Dirt Simple Mini-Course

Creating a Simple Discussion Forum

Our Dirt Simple Online Course has three elements:

  1. Word Document-based Assignments
  2. A Discussion Board
  3. Weekly Announcements

In the last section we talked about building simple online assessments using word processing documents. These assignments can be weekly write-ups, mid-terms, project papers, whatever you want.

Ultimately, however, you want your students to not only demonstrate their own understanding of material, but to interact with the rest of the class around it. Part of what makes an online class more than training software is that students take the course together, and benefit from each other’s presence. Online, a discussion forum is a simple, low bandwidth solution to fill that need.

First, Build a General Questions Forum

Before we build an assignment specific forum, let’s build a general forum where students can ask questions about the class. This can be a useful place to field questions you might normally get in office hours or at the end of a class about assignments.

Here, we’re going to build a “Discussions” folder and put a forum in it. Again, we generally encourage faculty to use a more weekly approach to this (folders as weeks) but we’re keeping this as simple as possible.

Next, Build a Weekly Discussion Forum

The next step is to build a weekly forum.

First, we have to think of a question for the weekly forum. Two things to keep in mind:

  • Forums can get pretty boring for students to read if everyone gives the same answer (and boring for you to read too).
  • Forums are one of the few places online where students get to connect with other students, so it’s good if students can give answers that show a bit of who they are or how they think.

This will vary by discipline, but in the humanities and social sciences a common tactic is to use the discussion forum for an application question that ties concepts to personal or professional experience, or one that requires the students to find an example of something that illustrates a concept.

In this case the chapter we are having them read is about how the digital advertising market fuels misinformation, so we could go a couple directions.

The policy question: We could ask the students, given what they have just learned, whether they would support certain government policies around a certain issue, and have them cite material from the reading to defend that choice.

The find-an-example question: We could have the students go online and try and find a piece of misinformation or disinformation and ask how either platforms or content creators might benefit financially from it.

The mini-research question: You can give the students a list of sites of traditional and nontraditional publications and have them compare what percentage of ads on each sites are of a particular type (talked about in the reading) called “chumbucket ads”, and reflect on whether what they found matched their expectations.

Let’s go with the “mini-research” option. We’ll make a Word document with a bunch of links to sites and ask students to go count the ads on each site and see if there are “chumbucket” ads.

Here’s our prompt:

We often think of dubious ads as a function of less reliable websites. But is that really true? For this question, go to the Media Bias/Fact-Check site. Pick one site from their “Questionable Sources” list and one from their “Least Biased” list. Visit each site and report

– How many ads were on each sites home page

– Whether each site had a classic “chumbucket”

Then reflect on the results. Did they surprise you? Next, look at what other students found, and choose one other student to reply to, saying whether or not their results were the same as yours.

Graded on honest effort, 1.5 points, but try to pick something from a random place in each site list so that we don’t see a lot of duplicated work.

OK, now let’s make this sucker.

Creating the Weekly Discussion Forum

As usual, the most confusing thing about the process of making discussions in Blackboard is first you create the discussion board, and then you create the link to the discussion board. Major decisions we have to make:

  • Can students see the threads of other students before posting (depends on the type of question — if this case they can ‘free-ride’, so we say no.
  • How many points for grading?
  • When’s it due?

We’ll also show you a couple of tricks to make your life easier.

Looking at it from the Student Side

You don’t have to student preview your discussion board every time you make a new question, but it helps to do it the first time. Here we show what the student side looks like.

Grading the Student Response

OK, let’s grade it. Here we show the different types of feedback you can give. The grade (obviously), private feedback to the user (most often about the grade if necessary) and public replies.

Some teachers reply to every single student comment every time — which is exhausting in a large class, especially without a TA. But you don’t have to do that. You can decide, for example, to reply to about a third of the posts each time. Just let the students know what your plans are, and why you choose to reply to some and not others (For instance, maybe you tend to reply to the students that answer earlier, but not the ones that submit right before the deadline. Or maybe you try to answer a certain amount of students each week, but you try to make sure over a few weeks that everyone has gotten at least one response. Or maybe you mostly grade the discussion forum, and only rarely reply (not recommended, but for a large class that might be what you can support). Just let them know in either your syllabus, your weekly announcements, or both.


Lesson 1
What Is Dirt Simple Online? Why Use It?

Lesson 2
A Simple Word Document-Based Assignment

Current Lesson
Creating a Simple Discussion Forum

Lesson 4
Creating a Weekly Announcement In Blackboard

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