Distant Voices: Hearing online students loud and clear

Photo Credit: Alina Grubnyak, Unsplash CC0

In this post of the ‘Student Voice’ monthly series, Chris Sheridan, eLearning Coordinator for the online Clinical Trials programme, reflects on using discussion boards as a useful tool for hearing student voices… 

In a recent presentation, MSc in Clinical Trials discussed the student voice within their fully online programme. As their Online Learning Coordinator I was asked to think about discussion boards as a medium for student voices to be heard.

Our discussion boards, in their simplest form, provide a platform to ask and receive responses to questions for staff and students. We also use them for assignments, reflection, encouraging debate and sending mass messages.

For us clarity, communication and community is paramount. From the very start of a course the ‘General’ discussion board is the first point of contact for the admin/teaching team, as well as their peers. A board with threads to address common, anticipated topics is the first step to making sure the student understands:

  • netiquette
  • their environment
  • what’s expected of them
  • what’s expected from us
  • how to get help and support

Replicating real world communication as much as possible, we hold virtual ‘face to face’ sessions utilising an instant chat function in the VLE. The asynchronous, yet still two way, dialogue means we can feel as if we’re having a meaningful conversation while having time to respond to student questions.

Using a forum rather than an FAQ, for example, introduces informal, relaxed communication with the students early on. The students become confident and comfortable with the setting and language of discussion boards as well as getting to know their peers and the teaching/admin team. This, in turn, adds to the sense of community and belonging that is fostered throughout their studies and beyond. Peer-to-peer support is very evident at every stage of the programme, often at assignment time and informally at holiday time.

Critical thinking and social learning is a large part of the online programme. A solid induction with use of discussion boards not only equips the student to develop their academic skills and subject knowledge, it also strengthens their voice to ask for what they need, meaning we don’t need to wait for survey results or a committee meeting to ascertain student requirements.

Clear channels of communication in our main discussion forums allow us to pick up on issues before they become problems. In our student led ‘Common Room’ the discussion board covers threads like Staff/Student Liaison Committee agenda items, discussions regarding assignments, and a Suggestion Box as per the University Student Partnership Agreement.

Throughout the student learning journey their voice becomes more confident and more expressive about their experience of how the learning is delivered. Student feedback is essential to any programme and a vocal cohort allows continuous improvement for everyone.

Our experience of using discussion forums has been highly positive. They fulfil multiple communications needs within our programme and in these times they may become the preferred way to communicate, not just for learning but for social connections and support.

Chris Sheridan

Chris Sheridan is the eLearning Co-ordinator for the Clinical Trials programme with the Usher Institute. She has an MSc in Digital Multimedia and is currently undertaking a second MSc in Education. She is a Fellow with the Higher Education Academy and a certified member of the Association of Learning Technology.

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