LMS Discussion Mania

In my in-class discussion this week, I ranted about the state of discussion boards in our school’s current LMS (Learning Management System), Angel 7.3. As an instructor who teaches online, discussion boards are meant to be a place where my students can gather around a particular topic and discuss it. Typically my discussion boards revolve around the discussion of some type of online video. I consider the videos that I post to be thought provoking, but typically I don’t get much in terms of discussion from my students. In contrast, I see my students use every available moment of their break to participate in discussions on facebook with their friends. Now I know that I can’t expect the same sort of participation from my students in my classroom that they would normally get from a group of friends, but my hope is that there is some way to draw those two worlds closer together. Here are some of the problems that I think Angel has in terms of generating a robust discussion:

  1. Speed and responsiveness – Over the years facebook has grown leaps and bounds in terms of its design and usability. What once started out as a safe MySpace ripoff that was based on the idea that you could go and look at your friends profiles, has really turned into a great social communication device. One of the reasons that I think it does so well is that it is responsive to the input that I give it. If I make a comment on some one’s post, I don’t have to wait for the page to refresh but rather I see my comment immediately pop up. If I place a link to a video on the page, it will automatically pull the embed code and allow me to share a rich media experience with my friends. This is in no doubt due to the amount of developing that has gone on behind the scenes, and while I am not literate as to what specific web technologies are being leveraged, I do not that it is a much better discussion experience than my LMS. My LMS is the opposite of responsive — it is slow even. I never feel that it is built to help me share and communicate but rather to give me a set of hurdles that I have to leap through to learn and discuss with others. I think that the LMSs need to combine resources and do some headhunting at some web 2.0 companies.
  2. Social Presence – When I comment or create a thread on facebook there is a picture next to my comment. While this picture may seem insignificant, I think it is very significant in bringing “social presence” into the conversation. As someone who has been in a long distance relationship, I know that having a face-to-face (FTF) conversation can be very different than a computer mediated conversation. We are more likely to disclose personal information and get more involved in a discussion. While a picture doesn’t substitute for that FTF conversation, it brings us closer on the spectrum of presence, and therefore can make our discussions more robust. Angel’s discussion board simply uses a name and not much else. I think it could use a little bit more social presence.
  3. Integration of Rich Media – Earlier this quarter, I talked about the benefits of Voice Thread. Voice thread does a great job of integrating media into a discussion board. Not only can students discuss rich media, but they can also use rich media as a discussion format (voice, video, text). In my current class we are using Blackboard Vista. Vista does not like media in a discussion board, in fact it wont even to the simple task of automatically linking a link that I place in a post. Facebook will recognize the link and pull what ever media it needs to illustrate the link. Vista does allow me to put in my own html code, but what student is going to know that — or want to spend the time to code their own response.

I’ve always wondered if facebook would ever decide to make a move in the educational space. I think it would be a great integration and a definite money maker for them. Until then, I guess I will just have to hope that some of these current LMSs get their act together and create a better discussion experience.