Using Web-Based Bulletin-Boards to Increase Discussion

Powell, W.G.

2000, Journal of Geoscience Education, v.48, p. 602.


In an attempt to make geology relevant to a student body that is commonly urban-based, and removed from a natural geological setting, we often include societal implications of the geosciences in course curricula. Natural disasters, resources, waste management and disposal are all topics that have both scientific and social considerations. Discussion of both aspects can increase the learning experience both by increasing the student’s connection with the science, and by providing an opportunity to build inter-disciplinary bridges. Unfortunately, we all have limited contact time with our students and must be wary of sacrificing the scientific content of our courses. How do we balance these competing needs in the undergraduate classroom?


One method that has been effective at increasing the presence of social implications of the geosciences, without a reduction in scientific curriculum content, is the addition of web-based bulletin-board discussions as assessed term work. Classroom contact can remain essentially unchanged, although some time must still be devoted to introducing the general implications to society after each science module. The opportunity to explore how science may effect students’ lives occurs outside of the classroom, through the internet. The instructor posts a topic of discussion. For example, after discussing streams, floods and flood-prevention measures in an introductory level environmental geology course I asked "What responsibility, if any, should a city hold for damages due to downstream flooding after it builds extensive system of flood walls and levees?", a question with both scientific and social aspects.


Personal experiences in implementing such discussion assignments have been positive. Students tend to do considerable internet-based research on related topics. (I have adopted more than a few of these facts into my lecture notes.) Students who have local roots tend to add valuable fact and perspective of a local nature. In both cases, many students take ownership of this material, as well as related scientific information. Students generally put effort into their responses because they know that they will not only be read by the instructor but by their classmates as well. Shy students are not disadvantaged, as they are in a classroom discussion. A final benefit noted by a number of mature is that the experience makes them feel more comfortable with computers.


To work successfully, I recommend the following: 1) do not assume that students will be able to navigate the site on their own – provide an in-class tutorial at the beginning; 2) choose topics that are controversial; 3) choose topics of local importance; 4) require students to comment not only on the initial question, but also the comments of other classmates; 5) monitor the discussion – if it is going well then leave it alone (let the students direct the discussion!) but if the students’ discussion is stagnating, or going far off-track, then guide them back with encouraging commentary; 6) discuss the merits of exemplary entries so that students have a model for success; and 7) have an alternative assignment available to those students who do not have ready access to web-linked computers.