This week, it struck me that something new, and really quite remarkable has been happening in my classroom that I hadn’t clearly seen for what it was. I knew it was happening, of course, but its significance had escaped my attention. It was an unintended benefit of our discussion board.
One of the technologies that I have employed in the last few years that I think has been the most successful is a discussion board. I use the discussion board built into Windows SharePoint Services 3 which is the LMS that my school uses (because it is free to Victorian Government schools). It’s very powerful. It gives me absolute control over access privileges and has an RSS feed.
All students at our school have access to the discussion board. They can use it to ask questions about biology, or to comment on the things they like or dislike about class, to make requests for class activities or topics, ask questions about upcoming SACs (assessment tasks) etc.
I have seen so many advantages of using a discussion board that it’s hard to know where to begin. But here’s a list of advantages that spring to mind:
It allows students to ask questions when they think of them, at any time of day or night, whereas otherwise they would have to make a mental note to come and see me at lunchtime, or to remember to ask during the next class (and possibly forget).
When a student has been studying at night, and doesn’t understand something, rather than going to bed with negative thoughts in her head, she can write a question on the discussion board. Even if that question is not answered immediately, at least it has been asked and she knows that she can stop thinking about it for the time being.
When a student asks a question about an assessment task, it is much fairer if the question is asked and answered on the discussion board, than in private. That way every student has access to the same information.
If I forget to mention something in class, or want to make a general announcement to the class, I can write it on the discussion board and (as long as all students read the discussion board daily) I know they have all been informed.
If students are away sick, they don’t miss out on important information.
It allows class to continue – even through the holidays. (over Christmas there was barely a day when no-one posted a comment or question).
Because the discussion board is open to all students at the school, it helps to break down the “us” Vs “them” mentality as it encourages sharing between members of parallel classes and their teachers.
It provides students with a constant source of questions (asked by other students) that they can have a go at answering. In this way they are able to teach each other. Since experts tell us that we remember things best when we teach others, this is a very effective way for students to consolidate their own learning.
But that brings me to the new advantage that I realised this week …
Students who have graduated, can act as virtual tutors for current students. This morning I visited the discussion board and saw some questions posted by my students as usual, but the answers were provided by a past student who was in my class last year. This was not the first time. In fact that student has been answering questions on the discussion board all year… it had just never quite dawned on me how special that is.
As teachers, we always try to encourage a life-long love of learning, we hope that when our students leave our class, that they will continue to be interested in the things we have taught them… but a discussion board provides a convenient vehicle for them to do that in a meaningful and personal way. She is not the only student like this. There are other past students too, who still visit the discussion board and leave occasional comments. One who graduated more than 12 months ago – now enrolled at university, still visits regularly. I’m sure it’s not just a one-off thing but something that will continue in future years. In fact just this morning I was talking to one of my current students about the involvement of past students on the discussion board, and her remark was:
“It’s so cool! – I hope to be like that too next year”.
How wonderful it is that students want to contribute to the learning of other students, sharing the knowledge and wisdom they have acquired. This is what we have always wanted isn’t it? – students whose incentive for participation in class is not the assessment ahead of them, but the joy they have found in sharing their knowledge with others.