International Forum of Educational Technology & Society

Formal Discussion Initiation

Interactive E-learning: Why Can't We Get Beyond Bulletin Boards?

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Time schedule:
Discussion: March 14-23, 2005
Summing-up: March 24-25, 2005

Moderators and Summarisers:
William R. Klemm
Texas A&M University, USA


Internet-based training and education typically relies heavily on the use of Web “bulletin boards,” also often called “discussion boards.” The purpose of such boards is to allow learners to post opinions or to respond to questions provided by the instructor. But what these boards do NOT do seems to go unrecognized.


Comparison of Discussion Boards and Shared-Document Environments

And just what is it that discussion boards do not do? In general, we can say that discussion boards do not exploit the full range of opportunities that can be provided for interaction among learners and between learners and instructor. Contemporary models of exemplary pedagogical practice include constructivism and cooperative learning. Neither of these are supported well by discussion boards, but are well supported by the seldom-used environment of shared-document Web conferencing. In shared-document conferencing, learners work with application files such as documents, spreadsheets, and Power Point presentations. They can check these out and make changes in the files, provided that they have the requisite application software on their local PCs.

Constructivist learning requires students to build their own knowledge and understanding, typically by doing some task and producing some kind of deliverable. The deliverable could take the form of a report, a plan or recommendations, a literature review or Web quest, a data sheet, problem-solving exercises, insight challenges, a presentation, Web pages, portfolios, or other tangible materials that emerge as learners construct their understanding of the required subject matter. How can a learner do that with a discussion board?

Cooperative learning requires a group of learners operating as a team to help each other learn. Paradoxically, though seldom used in E-learning, cooperative learning works better on-line than it does in face-to-face classrooms. The reasons include: 1) All students can find the time to do their share of the work. No longer do they have the excuse of conflicting work or study schedules; 2) Thinking is more focused and clear because everything is done in writing; 3) Everybody is more accountable. Everyone sees what everyone else is doing (and not doing); 4) All inputs are organized and archived for later review and update.

For a group to share documents and application files on-line they could simply e-mail the files to each member of the group for their inputs, revisions, and edits. However, this means that there are as many versions of the file as there are members of the group. As a file goes through multiple edits by multiple group members, it can quickly become impractical to track the versions and incorporate the ideas from all versions into a single final file. In the shared-document world, all files are maintained as single copies on a file server. Unlike the “messages” in a discussion board, the shared-document files can be full-featured, multimedia files that members of the group can check out for insertion of new data and text, editing, and annotation. The advantages include:

This is intended only as a brief introduction to constructivism and cooperative learning, enough I hope to get us started in this discussion. For those who wish to explore my writings on the application of constructivism and cooperative learning to E-learning, a reading list of some of my papers is appended.

So why are these models of good instructional practice so seldom used in E-learning? And what can we do about it? These are the themes of this on-line forum. Hopefully, the input of the respondents will help to identify the causes of the problem and in so doing suggest ways to advance teaching practices in E-learning environments.


Possible Causes of Under-utilization of Constructivism and Cooperative Learning

  1. E-teachers adopt the dominant paradigm of face-to-face teaching. Most E-teachers, I assume, have migrated from the traditional classroom into E-teaching. As such, they bring with them the predominant teaching practices of the traditional classroom, namely, lecturing and class discussion. In the E-learning environment, lecture is replaced with Web pages, and class discussion is replaced with discussion boards. Constructivist and cooperative learning models for teaching originated in traditional teaching settings, but they have not dislodged the lecture from its exalted throne in academe.
  2. Teachers tend to resist change. E-teachers have already found their comfort zone, using Web pages and discussion boards as the backbone of their teaching practice. Why expend the effort to do anything else, when this seems to suffice?
  3. E-teachers, in their experience in the face-to-face instructional world, have had many bad experiences with cooperative learning. Such bad experiences invariably are caused by teachers who do not understand the formalisms of cooperative learning. Basically these are the need for 1) a well defined mission or task, 2) defined roles for each student member of the team, 3) inter-dependence among team members and shared ownership of the result, 4) a process for information gathering, assessment and organization, and 5) an efficient way to construct the deliverable, as for example in a shared, community file that is constructed asynchronously over time.
  4. Some discussion board software is free. Other such software may come built in to a CMS such as Blackboard or Web CT. I should note here that my colleagues and I have developed a shared-document tool that can be used inside the WebCT Vista environment.
  5. E-teachers may not realize the variety of things they could be having their students do in a shared-document environment that they cannot do with discussion boards.
  6. Shared-document software is deemed to be expensive, complicated, and in need of support staff. The mother of all such software is the well-known product, Lotus Notes, and it certainly suffers all of these deficiencies. What is not known is that there are now other less expensive and more user friendly products. All products still require support staff for the Web server, but that can also be said of discussion boards.
  7. E-teachers don’t know where to learn how to teach with constructivist and cooperative learning models in a computer environment. Where are the books? They only one I know about was just published (see first item in the reading list below).
  8. E-teachers do not know about software environments that support shared-document conferencing. Vendors who supply bulletin board software will be the last people to tell teachers about competing vendors who sell shared-document products. Where can teachers find out about such software. Well for starters, “Google” it. My Google search on the terms “shared-document Web conferencing” led to 5,380 hits.


Several questions for discussion seem to emerge. I invite the discussion participants to submit their views and insights on the following:

  1. How valid is the premise that shared-document conferencing is valuable and yet under-utilized in favor of electronic discussion boards?
  2. Which of the various speculations about the cause of under-utilization seem the most pertinent?
  3. What, if anything, can be done to promote more widespread use of shared-document conferencing?


Reading List

Klemm, W. R. 2005. Use and mis-use of technology for online, asynchronous collaborative learning, p. 172-200. In Computer-supported Collaborative Learning in Higher Education, edited by Tim S. Roberts. Idea Group Publishing. Hershey , Pa.

Klemm, W. R. 2002a. Software issues for applying conversation theory for effective collaboration via the Internet. Proceedings of the 2002 International Conference on Advances in Infrastructure for e-Business, e-Education, e-Science, and e-Medicine on the Internet. July 29-Aug. 4, Rome , Italy .

Klemm, W. R. 2002b. Extending the pedagogy of threaded-topic discussions. The Technology Source. Sept/Oct

Klemm, W. R. 2002c. FORUM for case study learning. J. College Science Teaching. 31 (5): 298-302.

Klemm, W. R. 1998. Eight ways to get students more engaged in online conferences. The Higher Education Journal. 26 (1): 62-64.

Klemm, W. R. 1998a. New ways to teach neuroscience: integrating two teaching styles with two instructional technologies. Medical Teacher. 20: 364-370.

Klemm, W. R. 1998b. Using computer conferencing in teaching. Community College J. Res. & Practice. 22: 507-518.

Klemm, W. R. 1996. Enriching computer-mediated group learning by coupling constructivism with collaborative learning. J. Instructional Science and Technology. March. Accessible on-line at

Klemm, W. R. 1995. Computer conferencing as a cooperative learning environment. Cooperative Learning & College Teaching. 5 (3): 11-13.

Klemm, W. R. and Snell, J. R. 1994. Teaching via networked PCs: what's the best medium? Technological Horizons in Education Journal. 22: 95-98.



About moderator

William R. Klemm is Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, USA.

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