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.