In this blog post Paven Basuita from the University of Sussex explores the use of discussion boards in law teaching. Paven is a law lecturer, fellow of the HEA and non-practising solicitor a with a particular interest in legal education, family law and public law. Do use the comments to ask questions or comments.
Amongst the myriad of jazzy edtech tools, discussion boards can seem old-fashioned and unexciting. Students may struggle to use them or fail to participate at all. It can seem like more work for them, they may not understand what they are meant to do and may feel exposed sharing their views online.
Nevertheless, I believe that asynchronous discussion forums offer significant benefits for student learning, particularly in terms of inclusivity. Done well, they have advantages over our go-to traditional seminars (whether on-campus or online). However, these benefits will not arise automatically. Careful design, preparation and support are essential for them to succeed.
Swapping face-to-face seminars with asynchronous discussion boards during the Covid-19 pandemic
At the University of Sussex, we replaced the ‘Justice, Equality and Society’ seminars with discussion boards as part of the pivot to emergency remote teaching. The module is a first year undergraduate law module with about 350 students.
We chose an asynchronous approach as we felt this would be most inclusive – students might be in different time zones, lack access to broadband/devices or have caring responsibilities.
Each board was populated with 3-4 discussion questions and open for 72 hours. Guidance was given to students around participation. Tutors intermittently commented on student responses and posted a summary of key points at the end of the 72-hour period.
1. Genuine discussion v broadcasting of views
Discussion boards should encourage critical thinking and collaboration. However, there was a tendency for some students to simply ‘broadcast’ their views rather than responding to and developing points made by others. This reflects findings that students need help to progress from interaction to collaboration, which involves accommodating and reflecting the perspectives of others and co-constructing shared meanings.
In hindsight, it was naïve to think that students would instinctively know how to engage meaningfully with discussion boards.
Students need to be shown (not just told) what collaborative online dialogue looks like e.g. by providing exemplars of effective online discussions. This can also be achieved through providing ‘thinking routines’ which prompt students to engage at a deeper level. A dialogue toolkit can be used to prompt students to notice, appreciate, probe, connect, extend and challenge other posts.
The questions/tasks are key – these should provoke genuine debate with no right or wrong answer. Requiring personal responses makes it harder for students to copy each other and reduces the risk of repetitive, generic posts.
2. Peer feedback v tutor feedback
Students will seek personalised tutor feedback but may not value peer feedback. One student told me that she only checked the board when she received notification that I had commented on her posts and did not read all the other students’ posts.
Nevertheless, the benefits of peer feedback are well documented and so a balance needs to be struck between tutor and peer feedback, with students being guided in giving and receiving peer feedback and understanding its value.
The tutor may need to adjust their role to that of a facilitator – intervening too much in the discussion can stifle peer interaction.
3. How inclusive?
Students may be fearful of participating because of the permanence of their contributions and the public nature of the boards. One student told me he didn’t participate because he was afraid of being criticised and of writing an ‘incorrect’ answer.
It is therefore essential to create a safe, private, supportive learning environment, just as we would strive to create in the classroom. In our example, students across the module had access to all the discussion boards and so it is unsurprising that students might feel exposed. It would be better for each board to be private and only accessible to students from their seminar group. Students should also be told that their comments will be deleted after a specific period of time. Setting rules of online engagement (ideally generated by the students) should also help alleviate concerns.
Benefits for student learning
It is easy to assume that the traditional seminar on campus is the ideal. But who contributes? I would suggest that the traditional seminar favours students who are confident, able to think on their feet, have English as their first language and are familiar with the format because of their prior educational experiences.
An advantage of discussion boards is that students have more thinking time. The medium could therefore benefit non-native English speakers, those with certain mental health conditions or those who are less confident about speaking in class. Students receive a written record of the discussion which could be particularly helpful for students with disabilities. Students also told me that they welcomed the flexibility to engage at a time which suited them best.
Another issue which arises in the classroom is who is given permission to speak. It is easy for the tutor to gravitate towards inviting the same people to contribute and to display unconscious bias. The discussion board feels more democratic as everyone can participate, without needing that permission first. I certainly noticed that different students participated compared to those who usually contributed in class, suggesting that the change in medium had provided opportunities for different people to engage.
A particular advantage of the forums is in helping students to develop their academic writing skills. I noticed fuller and more analytical contributions from students, often making greater reference to the literature than arises in class. Given that the assessment for the module is written coursework, the discussion boards are arguably better aligned to the assessment mode than seminars.
Finally, the shift had an interesting effect on my role as a tutor. I had more time to plan my responses to students and was more mindful when giving feedback to ensure that it reflected good practice. Some students fed back that they appreciated receiving personalised feedback via the discussion boards, with one student noting that tutors provided more detailed comments than they would normally receive in class.
The pivot to remote teaching provides an opportunity for us to interrogate some of our taken-for-granted pedagogical practices, such as the traditional seminar. Discussion boards offer an alternative way for students to engage with their learning which can be flexible and inclusive. However, to be effective, we need to help students learn how to engage with them and to understand their value in terms of developing their writing skills, critical thinking and ability to collaborate. To achieve this, tutors need to design appropriate tasks and prepare students to engage in this unfamiliar territory. Irrespective of the impact of Covid-19 on our courses over coming months, discussion boards deserve greater attention, particularly as a way of engaging diverse learners.
 S. Tomic, E. Roberts & J. Lund, ‘Designing learning and teaching online: the role of discussion forums’ (Advance HE, 1 April 2020) <https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/designing-learning-and-teaching-online-role-discussion-forums?utm_source=CRM&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=KID%20-%20COVID-19&dm_i=12ZA,6UHH0,1J6UVR,RG9NL,1 > accessed 27 May 2020.
 C. Hodges et al, ‘The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning’ (Educause Review, 27 March 2020) <https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning> accessed 15 May 2020.
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