The secrets of online discussion

How one tutor used simple techniques to generate authentic, engaging and fruitful online discussion.

During a focus group with a cohort of Teaching, Learning and Mentoring Practice students, 3rd years from the Faculty of Education, a picture emerged of excellence in the use of the online discussion. This post is based on an interview with Deborah Humphreys – the tutor for that module.

Bb8discussQ: What is the key to getting students engaged with discussion boards?

One of our most successful techniques was embedding online discussions into the course materials – ‘locking in’ the discussion – so that as students progressed through the online materials they were automatically presented with the relevant discussion page. Students would then be able to respond to fit their timescales.

Another key technique is to keep on top of the discussion – going back constantly to be able to look at that discussion point, see if there is a new comment on it*, and if it did I’d post another. I always post an answer to whatever they’d posted, and then post another question. So therefore those that had moved on got into the habit of going back to that discussion point, looking at the new question and answering that question. It was a circular thing – it was just constant – it was almost like a chat room a lot of the time. It was easy to spot those new to discussion – they were slower on the uptake, or just hadn’t got to that point. But they didn’t feel like they were being left behind because they were constantly seeing new posts.

So the real secret is little and often, getting into the habit of checking the discussions frequently*. You’ll get to know your group like you would in a classroom – who got the points and who hadn’t – who was on-task, who had actually understood the theories or the concepts that you are working with.

Another key aspect is to vary when in the day you visit the boards. I didn’t have a set point throughout the day – I could be posting at night, in the morning, whenever. I found that this increased the variety on my boards thus making them more engaging.

Also the students were engaged and as such I was able to monitor progress very closely as the tracking systems within Blackboard was very accurate.

In the said module, all the work was submitted on time and, moreover, I would actually be so bold as to say ‘angst’ (stress levels) was lower amongst the students.

Q: Tell us more about monitoring.

You have to track (how many times people have been on) but you got to know your group; you got to know the ones that always had their hands up first. I would then encourage those new posts by being helpful and upbeat, but at the same time critical.

Q: What impact did it have on the outcome?

Great! We saw a significant rise in higher grades.  Around 77% of the cohort were graded 2i or higher. Reflecting on this result and the discussion boards I remember differentiating to enable less confident students to feed off other students’ comments, and then I’d make a posting that enabled those students to come at it from a different angle, yet still getting to the same point so that they grasp the notions being discussed. It’s scaffolding all the time within the discussion, and although it sounds like a lot of work it isn’t, you just get into the habit of doing it. It should take you minutes.

Q: What do you say to colleagues asking ‘What can we do to get students engaged on the discussion board?’

You have to be totally flexible – you can’t just go on once a day and treat it as a face to face session – it has to be flexible because that’s the name of the game – you have to do evenings, weekends, whenever. If students know you are going in at one specific time – I don’t think that works. That might be different for Blackboard Collaborate – if you have got such an interactive session as that then that is totally different. And monitor! You really have to monitor and then act on the information that the system gives you.

BestofTEL_SMALLDeborah Humphreys
Programme Leader, Professional Learning and Development
Faculty of Education

Deborah would be happy to talk to colleagues about her experience engaging students in online discussion.

Blackboard has a whole host of features and tools to help you monitor, evaluate and feedback.  Using the Performance Dashboard (in Control Panel > Evaluation) you can view a column headed ‘Discussion Board’ that contains a number representing the number of discussion boards that the each student has engaged in – and better still, if you click on that number you’ll be taken to the board that they have contributed to.  You can click even further to see all the students contributions for a specific discussion board.

*Ask all enrolled on your module or programme to subscribe to the discussion forum.  You can then be notified immediately via email if there are any new postings to that forum or thread.  Check this setting when creating your discussion board in Blackboard.

For further help, support and advice on how you can use Discussion, Tracking and other tools within the Learning Edge Suite contact your Learning Technologist (see the Faculty Contacts on this page) or email the LTD Team on [email protected] or call x7754. Also, see the LTD Guide about Blackboard Discussion Boards.

A bit of Blackboard TLC

Blackboard European Teaching and Learning Conference at Aston University, Birmingham

Last week I was in Birmingham for the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference. This conference allows those interested or involved in Learning Technology to get together to discuss, demonstrate and network with colleagues from institutions all over Europe.

The main themes involved:

  • Engagement & Retention
  • Instructor Adoption
  • Digital Collaboration Solutions
  • Institutional Value
  • Large Course Support

The ‘Roadmap’ session.

This session is always one of the best attended sessions at the conference.  Blackboard representatives present an outline of new and interesting developments and features that are likely to be available soon.  Some of the features proposed at this session included:

  • Post first on discussion forums; before a student gets to see what other students have written they have to create their own post/message first.
  • Roll over of course dates for the following year which will automatically adjust the dates for the next year in one go!
  • Reward badges; mimicking Playstation and Xbox games where you are rewarded for completing set tasks or achieving set expectations.

Some features suggested for later releases include:

  • Improved chat and virtual classroom; a bit like a stripped down version of Collaborate for any tutor to use to deliver or support their students in their own module or course area.
  • New Assignment submission tool that enables online marking and commenting – similar to the GradeMark tool within Turnitin but with enhanced features.
  • Mobile app for marking work through your iPad.

