Pandemic Pedagogy – Using discussion boards to boost student engagement

Over the next few weeks we will be publishing series of posts that build on our work on the Pandemic Pedagogy Handbook to keep the conversation around innovative online teaching in History going.

In this first post in the series, Cath Feely (History, University of Derby), shares her insights into using discussion boards across the curriculum. Please share your comments at the foot of this page or on Twitter @history_uk. If you would like to share your experiences of teaching online during lockdown, please drop us a line.

At the University of Derby, our History programmes are taught by a team of nine staff in a larger Department of Humanities, meaning that we work closely, and share practice, with English, Creative Writing, Publishing, American Studies and Popular Music and Society.  History and English Literature, in particular, have developed a number of modules with seminar participation – including leading a seminar discussion in a small group – as a significant element of assessment (30-50%). We then faced the challenge of how to replicate this online. The History team decided that we were not going to use Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, the recommended live synchronous software accessible via our VLE, for assessed participation at first- and second-year undergraduate levels due to problems with accessibility, broadband problems, etc. Drawing on experience with the University of Derby Online (we launched an entirely online MA in Public History and Heritage in 2019), we turned to discussion boards but decided to use them in a way that would more closely mirror the seminar experience.

The second-year module ‘Triumph of the Dark: Europe Between the Wars’ is a popular module, partly because the mass technologies that were developed in the period – radio and film – make for varied and fascinating discussions about primary sources. This module also asks larger historiographical questions about whether, for example, historians should make moral judgements about topics like appeasement. We tend to have lively debates and it was important to me that this was maintained online in a way that would be accessible to all. We also had seven French exchange students who were not able to join live synchronous sessions due to internet connectivity in the French countryside. So I decided to use discussion boards in two main ways: to facilitate activities around primary source material (films sourced from YouTube; links to documents, etc.) and for student led seminar discussion. We decided as a team that while discussion boards are asynchronous, we would make it clear that we would be ‘live’ on the discussion boards in our usual timetabled slots and would encourage students to contribute in this slot if they could, while being clear that they could post to the forums at any time.

In ‘Study Materials’ a folder for each week would include a relatively short introductory Panopto lecture, two or three clearly titled primary source activities (‘Source Exercise 1’, Source Exercise 2’) and a discussion forum with threads started by me with corresponding titles. Each activity, whether it involved watching a short film, reading a document, etc. was accompanied by clear questions and directions on how to contribute to discussion (see screen shot below), with each activity building on the last.

image of a discussion board in Blackboard

These primary source activities, set my be, would then be followed up by student-led discussions. The leading seminar group each week was asked to formulate four discussion questions based on the reading and asked to each create a discussion thread before the time of our normal seminar. They then, as a group, replied to and encouraged their peers in their discussion of the topic during the slot, if they could.

Emails to the whole cohort gave very clear directions, as in the email below:

In the module Course Resources site, please go to Study Materials and click the folder titled ‘Week 8: Race and Nation

In here you will find:

  1. A short recorded lecture on Race, Nation and theBody (watch this first before doing anything else!)
  2. Source Exercises – these are short film sources that I’d like you to look at and answer a question on. You can do this in the discussion board that you will find below them, in the appropriate thread.

On Thursday at 5pm, the group leading the seminar will post some additional questions in threads in the discussion forum drawing on the reading. Please try and answer these and respond to the unfolding discussion in our usual time slot (5-7pm) – if this isn’t practical for you, though, don’t worry and you can continue to post later. I will be there involved in and responding to the discussion, along with the seminar group.

Please continue to record your thoughts about the reading, how this was connected to your participation (discussion forum posts) and your reflection on the discussion in your seminar participation form weekly as usual.

This arrangement worked surprisingly well, with discussions mostly higher in quality than the face-to-face equivalents. Some students did find the discussion boards alien at the beginning but consistent format/layout each week meant that most did get used to this (and students are also often overwhelmed by face to face seminars until they get used to them). Most students did engage with the boards, partly perhaps down to the participation element of assessment but their reflections in their seminar participation logs also suggest much more thoughtful engagement.

This was most marked in a number of students who were quite quiet in face to face classes, but who found it easier to contribute to the discussion boards:

“The transition from face to face teaching to online teaching has enabled me to expand more on my ideas than I would have originally done in class, as this platform gives us more opportunity to expand on our points and evaluate them before committing to them. As the comments are written down it is easier to see the overview of the discussion making it easier to learn from and contribute to. This has developed my adaptability skills and communication skills as I have been participating more in discussion and responding to my peers’ ideas.”

Perhaps more revealing were the reflections of their peers who were more confident in the classroom, who realised that they were taking more notice of other people’s contributions:

“Although the circumstances surrounding the move to online learning were not good, the outcome by using the discussion boards was that I took more time to think about and read other people’s views.”

“… one of the benefits was the ability to consider my responses and type out something that did justice to my opinions. I also took the time to carefully read through the other responses and I was struck by a few of the perhaps quieter people and the incredibly insightful points they made. That seems to me another benefit to the switch to digital as there is the opportunity to hear from everybody.”

It is clear that both groups of students benefited differently from the structured use of discussion boards. They are only one of many tools – both asynchronous and synchronous – that can contribute to an online ‘session’. But they are versatile and can be used semi-synchronously while having the access benefits of asynchronous materials.


Here’s Cath’s staff profile at the University of Derby. You can also follow her on Twitter @cathfeely.