September/October 2003 // Case Studies
The Benefits of Bulletin Board Discussion in a Literature of Journalism Course
by R. Thomas Berner
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: R. Thomas Berner "The Benefits of Bulletin Board Discussion in a Literature of Journalism Course" The Technology Source, September/October 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

More than a decade ago, my journalism colleagues and I, wanting to expose our students to some of the great works of journalism at an early point in their college life, created a sophomore-level literature of journalism course. We wanted students to read books by John Hersey, Lillian Ross, Alex Haley, and Truman Capote?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùto name just four of the authors whose books are used regularly in the course. The course was originally launched as a weekly seminar of no more than 18 students, and has subsequently been taught both as a videoconference and a Web-based distance education course as well as a Web-enhanced residence course.

In the initial offering, students read a book each week while considering discussion points that had been distributed in the previous week's class. They then wrote an essay about the book and took their papers to the seminar for discussion. Despite all preparation, the students were largely reluctant participants in class discussions. Frequently, classes ended early. When I read the papers, I saw that many students had good ideas, but they rarely raised them in class. Encouraging them privately did not foster greater participation, and calling on them embarrassed them rather than nurtured them. Given that this experience is more than a decade old and has been replaced with several positive examples, I think some of the blame lies in my own course design, although I must add (not defensively, I hope) that as an English major in college I have sat through many a limited discussion in which only the instructor and two or three students participated.

This paper discusses how the course evolved and became better with the use of the Web. Among other things, this paper outlines how the course evolved from a face-to-face course to a blended course that took advantage of the Internet and the Web and incorporated changes requested by students. This paper also discusses how technology enabled the instructor to engage students more completely in the subject matter.

Early Versions of the Course: Videoconferencing and the Online Bulletin Board

About the time that all students were given e-mail accounts by the university, I was asked to teach the course via PictureTel videoconferencing as a distance education experiment (click here for an outline of PictureTel features). Now I could require papers in advance, read them all, and map out a student-led discussion by placing student names and specific topics on a grid, which I "posted" to the monitor in the distance classroom (Exhibit 1). Alone, I watched and listened from another site while the students took over the discussion. Occasionally, I would intervene—which I did not like to do because, once I did so, it ended discussion on that particular topic. When I intervened, I morphed from the "guide by the side" to the "sage on the stage" (or in this case, on the monitor).

During the face-to-face course evaluation at the end of the semester, the students suggested a midweek class in which they could meet to discuss their reading in progress. Coincidentally, the staff in the computer center produced an electronic bulletin board program, and this is where I sent the next class of residence students to hold midweek discussions. Students would post their initial comments about the book of the week to the bulletin board and comment on each other's observations in an asynchronous mode. For the face-to-face Friday seminar, I not only had their papers, but I now added to my set of notes a printout of their threaded discussions. Discussions became more thoughtful and longer, and because I had a copy of their comments, I could jog their memories. Assigning a task nearly every day of the week provided students with a structure for gathering research and formulating their thoughts about the book, something I then incorporated into the new distance education version of the course.

The Web-based Distance Education Version

Because I was considered something of a distance education expert in my college, my university's distance education program recruited me to develop a course. I chose the literature of journalism course because it could have broad appeal (it was by now a general education course open to anyone) and it was readily adaptable because of the way I had incorporated bulletin board discussions in the residence course. As I like to say, one does not transfer a course to the Web, but rather transforms it. However, this course was almost a straight transfer?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwith one major exception.

Because I was never going to be in the room with the students, I needed a strict set of bulletin usage guidelines to ensure a productive and civil discussion throughout the week as well as in the electronic version of the seminar (Exhibit 2). I required students to post on Monday a 150-word initial reaction to the book of the week, and then to go back on Tuesday and Wednesday and post reactions to at least half of their classmates' posts; these postings were tracked by the course software (WebCT). (Exhibit 3). I also monitored all discussions and raised my own questions. Thursday was a day of reflection. On Friday, students turned in their papers and discussed them in WebCT's bulletin board, a discussion that went back and forth throughout the day depending on jobs or other classes.

I also added to the syllabus a compare-and-contrast rule, which I had never put in writing in the face-to-face class but usually stated at the beginning of a semester. However, in a distance education course, nothing can be implicit. This rule noted that students were not simply to address single books during the discussions or in their essays; instead, they were to build on their readings from week to week and compare authors' methods of reporting and writing. The use of the bulletin board encouraged this compare-and-contrast rule by allowing students to access past discussions and refresh their memories about the authors and the books. The technology helped them to tie the course material together.

The next time I taught the course in residence, I used the same guidelines. That got students reading and discussing the book of the week in a far more enthusiastic and analytical way than past resident students had (Exhibit 4). Discussions in the Friday seminar frequently included references to what someone said on the bulletin board. And when the time came to end the two-hour seminar, the students were still talking. Students from this course would often tell me without prompting that they enjoyed the discussions because the bulletin board mode helped them formulate their thoughts. They acknowledged, often in writing, how a classmate's comments have made them re-think their own view. Through the online bulletin board they became stakeholders in discussion; they owned it.

I monitored the bulletin board discussion to ensure that everyone posted on time, to correct factual errors, and to nudge the discussion along or to raise a new thought in response a student's post. I spent about three hours a week doing this. The course management software allowed me to track the students' type of tasks (reading versus posting versus responding to someone's post) and their time on tasks so I could always get a quick snapshot of any student's attendance. The linked example (Exhibit 5) comes from my residence course, which was run through ANGEL (A New Global Environment for Learning).

One of the problems I needed to solve was calculating how many responses a student needed to make to initial posts. At first, I listed a percentage in my syllabus, but when I had only six students in a section one semester, requiring a 50 percent response did not always engender quality. In the spring 2003, I have 20 students pre-registered for the course and will probably require a 33 percent response. For now, though, my syllabus says I will announce that at the beginning of the semester. For the most part, students have participated at the levels I want. Those who don't find that they receive lower grades on their weekly papers and are reminded that participation is part of their grade. Although this probably will not be a problem in the future, I did encounter a student who did not use e-mail and so I had to get him up to speed quickly (and he was glad to do it).

I do make much out of having a civil and constructive discussion, but my students already seem sensitive to this and I have not encountered any problems. I am always alert to posts that do not advance the discussion, and despite the "rules" I have listed in my syllabus, I do occasionally have to tell a student privately?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand gently?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthat his or her comments were not that valuable and also explain how they could have been valuable. However, because comments are retained in the bulletin board, the students serve as role models for each other, and it is easy to cite a good student's post during the week as a way of setting high standards.


Thanks to a variety of technologies, our literature of journalism course no longer has dead space in it and, for the most part, the high-grade discussion runs on and on without my intervention. The students use interactive technological tools to improve analytical skills in ways that inspire confidence in their own ideas and openness to the ideas of others. Course feedback in the face-to-face offering comes in an open-ended discussion in the last seminar, during which students freely discuss what worked and what did not work. We even talk about which books I should keep and which I should drop. And while I have done no formal assessment, I am much happier teaching the course and the students seem to enjoy it more than they did in the pre-technology days.

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