Discussion Forums as a Learning Tool in a Graduate Course

Sheila P. Englebardt

Department of Social and Administrative Systems
School of Nursing
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A variety of computer-mediated communication tools can be used to enhance instruction. This article describes an interactive discussion process, facilitated by experts in the field, to encourage student discourse about course content, to enhance writing skills, and to develop expertise in the use of technology.

A rapidly increasing number of health care agencies are selecting and implementing computerized applications and automated information management strategies at their work sites. Information technology is transforming health care, being used to support decision making both in the clinical and the administrative financial arenas. Nurses and other health care professionals need to make informed choices related to software and hardware selection, implementation, and usage. Advanced practice nurses, expected to be organizational leaders, need knowledge and expertise in health care informatics.

Students in the course in Health Care Informatics (HCI) have varying levels of education, computer knowledge, and nursing. HCI introduces graduate students to two competing aspects of electronic technology: (a) computer use to access current, accurate, practice-related information and (b) computer selection, implementation, and use in health care organizations to enhance patient care. Most of the students have never accessed the Internet before enrolling in the course. Students' questions range from learning what the Internet is, to learning how to teach others in the work place the appropriate use of computers in their jobs. Most students are employed full time, have significant family obligations, and are enrolled in the master's program on a part-time basis. Several are full-time doctoral students.

Discussion Board

A major technological adjunct to HCI was a World Wide Web (WWW) interactive discussion forum called the Discussion Board, a mechanism for discussion in response to questions posted to the board each week (cf. Roger Akers). The Discussion Board is an example of asynchronous computer-mediated instruction; asynchronous communication applications allows students to access the media at the time and place of convenience. Students can have peer-to-peer interaction, share ideas and pose questions without the influence of the instructor (Ellsworth, 1995).

Reasons for making this experience an integral part of the course included: (a) means of discussion of topical issues related to the course content on-line, while using new technology; (b) means of posing and answering questions related to the week's content in a thoughtful dialogue with others at a time and place convenient to the student; and (c) means of creating an additional writing experience for students to improve their writing skills while learning to be comfortable with a public display of their thinking.

Another important reason for including the discussion forum as a course activity was to engage the participation of nursing informatics experts from around the world. Discussion board assignments required each student to respond (at least four times during the semester) to questions posted weekly on the discussion board by content experts. Students were asked to include website URLs or literary citations and to make their responses factual rather than opinion-based. Students were to read all responses to all questions whether or not they chose to participate in the discussion around that question.

Recruitment of volunteer discussants. Volunteer discussants (content experts) were recruited from subscribers to a listserv (Nrsing-L) that focuses on issues in nursing informatics. A message sent to the listserv described the course and stated the purpose of the discussion forum as part of the course requirements; the message included expectations and qualifications of volunteer discussants. Subscribers were to indicate their interest in participating by e-mail and to include current position title and responsibilities, areas of expertise, and educational and professional credentials. All respondents received the URL for the course, so they could explore the site, better understand the focus of the course, and examine course objectives and the topical outline.

Twenty eight respondents indicated interest in participating as volunteer discussants; 13 were chosen based on qualifications, relevancy of areas of expertise to the course content, and availability to post and monitor questions during the semester. Volunteer discussants represented academic, business, and health care organization settings. They came from a variety of geographic areas (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Utah). One discussant is from Australia.

Procedure. After establishing a weekly schedule and negotiating individual assignments, each volunteer discussant was assigned a specific week in the semester to post a question relevant to the course topical outline and individual areas of expertise. Questions were submitted to the instructor, edited, and in some cases resubmitted for approval.

A new question (based on the content for the following week) was posted the morning after each class; the volunteer discussant monitored responses. During the scheduled week, the volunteer guided and directed discussions, reframed questions when clarification was needed, and provided additional information by including relevant websites and literary citations. Some volunteers summarized the week's responses. Students indicated that the weekly summaries were very helpful. Later in the course, students were asked to summarize the discussions at the end of their assigned weeks.

Interestingly, other volunteers (not responsible for the week in question) lurked in the background and, often, contributed their opinions and additional WWW links or relevant literary citations. In other words, the students received input from a variety of experts in the field on most topics.

An additional, unplanned and unanticipated, learning experience occurred; one of the volunteer discussants, a faculty member at a large university in the Pacific Northwest, asked if her graduate students in informatics could participate when she posted her question. The ensuing joint venture between the two groups of students expanded the discussion, encouraged collaborative work between the groups of students, and provided perspectives and ideas that exceeded those from the group enrolled in the course. The experience was a positive one and will be repeated later in the semester. In addition, a second faculty member, a discussant from Pennsylvania, requested a similar experience for her students, to be scheduled later in the semester.


