Online Projects Using Discussion Boards
Discussion boards have become a popular feature of educational website providers such as Blackboard and WebCT. These boards have proven valuable for stimulating out of class discussion and interaction between students. Recently, I have been using the discussion board feature (on Blackboard) for a different purpose: student projects. I have successfully used this project in my Economic Development and Economics of the European Union courses (and I will be using it in International Economics next fall). This project was originally intended for Economics courses with an international focus. However, the project format and methodology could be utilized in many other courses.
The project is comprised of several parts which are completed throughout the semester. I set up each part of the project as a different forum in the discussion board, so there is one forum for each project part. I then start a thread under each forum containing the instructions for that part and the due date. The students then click reply to my instructions posting and post their project as an attachment on their response. The students' project posts include both pictures and text and are usually in either PowerPoint or Word format. Currently, these projects must be posted as attachments as the technology does not yet allow for directly supporting pictures in a discussion post.
In terms of the content of the project, each student focuses on a country which is chosen at the start of the semester. Some of the project parts have included: a 10-day itinerary of travel throughout the country, a description and discussion of a day in the life of a worker in the country's biggest industry, a 150 word essay on a major economic/social dilemma the country is facing, etc.
After each project part is posted, students then vote for which country they think had the best post for that part (no voting for themselves). While I control the grades for the project, I allow the students to vote for winners of each part. Voting is done through posting a survey on Blackboard. First, I create a survey using the Survey Manager under Control Panel. Then, I add a short answer question asking which country they are voting for (no voting for themselves). Then, I access Course Documents under Control Panel and select Add Survey. The last step is to click Modify Survey to make it available. Blackboard will show you who has voted and automatically tally the answers. I give prizes to the first and second place winners from the voting. The prizes have included jars of Nutella, chocolate bars and other similar items.
While the project is not worth that much of the course grade (10-12%) it motivates students in the course. Students find the project interesting and the voting aspect adds a sense of friendly competition to the course. Students get excited about winning the prizes and the quest to win a prize. I have found that this project has positive spillover effects to the rest of the course; giving the project benefits even if the posts are not directly related to material covered in class. I have also found that the project has enhanced the classroom atmosphere. Students congratulate each other on good posts and interact more with each other and the material.
While this project may not be a fundamental change in teaching methods, it has proven quite effective in my courses. The project has really energized the students and created a very positive, enthusiastic learning atmosphere. This has allowed me to more effectively convey other material in the course, and made courses more fun for both me and the students. I might also note that student evaluations of the courses, both quantitative and qualitative were very positive. One of the favorite aspects of the course most cited by the students is the project. Methodologically, I believe the discussion board technology still holds tremendous untapped educational potential.
I would like to acknowledge the support of the Davis Foundation, as I developed this project at a teaching workshop that was funded by the Foundation.
Michael A. Quinn, PhD.
Department of Economics
175 Forest Street
Waltham, MA 02452-4705