Discussion posts & replies: a plea?

Let’s talk about the digital classroom real quick.

In many ways it’s messy—slapped together in a haphazard panic by people fatigued from, among so many other things, a constant need to develop their own digital literacy. Given the broader context, maybe we’re all doing this distance learning thing better than I give us credit for. 

But still, I can’t help thinking some of our writing activities are… I don’t know, lacking? And nothing is more lacking than discussion boards

Let’s get a couple points out of the way first:

  1. If done right (which, c’mon, how often is this happening?), discussion boards serve several significant purposes. Not least of which is authentic engagement with the class’s material.
  2. Discussion boards will inevitably follow some of us back to our in-person classes when the time comes. 
  3. Writing is ecological (more on that in a bit). So the way we approach discussion boards matters outside of the discussion board genre.

What are we, students and teachers from all education levels, supposed to do with a failing system despite its huge potential?

I’m not going to pretend that I have the answers. Frankly, that pedagogical thread is far too tangled for my liking. But I do have a thought. Hear me out: 

I, for one, love when researchers leverage social media to develop and refine their research questions. Networked participatory scholarship is not without its faults, but it does provide those outside the academic sphere a small opening to an otherwise impenetrable scholars-only club. (For a more nuanced discussion, check out this quick read.)

And that’s where I think Cooper’s ecological model of writing comes into play. She says:

“[A]ll the characteristics of any individual writer or of writing both determine and are determined by the characteristics of all other writers and writings in the system.”


“Writing, thus, is seen to be both constituted by and constitutive of these ever-changing systems, systems through which people relate as complete, social beings, rather than imagining each other as remote images: an author, an audience.”

Learning to communicate on discussion boards as complete, social beings whose ideas affect and are affected by the ideas of others will impact how we form and share knowledge outside of the digital classroom.

What researchers do on Twitter and other sites is in the same spirit as our discussion boards. They’ve been able to use digital spaces to mature their ideas. Why are we so weird with discussion boards then?

Maybe it’s time to shake up the standard conventions of discussion board posts and replies.

Ditch the formalities. Ask questions. Challenge ideas. Make responses shorter, more meaningful, and more conversational. Teachers and professors, compose your own discussion posts and reply to students in the same way you want them to be doing so they have a template to emulate. 

This is just my perspective; what’s yours?

Discussion Boards and Writing Ecology

How goes it everyone?

If you are a current or a former student that graduated in recent years, you are likely quite familiar with discussion boards; an online academic interaction tool that has increasingly been replacing traditional classroom debate. Since the onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic, this great replacement has only accelerated even further due to most classes shifting to an online format. Most of us students do at least a few discussion board posts every week in a given semester these days.

But do you know the theory and theorist that led to the rise of the discussion board as a staple in the academic experience of the average college student?

Image of Discussion BoardDiscussion boards came to us in the classroom thanks in large part to an academic by the name of Marilyn Cooper. Her theory of writing as an ecology was critical to the adaptation of the discussion board as an academic resource on a large scale.

If you’re like me and were immediately befuddled at the sight of the phrase “writing as an ecology”, fear not! What follows is as simple and concise of an explanation as I can muster.

Writing as it is understood by the mind of an educator has evolved greatly in the past century. Writing instruction used to focus primarily on the written product- allowing students to write a paper and then focusing on correcting surface-level structural and grammatical errors. Then the focus shifted to writing processes- focusing on teaching students how to write in a structured manner. From there we moved to focusing on the cognition of the writer- trying to shape understand the writer’s mental processes. And then, finally, Marilyn Cooper came along and introduced her theory of writing as an ecology.

What differentiates Cooper’s theory from the three mains schools of thought that came before it is her rejection of the writer as a “solitary author”; one who writes his or her work almost entirely independent of the outside world based on an imagined audience consisting of a few generalized stereotypes in the mind of the writer. Instead, Cooper postulates that all writing is interactive and is based on the norms and other factors of its time, and that in order to properly teach writing, educators should seek to facilitate writing peer communities that serve as a genuine audience for the writer, in stark contrast to the generalized imaginary audiences of the theorists that preceded her.

And it is this theory that laid the groundwork for the widespread adoption of the discussion board; it is meant to serve as an interactive and genuine audience for us students as writers. Do you think it achieves that purpose?

That’s about all I have time to say without droning on and boring you, but feel free to follow the hyperlink above if you want to read more about Marilyn Cooper and her theories!