Having Students Create an Online Discussion Board Forum: Recent Oceanographic Info in the News & A Beautiful Question

Alan Trujillo, Palomar College
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An online Discussion Board Forum is a great tool for facilitating student interaction. If done well, discussion boards not only deepen learning, they can also build class community, an essential element for increasing student engagement and retention in online classes (see reference below).

During past semesters, I routinely posted current news articles for my online oceanography students to read. However, while attending the On Course National Conference, I re-discovered the principle that "the mind that does the work is the mind that learns." As a result, I revised my approach. I created a semester-long Discussion Board Forum called "Recent Oceanographic Info in the News & A Beautiful Question." There I have my students post recent oceanographic articles that they find in the news. The "beautiful question" part—-which needs to be defined for students (see below)—-is from an activity I experienced at an On Course I Workshop. This approach is adaptable to any discipline for which new findings are frequently published.

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Learning Goals

Content/concepts goals
The goals of this Discussion Board Forum assignment are:
(1) to have students find a recent news articles in oceanography that relates to class content and to post a summary about it at an online Discussion Board Forum.
(2) to have students evaluate other students' news article to be able to post a "beautiful question."
(3) to have students answer other students' "beautiful questions" about their news article.

Higher order thinking skills goals
Students must analyze the content of the news article and relate it to class content in order to provide a summary of the news article. Students must also be able to evaluate a news article in order to ask a "beautiful question." In addition, students must be able to research answers to other students' "beautiful questions" about their news article.

Other skills goals
Other skills goals: writing, searching the Web, researching answers to other students' "beautiful questions."

Context for Use

Type and level of course
Undergraduate Introductory Oceanography, but it would work well for any introductory geoscience course.

Skills and concepts students should have mastered
Students must be able to make a post and reply to other students' "beautiful questions" in an online Discussion Board Forum.

How the activity is situated in the course
This activity is a semester-long online Discussion Board Forum assignment.

Description and Teaching Materials

During the semester, students are required to make an initial post about a news article, one "beautiful question," and one reply to another student's "beautiful question." Here are the instructions I give my online students:

Part 1 : New technologies are allowing many new ocean discoveries. This Discussion Board Forum entails making a post with any new and interesting oceanographic information from a news story that you come across this semester. For your initial post about the news article, you must include:
1. The name of the news article and the date it was posted (note that the news story must be less than 2 weeks old and reported by a reliable news source; it cannot be about your own personal experience...sorry!)
2. A link to the news article
3. In your own words, a 1-paragraph summary (200 words minimum) with details about the new information
4. Your thoughts about how it relates to this class, using appropriate oceanographic terminology
5. A picture from the article or, if there is no picture from the article, search the Web for an appropriate picture to post with your review.
Try to give your post a catchy title to make other students want to read it. Note that you cannot make a post about the same article that someone has already posted, but you may make a post about the same news event from a different or more recent source.

Part 2 : To receive full credit, you must make at least 1 reply to someone else's post with a "beautiful question." By this I mean that your question must be well thought out and show a depth of knowledge and understanding beyond an obvious question. Beautiful questions are clear, relevant, specific, and require an open-ended response. Points will be deducted if your "beautiful question" seems shallow or poorly thought-out, is a simple "yes-no" question, or is not a question at all. Note that you cannot post a "beautiful question" to your own news article.

Part 3 : Lastly, you must reply to another student's "beautiful question" with an answer. If someone in class posts a "beautiful question" about your post, you owe that person an answer. If nobody posts a "beautiful question" about your news article, you may also fulfill this requirement by answering any other student's "beautiful question" that was posted to another student's post about their news article.
FAQ: Discussion Board Posts (Acrobat (PDF) 297kB Apr15 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Overall, I have had great success with the news article posts and especially students' "beautiful questions" and answers that are generated in this Discussion Board Forum. As a side benefit, it sets a high standard for student responses, so it also helps improve dialogue in other Discussion Board Forums. Some of the beautiful questions as well as students' answers simply astound me, and some students even report how pleased they are to dig deep into a topic on their own to find an answer to another student's beautiful question. For example, one student commented, "I just finished answering a beautiful question that was posted by another student in class about my news article. Amazingly, I spent the last 2 hours researching an answer online, including reading several scientific research articles about the topic. I actually lost track of time...and thoroughly enjoyed it." To me, that's real learning...a beautiful thing, indeed!


Grading: This Discussion Board assignment is worth 10 points: 5 points for your initial post, 3 points for posting a "beautiful question", and 2 points for posting an answer to another student's "beautiful question." Although you have the entire semester to make your post, note that late posts will be marked down -5 points per day or fraction thereof. Please see the attached document for FAQs and general guidelines for making posts at an online Discussion Board Forum.

References and Resources

On Course Website: Helping Colleges Improve Students Success and Retention: http://oncourseworkshop.com/

Article about the importance of building online class community:
Poll, K., Widen, J., and Weller, S., 2014, Six Instructional Best Practices for Online Engagement and Retention, Journal of Online Doctoral Education V. 1 Issue 1 Summer 2014 ISSN: 2330-4391 Online at: http://www.academia.edu/9135985/Six_Instructional_Best_Practices_for_Online_Engagement_and_Retention