Mature technology: The use of discussion boards in education

“It is an attempt to harness the power of the computer in the service of the community. We hope to do this by providing a sort of super bulletin board where people can post notices of all sorts and can find the notices posted by others rapidly.” (The Well, n.d.)

This is a description of “Community Memory”, a successful bulletin board created in Berkeley California in 1972 (Cellan-Jones, 2011). This shows that discussion boards are one of the “oldest” educational technologies around, predating, by some distance, the worldwide web, podcasting, video-sharing and the like (Dabbagh & Reo, 2010). As this is a mature, widely-used well-studied technology, there is plenty of material to help us study its impact.

Discussion boards are now a hugely popular tool for interaction between tutors and students, and among students. As such, they can be used for different forms of knowledge transmission, but for many, the really interesting aspect of discussion boards is their ability to support a community of learners (for example Browne, 2003).

For this analysis, I am focusing on higher education and training for professional exams, where they have been used in two main ways. Firstly, they are often used as a supplement to face-to-face classes – this has been their most common usage to date and is the background to most of the research reviewed here. Secondly, and more recently, they are also used as the main or only tool of communication among students or between students and faculty in online-only courses – this is the usage which I have experienced both as an MA student and a tutor of exam preparation courses.


The most obvious advantage of discussion boards is that they are very convenient, allowing learners to interact with others without having to travel or be tied to set times. This will serve to widen access to education, for example to those who live in remote areas, or whose work or personal commitments will not allow for attending classes. As Browne (2003) puts it:

“The virtual environment, which transcends the constraints of time, place and pace, adds a dimension to the experience of the learner.”

Or, to put it more practically, you don’t have to trek out on what may be a dark, rainy night to go to a class – you can study and interact at home in a way that suits you.

A second key advantage is that discussion boards, like other asynchronous interaction, allow for greater reflection by both tutors and students. In the past, I have run training for those new to online teaching and have highlighted this as a key advantage. A tutor who is asked a question in class must generally respond immediately. A tutor asked a question on a discussion board can take some time to reflect and research before responding if need be. Browne’s research project also highlighted this as a key advantage for both faculty and students.

Third, discussion boards can be invaluable for those who are introverted, or from cultures where responding face-to-face is harder than in mainstream Western culture (Lake, 1999). This can be a critical issue in raising access – I have an acquaintance who suffers from a mental disorder which means she could not attend a physical university. However, she is perfectly capable of studying for a degree online.

Fourth, discussion boards provide a permanent record of discussion, unlike verbal ones. This has been recognised as a benefit in some studies – “Students…recognised the value of having ‘conversations’ recorded for future reference and reflection.” (Finegold & Cook, 2006)

Fifth, there is evidence that discussion boards can promote a greater level of collaboration and a more enjoyable experience. Akhras (2012) conducted a detailed study of Australian business students, including a numerical, statistical analysis of rated student postings. She summarised part of her results as follows:

“The first hypothesis which stated that the level of collaborative performance is significantly higher online than the level of collaborative performance offline was supported… the experiential nature of collaborative work seemed to have improved the quality of their learning context and created a positive attitude to course work”

I and fellow MA students have also experienced the motivational effects of forming a community and discussing issues with each other online.

Finally, numerical evidence shows that discussion boards are at least as effective as face-to-face in delivering tuition, whether this is measured in terms of quality of tutor support (Richardson, 2009) or test performance (Bowen et al, 2012), which means that quality is not being sacrificed to gain the advantages discussed above.


Perhaps the most obvious disadvantage of discussion boards is that, compared with audio or face-to-face communication, the level of communication is much more limited and allows less opportunity to develop relationships. Interestingly, this anxiety was captured in the early days of the internet by a cartoon that became famous very quickly (Steiner, 1993). Its caption – “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog” almost became proverbial, epitomising how nervous we can feel (perhaps with reason) when we cannot see or hear those we are interacting with. The phrase is still widely used and alluded to (for example Ashford, 2011).

This anxiety is still present, with students finding discussion boards, “impersonal and intimidating” (Finegold & Cooke, 2006) and even carrying overtones of danger and deceit (Bayne, 2005). My experience as a tutor bears this out – students in my classes have never met each other and rarely interacted, and sometimes feed back that this makes them anxious about posting messages. Once they have started, it becomes much easier to go on.

Secondly, in many cases only a small number of people will actually post to the discussion board, which can create a feeling that a certain group are free-riding “lurkers” benefitting from discussions while not contributing themselves. This is noted in Fung (2004), who found that, of the 87% of students claiming they had used the online learning environment, only 30% had actually posted anything. More generally, discussion boards by their nature only work if there is reasonable participation and it can be frustrating if this is not present.

Third, discussion boards can raise issues of accessibility in terms of an adequate internet connection, comfort with technology and some aspects of display. This is not a major theme in the research studies, although perhaps this reflects the fact that, by definition, those using discussion boards are on the right side of the “digital divide”.

So how can we get the best out of discussion boards while mitigating some of the disadvantages? My suggestions will be in my next blog post.



Akhras, C. (2012) ‘Virtual Classrooms and the Discussion Forum: A Net Benefit for Business Students’, International Journal Of Business & Social Science, vol.3, no.11, pp.1-7.

Ashford, W. (2011) ‘It’s true, on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog’, blog entry posted 5 September 2011. Available from (accessed 14 September 2012).

Bayne, S. (2005) ‘Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace’ in Land, R. and Bayne, S. (eds) Education in Cyberspace, London, RoutledgeFarmer.

Bowen, W., Chingos, M., Lack, K. and Nygren, T. (2012) Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials, Ithaka S + R, (accessed 2 June 2012).

Browne, E. (2003) ‘Conversations in Cyberspace: a study of online learning’, Open Learning, vol.18, iss.3, pp.245-259.

Cellan-Jones, R. (2011) ‘Hackers and Hippies: The Origins of Social Networking’, [online], (accessed 14 September 2012).

Dabbagh, N. & Reo, R. (2010) ‘Back to the Future: Tracing the Roots and Learning Affordances of Social Software’ in Lee. M. & McLoughlin, C. (eds) Web 2.0-Based E-Learning: Applying Social Informatics for Tertiary Teaching, Hershey, PA, IGI Global.

Finegold, A., & Cooke, L. (2006), ‘Exploring the Attitudes, Experiences and Dynamics of Interaction in Online Groups’, Internet And Higher Education, vol.9, no.3, pp.201-215.

Fung, Y. Y. H. (2004) ‘Collaborative online learning: Interaction patterns and limiting factors’, Open Learning, vol.19, no.2, pp.135-149.

Lake, D. (1999) ‘Reducing isolation for distance students: an on-line initiative’, Open Learning, vol. 14, no.3, pp.14–23.

Richardson, J.T.E. (2009) ‘Face-to-face versus online tutoring support in humanities courses in distance education’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol.8, no.1, pp.69–85.

Steiner, P. (1993) ‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’, The New Yorker, vol.69, no.20, p.61.

The Well (n.d) Community Memory, (accessed 14 September 2012).


1 Comment

Filed under H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates

One response to “Mature technology: The use of discussion boards in education

  1. Pingback: How to get the best out of discussion boards in education | learningshrew

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