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In my years as an instructional designer at Indiana University, I’ve heard the same complaint again and again across wholly disparate courses and programs: “I would like more and better student interaction in my online courses.” These teachers have used traditional online discussion boards and watched in dismay as their students generated generic, bare-bones posts and responses designed to meet the minimum requirements for participation rather than to actually discuss a given topic. It’s not surprising, given that discussion boards themselves resemble internet forums from the 1990s, before the advent of smartphones or YouTube. It’s safe to assume that many modern students have never engaged in a traditional, text-based internet forum before taking their first online course. Instructors are asking students to communicate in a medium they have never learned using what must seem strange and outdated tools. Faced with this proverbial hammer and chisel, students engage only as much as is required of them and no more. Though educational institutions have embraced the online space and bought in to the plethora of digital teaching tools and strategies on offer, the primary way students actually communicate online—social media—seems to have been overlooked as a valid part of higher education pedagogy.

Social media is the modern framework for everyday social interaction, yet the term seems to evoke anxiety among instructors fixated on the perils of unfiltered comments, rogue memes, and fake news—never mind that most commercial social media platforms could never be trusted with sensitive student data. Yet abandoning the use of social media in an online course is akin to ignoring the dialect native to the community in which you intend to teach.

The trappings of social media, almost universally understood, can and should be embraced by online instructors as a way to build community, allow for more authentic interaction, and shift the focus from prescriptive instructor prompts to legitimate student-centered discussion. One helpful platform in this respect is CourseNetworking (CN), a free social media platform and suite of tools for academics, including an e-portfolio and a full-scale LMS. For my purposes, though, I’ll be discussing only one of their tools: CN Post, an external tool that can be added to all major LMSs to allow for social media-style interaction in online courses.

The most obvious advantage of using CN Post is the familiarity of its layout. It is built to look and function like a traditional social media feed. Students and instructors will likely both be familiar with posts, comments, polls, events, ratings, and hashtags. A short tutorial video and a little guidance from the instructor is all students need to get started with posting and responding to one another in the platform. A search bar and notifications feature enable ease of navigation within the program. This familiarity allows students to immediately begin interacting in the platform in a way that is accessible. They understand the norms around the social media space, which eliminates the barrier of unfamiliarity that some of them might experience in a different context.

Figure 1. The feed of CN Post, highly recognizable to users of social media

In a traditional discussion board, instructors often post a closed-ended prompt asking students for a particular answer to a question. In many cases, these prompts would work better as essay questions on an exam than as topics for discussion. In CN Post there are instructor-created hashtags for specific topics displayed on a menu to the right. Students need only add the appropriate hashtags to their posts to start discussions on the topics of their choice. They can also create their own hashtags and share links, videos, images, and polls. This approach lets the students decide what topics in the course interest them, and it allows a more organic discussion to develop as a result. We all have discussions online via social media, but it’s our peers’ comments or interesting posts that provoke us, not prompts prescribed by an outside force. In CN Post, the instructor can create their own touchstone posts that are then given priority in students’ feeds. In this way instructors can influence the direction of the discussion and provoke student responses without having to dictate exactly how and when they respond.

Figure 2. The menu of hashtags available in a biology course in CN Post

The underlying reason instructors require students to respond to rigid prompts in specific ways in traditional message boards is the issue of grading. If students are to be graded for their interactions, then those interactions must be broken down and simplified. CN Post dispels this notion with Anar Seeds, a system of points that are used to track and auto-grade participation. Each student interaction in the platform—whether posts, responses, polls, or even just clicks to view links and articles—awards the student with a number of Anar Seeds. The instructor can set the exact point total given for each action and even decide that some actions won’t receive points at all. Another setting lets the instructor decide how many points in each category can be earned per day or per week, preventing students from rushing to make up all their points after periods of inactivity. The instructor then creates a threshold of Anar Seeds the students must reach within a set amount of time, usually a semester of study. Once students reach that point, an integration with the LMS gives them a grade on the discussion assignment. This takes the instructor’s focus off of endlessly trying to track and grade student progress and allows them to spend more time participating and mentoring.

Figure 3. A few of the many settings for the Anar Seeds (points) students can earn in CN Post

The path to reach more and better student interaction in online courses is there, but it involves instructors making a turn off the beaten path of traditional LMS discussion boards to include social media–style platforms, such as CN Post, in online courses. Using hashtags and subtly guiding students with the occasional instructor post encourages open-ended discussion and can facilitate student interest and engagement. To teach a course with CN Post discussions, the instructor need only create topical hashtags and prompt students with a post of their own before letting students take the discussion in the direction they choose. The system will handle grading and participation once the instructor has set up the Anar Seeds settings for the course.

With tools like CN Post, higher education can harness the cultural linguistics of social media to give students a familiar and comfortable online discussion experience. Further, leveraging this technology and its capabilities can enable instructors to spend more time interacting with and less time tracking their students. Create an account and investigate the potential of social media in an online academic setting, and have your next class discussions in a vernacular your students already speak.

Adam Bunnell is an online instructional designer at Indiana University.