Discussion Forums in Online Classes: Worthless or Worthwhile?

I've got a bone to pick with higher ed online education courses. Maybe it's just me, but is something amiss with how the discussion forums work?

Problem: The Sunday Influx
Sunday is the deadline for posting 1) an original post, and 2) two replies to two other posts.  Most of the students in the class are teachers or at least working all week, so a good number don't post until the weekend. However, we're locked out of the discussion after the deadline. Those who desire to post early have to wait; those who post late run the risk of few or no replies. The conversation stops.  

Solution: Make deadline for initial post on Sunday, but make deadlines for replies the following Wednesday. Why have them all on the same day? Is that for the instructor's sake or ours? I realize having everything in a categorized little "Unit" box is all neat and nifty, but that isn't how learning works.  I want to be able to go back into a discussion later to add or retract or clarify after an arbitrary due date. My learning in Unit Four will impact my learning in Unit One.  Let us make the conversation meaningful and seamlessly integrated!

Problem: Mediocre Dialogue

The posts are lukewarm, with most people agreeing with each other. While it's nice to know that we all agree that parental involvement and teacher-leadership is important, where is the exigence, here? What am I supposed to learn from agreement other than, "Yay"? If I have to read another post about how someone agrees with someone else, and that's all they have to say, I'll spew. Seriously. On the keyboard.

Solution: Require that replies to initial posts are three-pronged.  The poster should 1) indicate one point with which he/she agrees in either the post or article, 2) indicate something with which he/she disagrees in the post or article and why, and 3) ask the author of the post to clarify one point that is confusing or vague.

That way, we avoid the "hey, aren't we all great" pablum. We're going nowhere fast. Maybe I'll find something to respond to, but I've got to wait....until Sunday, then, I'm locked out of something that's not graded anyway, which brings me to--

Problem: Discussion Assessment (or lack thereof)

We aren't graded for this component of the course, but it's considered to be of vital importance. If it's so crucial, then why isn't it graded? Many of the students posting do not follow the assignment description, which leaves the rest of us in a quandary. We can't follow our reply rubric because the initial posts are not substantive. Why have a rubric at all if we're not being assessed?

Solution: Stop presuming that adult learners really want to learn. What they really want is the credit, and they're going to blast through just to get it. If this part of the course is as vital as purported, then make it so. Make it a worthwhile learning experience.

I'd really like to hear from some of you higher ed folks about this. I am, after all, but a post-grad wannabe.

Mindy and some of her former students recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!


  1. Aah, the Sunday Influx. Yes, it is an issue. I did an have an instructor who formatted the course just as you have proposed. The initial discussion post was due Sunday; the response posts were due on Wednesday or Thursday. With this course, we actually had meaningful dialogue and I felt that I learned and grew during that semester. The threads were kept open throughout the entire semester and we could add or modify at any time. However, the grades given (Yep, it was graded) were for the work submitted prior to the deadline ONLY. Which brings me to the fact that I've actually not experienced Problem #3. I'm 3 classes shy of my M.Ed. and most of those courses were online. All of them had discussion components that were graded. However, I still faced the dilemma of me posting my discussion on Monday or Tuesday but not being able to actually participate in a discussion until Saturday or Sunday. Fortunately, my courses this semester are not weekly discussions. We have, I think, 4 discussion assignments total. I like that, especially since no one seems to participate anyway...

    Good luck!! And great suggestions!

  2. I'm glad you had an easier go of it, AD! We have 20 discussions. Ergh.