Although they predate web 2.0, asynchronous discussion boards – also known as discussion forums, or by the older name bulletin boards – are often associated with web 2.0 because of their interactive and collaborative nature. Nowadays, discussion boards are also available within institutional LMSs, and discussion functions are commonly found on other web 2.0 platforms like blogs, social networking services and wikis, where they are sometimes referred to as comments or feedback features. Contemporary discussion boards, which have a more web 2.0 presentation and feel, allow the exchange not only of text but of images, audio and video.
On discussion boards, participants can engage in conversation organised into topic-based discussion threads. Unlike chat & messaging, which is typically synchronous, discussion boards are usually asynchronous, meaning that participants do not have to be logged in at the same time but can view and respond to each other’s messages whenever convenient. Of course, just as synchronous services may be used asynchronously, asynchronous services like discussion boards can also be used synchronously, so there is a blurred area between the two.
Asynchronous discussion boards have a number of educational advantages, most notably the sophisticated level of discussion which typically takes place there. Over many years of research, it has been established that this is due to the combination of interaction and reflection facilitated by such boards: essentially, participants are engaged in conversation, and can thus bounce ideas off each other as they collaboratively build understanding, but because the conversation takes place in writing they also have time to reflect on others’ messages and to compose their own replies carefully. In addition, the conversation is typically very democratic (because everyone has a chance to say as much as he or she wishes) and multidirectional (with participants able to follow the discussion threads which are of most relevance or interest to them personally). All in all, discussion boards are a great way of promoting collaborative learning and, if structured carefully, can lead to the development of effective learning communities. When they involve a multilingual and/or multicultural cohort of students, they are also a good way of developing intercultural competence. The asynchronous aspect is particularly useful in international courses, where participants may be located in different time zones.
Despite the pedagogical advantages of discussion boards, it is important to remember that taking part in text-based online discussion is much more time-consuming than participating in a face-to-face discussion. While having additional time to compose responses can be beneficial for non-native or less confident speakers, any errors in writing may be more obvious and will be permanently preserved in a published format. It is also helpful to bear cultural issues in mind. The conventions of Anglophone academic or educational discussion don’t necessarily hold everywhere in the world, and it is vital to take this into consideration when working with multicultural cohorts of students.
As noted above, discussion features are commonly available through LMSs, blogs, social networking services and wikis. It is also possible to set up freestanding discussion boards with services like Boardhost, Forumotion and Google Groups, or paid services like Vanilla, with many other such services able to be located through a simple web search. Variations on discussion board services include the question-and-answer-oriented Qhub. In education, multimedia discussion boards, where postings resemble sticky notes and can be rearranged as desired, have now become very popular. The most widely used is probably Padlet (formerly Wallwisher) – see the example of Nik Peachey’s Padlet discussion board, Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers, embedded below – with another option being Lino. Audio discussions can be set up through VoiceThread or on more general multimodal discussion boards.
As with blogs and wikis, examples of older student discussion boards can be easily found on the web, but newer discussions involving school-level and even higher education students are not so readily available because many of them now occur on password-protected sites, and not infrequently within institutional LMSs which are not publicly accessible. This has been done in order to protect students’ identities and safeguard them from inappropriate interactions and comments. Public discussions can however still be seen on the discussion boards of the international youth organisation TakingITGlobal. A specialised search engine which can help you to find public discussions is Omgili.
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