard open discussion fora. The point about ease of finding posts is relevant, as according to Salmon (2000), many posts are composed off-line – i.e. people wish to give consideration to what they write. This is especially important where students are expected to back up what they say with literature, which may take off-line time.

MacDonald discusses forums, wikis and blogs as means of asynchronous supports MacDonald, 2008, Ch 6). While outlining the usual ideas of facilitating group interaction by means of activities, using assessment etc, I don’t see anything on good practice regarding the architecture of the board itself. (There is an interesting statistic that 1/5 of a group will be active contributors, which I think bears out in my experience).

Group Work via discussion boards

A second consideration is how well discussion boards support group work. As part of a module on writing and disseminating research, where group responses are required on academic papers, I have found it a poor substitute to a wiki. The problem with using a discussion board is that while it allows individual students to post their thoughts, which are often very insightful for others to read, the process of the group is not facilitated, as the editing and compiling of individual responses is done off line, by one or more nominated members of the group. In addition, because of the many statements into one approach of discussion board group work, various members may take different strategies to what they believe the final product should be (e.g. visual rather than text) and then be disappointed if their ideas were not included in the final distillation. A wiki allows all members of the group equal hierarchy, as all members can edit. (MacDonald (2008) does report that their are issues around members being reluctant to edit other’s work, which is something I have heard about at a recent Edtech conference too.) The democracy of a wiki (which is inherent with problems of course!) is a strength in the regard of ensuring everyone has equal contribution. So there it is – discussion boards are anti-democratic!

As a tutor, I have not used discussion boards to support group work, only for peer-peer support and posting of individual work, so I can’t comment on my perspective in that regard.


Angeli, C., Valanides, N. and Bonk, C.J. (2003) Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34(1), 31 – 43

Kanuka, H. (2005) An exploration into facilitating higher levels of learning in a text-based internet learning environment using diverse instructional strategies, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(3), article 8.

MacDonald, J. (2008) Blended Learning and Online Tutoring, Gower: Aldershot.

Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online, Routledge Falmer: London.