Discussion boards have a vital role in improving both student learning and wellbeing for the fully online courses of the Science in Context programme. Over the course of several years, Rhian has fine-tuned the way that the discussion boards are used in these courses. The most successful approach so far has been the use of peer-level tutors as 'chatters' and to reward participation with bonus marks.
Rhian Salmon is part of the 'Science in Society' group, which teaches a number of papers around scientific history and communication and the relationship between science, scientists and society. All but one of the SCIE papers are delivered fully online, which means that the traditional means for engaging and interacting with students and developing a learning community aren't available. Instead, these courses make use of a number of tools for fostering instructor-to-student and student-to-student interaction online. These tools include private learning journals, reflective blogs and discussion boards.
The SCIE programme particularly aims to develop skills around communicating science, especially written communication, critical thinking and robust academic discourse. These skills are partly developed through discussions. Discussion boards on Blackboard are able to replicate for the online course the in-person debate and dialogue that might otherwise take place in lectures or tutorials. Over the years that online discussion boards have been in use in the SCIE programme, they have allowed students to interact both with other students and with their instructors. These discussions give students a 'safe' space to test out their ideas prior to using them in assessments, making sure that they are on the right track, clearing up misconceptions and helping to facilitate their development of key course concepts. Students are able to develop their language and writing skills through the discussion board, which is particularly important for international students without strong English skills.
Because the discussion boards are text-based and asynchronous, students who might be disadvantaged in a face-to-face discussion, international students and students with disabilities, are able to more fully take part in the conversations. The boards have created a sense of community within the SCIE courses, helping to prevent the sense of isolation which is common with online courses. This is especially important for students who don't fit the traditional student model, such as mature students, those with family, those in full-employment, those studying from overseas. A number of students complete multiple SCIE papers; these students are able to model good practice for other students, and also improve their own.
The specifics of how the discussion boards are used in the SCIE courses have been continually developed since the first SCIE paper was run in T3 2011. The first iteration of SCIE211, which had small student numbers and highly engaged instructors such as the late Sir Paul Callaghan, had very active discussions. However, the activity dropped away as student numbers increased, more courses were added to the programme, and instructors were less able to engage regularly. The next stage of SCIE211 involved breaking the students, now over 200 of them, into smaller groups of around 30 people. Each of these groups had a dedicated tutor who was their main point of contact with the course. The idea was that students would feel more comfortable engaging with a smaller number of peers, but this just ended up isolating the more active students from each other.
After this, the discussion boards were returned to course-wide and tutors were employed as a dedicated 'chatter'. These tutors are recent graduates that have previously completed SCIE papers, making them closer peers of the students than the instructors. Their primary role is to be a frequent presence in the discussion boards, helping to keep the discussions going, and ensuring participants feel acknowledged for their contributions. This has proven to be a very successful strategy, leading to very valuable and active discussions even in the summer trimester.
Rhian and her fellow SCIE instructors have also experimented with ways to reward participation in the discussion boards. The success of mandatory posts, usually required in a subset of modules rather than all, depends on the level of the students. In higher level courses, the students are more engaged with the material so the calibre of the discussions is high. Mandatory posting is less successful for the first and second year courses as students tend to do the bare minimum to meet requirements. The best incentive so far has been to offer bonus points for participation. This means students don't have to engage if they want to, but rewards those students who do.
Going forward, it is likely that there will continue to be some tweaks in the way that the discussion boards are used in the Science in Context papers, though for now the current set up is working. Rhian is also interested in measuring how much of an impact these discussions have on student learning from 100 to 400-level.
Contact one of our learning and teaching team to discuss these ideas further and for support using the technologies.