The use of the discussion forum was a positive one; however, several issues and problems occurred.

Use of volunteers. The use of experts in the field to expand students' learning and to create an international resource network for them was a wonderful experience. All communication with the volunteer discussants, not known to the instructor prior to this encounter, occurred via electronic mail. Communications included editing, revising, and rejecting or approving questions; developing and negotiating a schedule for posting questions; and holding the volunteers accountable for meeting the schedule and for monitoring the responses to the questions.

The variability in expertise and commitment of the volunteer discussants proved to be a problem. Inasmuch as many were self-declared experts in a particular area of informatics, their educational and experiential basis for participation did not always match expectations. Some volunteers developed good questions, but some did not. Some were reliable--posted on the day and time agreed upon--but others needed reminders.

It is difficult to ensure that negative feedback, albeit constructive, will be responded to in the spirit in which it was given. Without face-to-face contact, the tone of the responses was uncertain. Early in the process, some volunteers dropped out, citing the time commitment; subjectively, I believe some found it difficult to meet the standards set for their contributions.

Time. The time commitment required for me to perfect questions, ensure that questions were congruent with the course content, and create the schedule to meet course requirements while also attending to the scheduling needs of volunteers was greater than anticipated. For example, one volunteer had to take an unexpected trip, which forced me to adjust the schedule of that entire part of the course, reschedule other volunteers and the course outline, and inform students of the change. Additionally, I had to monitor each week's discussion to evaluate students' compliance with course requirements. Monitoring the discussion board included noting how many responses there were to each question, keeping track of which students responded, keeping count of the number of responses per student, and evaluating the quality of the responses.

Student anxiety. Initially, students expressed a great deal of anxiety about the use of (and access to) the technology and about posting their comments publicly. They reported a moderate level of intimidation and feelings of inexperience and ignorance when discussing weighty topics with unknown experts in cyberspace. As the semester progressed, most students indicated a decrease in anxiety and a concomitant increase in interest in participating in the discussions.

Progress Report

The discussion forum has received lots of traffic from students, faculty, discussants, and students at other schools. The quality of the discussions has been more scholarly than anticipated, although some students have a tendency to share opinions rather than facts, a problem that decreased after I requested that they insert URLs or citations.

There is a high level of student interest in this form of asynchronous communication. The ability to participate in discussions about topics of interest to them at their convenience (both time and place) is especially appealing to graduate students with full-time jobs and other personal responsibilities. There has been a high level of volunteer compliance with expectations. Volunteers responsible for the first questions set a high standard for others to follow, a serendipitous factor that influenced the quality of both the questions and the adherence to the schedule.

The unexpected interactive experience with other groups of graduate students has been an interesting additional opportunity for students to learn from each other. The discussion forum encouraged student participation in their own learning in and of itself; the add-on effect of the interaction among groups of students is yet to be evaluated.

Use of a discussion forum created another experience in the development of a sense of ease with technological skills. Students comfortable accessing the Web now follow up on access to sites that are recommended on the discussion board and are encouraged by the responses they get when they recommend sites to others; this led to the establishment of a second discussion board for the sole purpose of posting student-recommended URLs. The name of the site identifies the discussion threads; the recommended URL is in the first line of each message, and there is a student critique.

Evaluation and Plans for the Future

Anecdotal evidence shows that those students who participate infrequently in face-to-face classes are often more verbal (and eloquent) on the discussion board. Perhaps this experience speaks to the importance of including multiple options and methods that appeal to a variety of learning and communication styles.

What would I do differently, and what the same? I do plan to include a discussion board experience in this course again, and in other courses, and I will include outside volunteer experts again. Early identification of the most appropriate expert for the topic of the week and early negotiation with the experts regarding scheduling and availability to meet expectations should lessen the time commitment during the semester. An understanding of the variability of student computer prowess is very important. The speed with which student expectations can be raised to a higher level is often dependent on their ease with the technology. In the near future, students will be arriving with a broader baseline knowledge of computers, so that the experience will more quickly become a deeper, content-oriented one.

This experience has convinced me of the importance of introducing new technology in ways that match the technology to the task at hand. The critical emphasis must be the constant awareness that the goal is to facilitate the learning.


Ellsworth, J. H. (1995). Using computer-mediated communication in teaching university courses. In Z. L. Berg & M. P. Collins (Eds.), Computer mediated communication in the online classroom (pp. 29-36). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

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