This morning I wrote my last-ever Weekly Reminders email to my first ever online class.

As most “last-ever” teaching moments are, this one was bittersweet. I’ve enjoyed teaching this class; my students have been a delight, and it’s been really lovely to see them tackle the challenging material I’ve set them and wrestle with difficult concepts.

But, as I knew it would be, teaching online was quite different from teaching face-to-face. It required vastly different ways of planning curriculum, engaging with students, and assessing student learning. And while I’m sure I will (and I would love to) do it again, I will definitely revise several components of my approach.

In this post series, I reflect on several components of my first experience with online teaching. It’s also my first time teaching this particular course: Digital Writing. I’ll write content-specific reflections later; In this post, I’ll reflect on my use of discussion boards this semester.

Discussions: Pros and Cons

Online discussions have been a fascinating component in this class. On the one hand, in an online discussion,  it’s much easier to assess which individual students are successfully grasping course concepts than in face-to-face discussions. Though I of course want all students to speak up in face-to-face discussions, usually there are at least a few students who remain silent. In online discussions, all active students chime in at least a little bit (though some students ghost out inline classes, of course), so it’s easier to tell which students are really understanding the material and which ones might be struggling.

Two students work on laptops in a library.
Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license

One of my hopes with the discussion questions was that if some students were struggling with the material, other students would be able to step in and begin pointing them in the right direction. There were a few instances of that kind of student-led learning across the semester, but there were many instances of students either side-stepping misunderstandings or joining in them. If I’m going to keep discussions, I’m going to need to do a better job of intervening in discussions before students move on. Often, I didn’t check discussions until the end of the week. I was able to grade the discussions, but in retrospect, I think intervening in the middle of discussions (as I’d be able to do in face-to-face discussion) would be more effective.

Another thing I’ve considered is scrapping discussions altogether and substituting them with short writing assignments. On the one hand, doing so would enable me to check individual understanding in the same way, but on the other hand, it would potentially deplete any sense of online community in the course. That sense of community is important for their feedback workshops–my sense is that students feel more comfortable giving and receiving feedback to people they “know,” even if they only “know” them online. Once the semester is over, I might do a bit of a post-mortem to see if students formed ad-hoc discussion and workshop groups over the course of the semester; that might indicate if students have at least found affinity for other students, if not outright community.

A Plethora of Discussions

In this first online course, I had, as students love to say, a “plethora” of discussions. Probably too many, to be honest, especially as the semester ended. The last four to five weeks of class were full of difficult course materials. I used discussion questions to check their understanding of those complex subjects, but I may have gone a bit overboard. Grading four discussions a week for two or three weeks in a row got overwhelming for me, frankly, and I’m sure students felt similarly. In some weeks, they weren’t working on major assignments, and I think one goal of including more discussions was to ensure they were not neglecting this course. However, next time I’ll probably reconsider

So, all in all, lots to think about regarding online discussion boards. Something I haven’t mentioned yet, but which I’ll write about this week, is the relationship between too many discussions and too much content. For now, though. It’s time to stop discussing discussion boards.



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