You Can't Cheat in a Discussion Board

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

by Judith Dutill

This week I was witness to a spirited email exchange between online faculty who believe that their students are cheating on online discussion boards. As I read through the email chain, I could not help but wonder how this could be? How does one “cheat” at discussion?

I reflected on my land-based course discussions, which tend to be classroom-wide conversations about course-relevant topics, but other things, too, like social conversations and being-a-human type issues. Some students talk a lot. Some not so much. Regardless, the biggest beneficiary of these discussions is me. Sure, students are exposed to some new perspectives, and they get to know their peers, but I’m the one who is really learning. I find out what they know, how they feel, who they are, and the information I gather during these conversations informs my teaching and makes it better.

I am troubled by the sometimes-narrow thinking in online education about what online course discussion is and can be. Discussion boards can often be the least theorized space in online courses because of our inexperience with creating online communities, the limitations of the tools at our disposal, the rapid pace at which online learning is evolving, and the complex demands of online faculty life.

Which leads me to my response about students cheating in discussion boards: Students are not cheating because you cannot cheat at discussion.

Seeing this conversation unfolding, I have to ask myself as an educator and instructional designer: can we not reframe the online classroom as a learning space, as spaces that are as sacredly human as our land-based classrooms?

The conclusion I have drawn is it’s not that we can’t…it’s that we don’t know how. We barely have a model for what all of this is supposed to look like and all of higher education is deep into what is still the genesis of online learning. But here’s the thing: we need to embrace our positions as the online learning pioneers we are and accept that we cannot wait for someone else to solve these problems first. Pioneers ford the river. It’s just the way it is.

For many of us, our institutions have not allowed us to reimagine our work to meet the demands of the learning environment. With these added constraints, it is difficult to allocate our time in a way that we can create the very human, learner-centered online classrooms of our dreams. These are not our students’ problems. We cannot penalize our learners for institutional shortcomings and the growing pains of our craft. We must find a way to do better.

So, what can we do to make discussion less like a transmission and more like a transaction? Here are some ways to put the discussion back into discussion boards:

Participate in discussion. All discussions are exchanges of ideas, which means that you need to actively participating in the discussion and sharing in this exchange.

Avoid restrictive format requirements. Let students use oral language just like they would in land-based discussion. Oral language is less formal and more human and formal writing can be saved for assignments.

Avoid objective questions. Keep discussion prompts broad enough that students can make personalized contributions.

Remind students that their participation in discussion is beneficial. Even if they have nothing to contribute they can still read through the discussion.

Encourage multimedia. Teach students to use the rich text editor on your discussion board so they can add hyperlinks, videos, and images.

Build in collaboration. Invite students to lead as facilitators in weekly discussion by providing prompts and feedback throughout the duration of the module.

Avoid critical evaluation of discussion. If you need an artifact to critically evaluate, ask for students to write and submit individual discussion summaries or reactions as an assignment. Ex. Let’s all discuss here until Wednesday and based on this discussion, please develop a summary of your three biggest take-aways by the week-end deadline.

Provide informal discussion spaces. Places to post course questions, sure. But what about social space? Discussion boards can be used for icebreakers such as the #currentmood icebreaker.

Reference discussion posts (and the students who post them) in your instruction. This can be shout-outs, weekly recaps/wrap-ups, or simply weaving these references organically into your instruction.


Check out our student-facing resource for writing effective discussion posts. Share this resource with students.

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