The Roadmap session was particularly relevant to us as we are looking at upgrading in the summer.


“Using Blackboard Collaborate to Engage Postgraduate CPD and eLearning Students”

The first session I attended was presented by Graham McElearney about University of Sheffield’s pilots of Collaborate.  It was reassuring to hear that they have experienced similar issues to our institution in regards to minor issues when setting up for the first time (Java installation and initialising) when using Collaborate and the suggestion to have someone who knows the software to be on hand to help during the first session or two.

The University of Sheffield have found Collaborate a useful addition to their system in regards to flexibility of CPD provision as well as adding value and ease of providing the teaching to a diverse range of students.  One of the tutors involved in the pilot commented that Collaborate was:

“Making distance learning less distant”.

They offered a number of words of wisdom:

  • Set up a ‘coffee space’ in Collaborate that was available to students to give the software a go, to help them become acquainted with the space and how they interact with it.  Imagine it being like a coffee area where students would discuss and converse with ideas much like they would do in a physical space, just that this would be in a virtual space.  This would be unmonitored to allow students their own space and time to try out the software.
  • All distance learning tutors should be encouraged to practise what it is like to be a student in a Collaborate space so they can relate to the student experience.
  • For the pilot project, a Senior Learning Technologist acted as Project Manager and worked with an Academic (who provide the materials and the delivery) and also had other Learning Technologists to support with any technical queries.
  • The lesson of the story though is to not over provide support just because it’s a pilot! You have to be realistic with what can be done in a virtual classroom. If whilst piloting you have excessive levels of support then this would be unrealistic in actuality.

We can use this model to manage future pilots and to help bring in new products quickly and with relevant and timely guidance and support.


“E3: Elevating use of eLearning, eSubmission, eMarking and eFeedback”1

This fascinating session by Gillian Fielding from Salford University gave an insight into how staff development is delivered in other institutions.  Salford issue reasonably strict guidance on baseline expectations within Blackboard and have even produced a chart of ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ criteria in areas.  They managed to train 85% of their academic staff in the new Blackboard (9.1) in just 5 weeks using a mixture of classroom based and online delivery of materials.  They used examples of good and bad practice to demonstrate to academics what a student would experience.  Further, a report was sent to directors to highlight who had or hadn’t been on the training that helped target missing attendees.  Finally, students would be asked to check Blackboard areas to discover whether they were up to the pre-defined standards that were set.

We will take on board some of the good ideas offered from this session in our own delivery of staff development to give you more of what you need when you need it and help you keep track of your own development.


“How to help your instructors in finding the right tools in Blackboard”

When migrating to Blackboard 9.1,  staff at Leiden University were offered software to handle the move called ‘CarePack’.  Although now discontinued, the principals for this software can still be very useful when constructing a Blackboard course.

The tools in Blackboard (and any plugins) are divided into groups; Assessment, Content, Collaboration, Management and Information and staff can use a ‘pick and mix’ technique to construct their course as long as they pick at least one tool from each category enabling them to create a rich Blackboard area.

More can be seen about the software here:

See some examples from Leiden University on their blog:

We’re looking towards producing our own version to help our academics with their Blackboard area creations.


“Is your Blackboard getting its 5-a-day? Planning and controlling your SIS Integration”

The final session I attended concerned something we are already developing with the aim of incorporating into our own Blackboard instance; SIS Integration.

SIS stands for Student Information System and integrating it into our other existing database systems should help the streamlining of all information between SID (our own Student Information Database) and the Blackboard Users and Courses database.

Our processes to create course areas and student enrollment are mainly automated – with some manual processes around combined course areas and tutor enrollment.  Using SIS would completely automate the process and also allow us to link more data fields between the two systems allowing a greater level of control and offers far more possibilities in handling and passing data from one system to another.

2The session, delivered by Staffordshire University, covered ‘What to feed’, ‘When to feed (with planning tools and strategies)’ and ‘How to set up SIS Integration’.  It involved identifying stakeholders and how to control what is being fed from SID to Blackboard.  This may be as simple as users being attached to a course or much, much more.  The key to developing a link between two (or more) systems involves not just how the data is stored but what is stored basically meaning, don’t worry about where you’ve got it stored as long as it is stored – it can always be pulled out!  This helps to identify ‘missing’ data which in turn can then be included into an existing database or a new database created.

An excellent feature demonstrated (developed by Staffordshire University), that may appeal to anyone who currently manages or delivers a Blackboard course, was a tool that would list all courses within an institution with details of whether that course is available or unavailable.  You can then choose to change the course’s status – great for those last minute checks of ‘have I released my course!?’ If you choose to make your course available (if currently unavailable) the system will then email all tutors on that course to say it has been made available.  Great!

Having this integration will open up new doors of possibility when it comes to passing data between our systems.  This means that tools like the one mentioned above can be developed for the utilisation of all members of staff to help them use Blackboard efficiently and effectively.


Presentations from the conference will be available in the next few weeks if you are interested in learning more about the above sessions or any other sessions that were delivered over the 3 day conference.

If you are interested in developments of our Blackboard system please contact either your Learning Technology Development Officer (click on ‘Faculty Contacts’ on this pageor email LTD Support on [email protected] and arrange to have a chat with one of the team.  




Carol Chatten,
Learning Technology Development Officer