Whiteboards as an Alternative to Discussion Forums

Credit: iStock.com/Suradech14
Credit: iStock.com/Suradech14
Online teachers generally assume that student discussion and collaboration should occur in a learning management system’s (LMS’s) discussion forum. But for certain uses, online whiteboards work better than the LMS due to their fundamentally different design.

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Online teachers generally assume that student discussion and collaboration should occur in a learning management system’s (LMS’s) discussion forum. But for certain uses, online whiteboards work better than the LMS due to their fundamentally different design.

Online whiteboards are collaborative webpages that allow students to post content in a variety of different media, including text, videos, audio, and images. Unlike in an LMS that collapses content into threaded discussions, the postings appear at once on a single page. Teachers can set up the whiteboard to allow students the choice of where on the page to post their content, like virtual sticky notes.

This design creates a discussion dynamic different from that in LMS forums. LMS forums are topic centered. The organization of content into threaded discussions allows people to read through the progression of postings on a topic. This makes the LMS good for hosting linear discussions of topics, where the point is to follow the development of a class’s thinking on a topic. Thus, if I want students to debate whether it is ethical for a doctor to withhold the true severity of a disease from a patient to keep the patient’s spirits up, I would want to use an LMS discussion forum because the goal is to watch the argumentative turns in the discussion.

By contrast, a whiteboard discussion is person centered. The layout allows users to see everyone’s postings at once. This makes it easy to bounce from one person’s posting to another’s without trying to follow a linear progression of reasoning. All the postings are thus on the same level rather than in sequence. This has the effect of better tying the ideas to individual students. The intent with a whiteboard is more to hear from each student than to watch the group discussion grow.

For this reason, whiteboards are good for show-and-tell–type uses where the instructor wants to allow each student to present something that they have created or found to the class. The instructor is essentially using the whiteboard to allow students to make mini-presentations that are housed in one location. A marketing professor might want each student to post a photo of an advertisement, along with an analysis of it, that represents a marketing format studied in class. Presentations can be tricky to host in an LMS as it is not designed for students to share work with one another; the assumption is that students will submit their work only to the instructor, and those submissions are hidden from other students for privacy sake. As a result, most instructors will use the LMS discussion forum for student presentations of content to the class. But this makes the presentations hard to sort through due to the threaded discussion design, whereas presentations are easy to find on a whiteboard.

Whiteboards are also good for accompanying live virtual events, such as a web conference with the class. For instance, an instructor who wants to use a live event for a brainstorming session can have students log in to the whiteboard and post their thoughts while the web conference is running. Again, this mimics the sticky note postings used for face-to-face brainstorming. Plus, whiteboards are good for hosting student presentation content during a live event. It can be awkward for students to open and shut browser windows, PowerPoints, and other content for presentations within a web conference, especially during a group presentation for which different students are using different content from their separate computers. But students can create presentations on a whiteboard and then go through them individually or in groups without leaving that page, opening and closing videos, images, websites, and other content all from the one spot.

Whiteboards are good for sharing resources. An instructor who wants students to practice finding resources in their field can ask each student to identify and post five different ones to a whiteboard for the class. This allows all students to benefit from each other’s work. A whiteboard is ideal for aggregating independent content from a group—much better than an LMS discussion forum.

Finally, whiteboards have the advantage of being enduring. An LMS course is normally wiped clean of student content after a class, meaning that shared resources are lost. But an instructor can choose to make a whiteboard available to multiple classes, allowing classes to build on former classes’ contributions. Plus, whiteboards are often designed for educational purposes, and so can be managed by an instructor, which privacy settings, and even integrated with an LMS’ grading system.

Whiteboard systems

Padlet is probably the most popular whiteboard in education. Though it was originally designed for posting text and images, it was recently upgraded to allow for video recording. Take a look at this tutorial on how to set up a Padlet whiteboard for your class.

Flipgrid is a more recent addition to the whiteboard stable that has quickly gained popularity in education. It is designed for recording and hosting videos and so is excellent for video-centered discussions. Learn more about how to set up and use Flipgrid here.

Wakelet was originally designed to allow teachers and students to aggregate and share resources. While it is still an excellent choice for that purpose, its recently added drawing feature makes it ideal for creating videos that involve drawing on the screen. Take a look at the overview of that function by Richard Byrne.

Dotstorming is a simple whiteboard designed for online brainstorming. To that end it has a polling system that allows users to vote for their favorite posts, making it ideal for gathering ideas and measuring the popularity of each. See how teachers can use Dotstorming in their courses.

Teaching with technology requires understanding the best technologies for different pedagogical purposes. Too often online faculty default to the LMS discussion forum for any student collaboration use. While the LMS forum is ideal for developing linear discussions, whiteboards are better for hosting multimedia and aggregating student contributions. Choose the right system for your purposes.