It’s been two years since I’ve engaged in online learning, and while some things have changed — newer software, more electronic textbooks, even the growing popularity of online classes — one thing has remained constant: the critical role of online discussion boards. Online instructor Marc Hatten explains in his post on Online Teacher Tough Love why participating in online discussions is such a "big deal" — it is one of the only opportunities (outside of submitting papers) for students in online classes to prove that they've been reading the material, and that they actually "get it". Over the years, I’ve developed 5 strategies to keep me on track and to help me ace the required discussion portion of my online classes. This fall, as I start my new program, the Morehead State University Online MBA, I am using all 5 of my own online learning tips. Read on to see my insider’s guide to acing online discussion boards.
Online Class Tips: How to Ace Online Discussions
1) Post early and often
Most online professors post new discussion topics weekly, and they expect the entire class to comment on these discussions. Depending on the instructor, the first people to post their thoughts may earn extra points for being early, and for helping to spur discussions. Never procrastinate. Post early. The earlier you post, the easier the rest of your week will be. Your comments are expected to be original, and the later you wait to comment, the more likely it is someone else might post your ideas. If someone else steals your ideas, you’ll have to come up something completely new before the end of the week!
Sadly, this happened to me several times during my first semester as an online student. Now, I check online for new discussion topics at the beginning of every week. My weekly goal: make at least one discussion board response within the first 24 hours.
2) Quality trumps quantity
Don’t expect to earn participation points just for posting responses like “I agree” to your instructor’s questions. Engage with your fellow students. Points can often be won for how well you respond to the ongoing comments of others in the online classroom. You should post often, but resist the urge to post empty comments like “me too!” in a hurried effort to make it look like you’re participating or discussing the issues. While online instructors like to see students commenting and interacting, they’re also looking for a genuine and fresh exchange of unique ideas. Even if it means you only have the time to make a few comments, put some thought behind your words. I like to include links to articles and research online that reinforce my comments, so others know I’m not just voicing a personal opinion.
3) Don’t cite Wikipedia as your primary source
"It is in the nature of an ever-changing work like Wikipedia that, while some articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly complete rubbish. We are fully aware of this . . . [Wikipedia] is not a primary source."
- Actual quote from Wikipedia
This may seem obvious, but I see this happen too often. Instructors will publish a broad question like “How does this research method benefit society in general? Give examples.” When giving examples, avoid Wikipedia as your sole reference citation. Despite the fact that Wikipedia has grown in usage and acceptance over the years, it’s not always a 100% reliable source. Even if the online instructor has given you an official “ok” to use Wikipedia as a reference, use it only as a last resort. Tolerance for Wikipedia citations tend to vary from one professor to another, so make it a habit of not relying on a single open source wiki in your online class.
4) Be nice, don’t insult others
Try to avoid making discussion remarks that others might construe as insulting. Remember, this is supposed to be an exchange of ideas, not emotions. Even if you don’t agree with another student’s response to the instructor’s question, strive to keep your comments constructive. Instead of posting “What an idiotic thing to say,” or otherwise dismissing someone’s hasty post, back up your thoughts with facts. Stay respectful at all times. Most instructors don’t look kindly on insulting behavior, and even if the instructor doesn’t mind, don’t forget a lot of online classes have group assignments and team projects. The people you’ve insulted this week might end up being your partners in a project next week.
5) Turn your comments into connections
When commenting on discussion boards, don’t just look at your posts as a required way to earn college credit. Use online discussions as an opportunity to really connect with your fellow classmates. You might be working together with these students on the next group assignment or in your next online class. See what you can learn from your fellow students in the discussions. What you learn from their commentary may help you work with them in the future. This happened to me twice during my online classes at Bellevue University and Dakota State University. Students I “met” on the discussion boards in one class ended up working with me on projects in other online courses. Since we already knew each other’s opinions, strengths, and weaknesses, working on projects became easier. Earning discussion board points can seem tedious, but many online instructors use weekly discussions to motivate students, and to help all students stay engaged. Discussion often counts for a significant part of the grade in an online class — 12.5% in my current case! — so post early and often, keep your responses polite and loaded with facts, and take advantage of the many opportunities to connect with your fellow students while you post your way through the world of online learning.
About the Author: In addition to pursuing and writing about higher education, David Handlos works as a Lead Software Performance Engineer at Fiserv. He has also worked for Kansas State University as the webmaster, managing both the College of Engineering and Engineering Extension web sites. Handlos holds a Bachelors of Science in Computer Engineering from Kansas State University and a Masters in Information Systems which he earned online from Dakota State University.
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