Discussion Boards

Contact: Prof. Tony Brewer
Economics Department, University of Bristol
Published February 2001

I have been trying out discussion boards for my students. The results so far are rather mixed, but it may be helpful to others to summarize the position. I would be very interested to hear from anyone else who has tried the idea out.

Discussion boards go under various names. What I am talking about is an area on the Web where people can post messages for all to see and others (students or tutors) can post replies to them. Software for doing this is widely available. I don't do any of the technical side - the University of Bristol's Learning Technology Support Service sees to that. You would need to check what support exists in your institution.

It is possible to restrict access but I haven't found any need to do so. The risk of an outsider posting messages about my economics courses is small, and I have no objection to outsiders reading about the course. I can delete any inappropriate messages but have rarely needed to do so.

I first set up a board for a large (180 students) introductory microeconomics course in the month or so preceding the exams last summer (April-May 2000). I normally get a lot of students knocking on my office door during the revision period, but most were diverted to the board - there were about 70 postings from students in a month or so, ranging from questions about the exam format to detailed questions about particular lectures. In almost all cases, the student asked a fairly specific question and I responded. The same could be done by e-mail or face-to-face, but the big advantage of the board is that everyone can see the reply. It built up into a compendium of replies to questions about almost all aspects of the course.

I thought it was a success, and so did the students, if perhaps a limited success - for example, there was very little student-to-student interaction. I don't know how one can promote wider uses of that sort. As a supplement to what would otherwise be available, however, it seemed to me to be a definite plus.

After that experience, I set up boards for two courses of my own from the start of this year and a number of my colleagues followed suit. We have a total of ten boards open for use in the department, but last summer's success has not yet been repeated. October-November (I am writing in late November) is evidently different from the exam-revision period. My board for the first years has yet to attract a single posting from a student. Some boards for second year courses are a bit more active, probably because the students experienced my revision-period board last year and are accustomed to the idea, but even these have only seen a handful of postings. We need to think about how we can kick-start discussion, or perhaps we have to decide that boards are only worth running during the exam-revision period. Any suggestions?

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