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Analysis of the largescale use of online discussion boards in an undergraduate medical course


Discussion boards added in 2000 as response to student requests ... Current boards launched in 2001 (built in ASP and VBScript) Structure of discussion boards ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Analysis of the largescale use of online discussion boards in an undergraduate medical course

  • Analysis of the large-scale use of online
    discussion boards in an undergraduate medical
  • Claire de la Varre, Rachel Ellaway, David
  • ALT-C, 7 September, 2005

History of EEMeC
  • Edinburghs MBChB has 1300 students spread over 5
  • VLE built in-house in 1998
  • Edinburgh Electronic Medical Curriculum (EEMeC)
  • Discussion boards added in 2000 as response to
    student requests
  • using a Microsoft FrontPage component
  • usability problems
  • Current boards launched in 2001 (built in ASP and

Structure of discussion boards
  • About the discussion boards
  • Standard discussion board format
  • Messages are contained in threads
  • Boards indicate new threads and new messages
    posted to those threads
  • Boards are unmoderated
  • Participation is optional
  • Tool is simply made available
  • Boards are archived each year
  • All students are tracked
  • Students are made aware that online behaviour
    within EEMeC is tracked
  • Students required to sign a code of practice when
    they first enter the MBChB course that covers
    online behaviour

Popularity of Discussion Boards
  • Discussion boards are the most popular
    feature of the VLE
  • 16,000 posts in 2001/2002
  • 28,000 in 2003/2004

Percent of student cohort posting at least
one message during session
  • 100 participation in Year 1
  • at least 90 participation across all years

Evolution of the discussion boards
  • Discussion boards develop and evolve in
    response to user requests or complaints
  • Example of a phenomenon described by J.M.
    Carroll in 1991
  • Developers make and implement changes
  • User behaviour subsequently alters in response
    to these changes
  • This prompts further request for change

Changes in 2001
  • Students could originally post in 3 ways
  • anonymously (68)
  • use alias (30)
  • use own name (2)
  • Complaints
  • students were impersonating staff or other
  • using offensive aliases
  • Remedy
  • boards split into academic and non-academic
    (social) boards
  • alias feature removed

Changes in 2002
  • Spate of offensive messages led to many
  • "We seem to have set up an electronic version of
    a loo wall.
  • Teacher, by email
  • Self-policing button introduced (June 2002)
  • Next session 53 complaints via the self-policing
  • bad language
  • aggressive or bullying behaviour
  • inappropriate use of humour
  • negative personal comments about staff and
  • misinformation
  • A warning message was sent to the whole student

Further changes
  • Anonymous posts no longer allowed on the
    non-academic boards
  • Academic board use jumped from 30 to 63
  • Staff complained about non-academic messages on
    the academic boards
  • Year 2 Director authored discussion board
    guidelines for students
  • Only 17 complaints in 2003/2004

EEMeC page views
Periodicity reflects terms and vacations, but
EEMeC is always being used.
Patterns of use
EEMeC logins peak at 2pm (9.5), discussion board
posts peak at 5pm
People are logged into EEMeC at any hour of day
or night but after 4pm relatively more users are
active on the discussion boards. If you are on
EEMeC at 3am then it is very likely you are using
the discussion boards.
EEMeC logins
  • About 90 of staff logins are from on-campus
  • By autumn 2003 about 50 of student logins were
    off campus.
  • Males log into EEMeC more than females, on
  • 335 logins per male
  • 275 per female

Gender differences
  • Males comprise 38 of the EEMeC student body but
    are responsible for
  • 43 of all logins
  • 44 of all discussion board posts
  • Males are more active on the discussion boards
  • 23.3 posts per male student
  • 18.3 posts per female student

Posts by time of day - males
Year 1 males are different peak for activity
occurs at 9pm. All other years peak early in the
Posts by time of day - female
  • Year 1 females are also more active later in the
  • activity peaks earlier than for Year 1 males
  • most activity between 5pm and 8pm

Structure of messages and user behaviour
  • Most threads (75) contained between 1 and 5
  • Most messages were short
  • Males are more likely to post very short
  • Males also more likely to post the longest
    messages (over 500 characters)
  • Males posted in equal numbers to the academic
    and non-academic boards
  • Females posted 2.4 times as many academic
    messages as non-academic
  • The academic boards show a steady drop in
    participation over the 5 years
  • 90 down to 50
  • Non-academic board posts remain similar across
    years (70)
  • In Years 1 and 2 males post twice as many
    messages as females

Posts by gender over time
  • Female use peaks at 2pm
  • Male use peaks at 5pm
  • Males most active between 2 and 8pm
  • Females most active between 12 and 5pm

Looking at content
  • Content analysis
  • method of identify themes or concepts in
    transcripts of communication content
  • coding these into categories
  • difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming
  • approximately 68,000 messages over 3 sessions
  • Basic content analysis using Leximancer
  • text mining software (University of Queensland,
  • analyses text documents
  • automatically generates concepts from seed
  • main themes of textual documents
  • maps these concepts in a visual display
  • shows how they are related using colour,
    brightness, distance

Example of a Leximancer analysis
A single thread on the Year 2 academic discussion
board about the structure of Year 2.
  • EEMeC is the central concept (in green).
  • Clusters represent closely-related concepts.
  • Brightness indicates the number of occurrences
    of that concept.

Leximancer concepts
  • Concepts on the academic boards fall into 4
    general categories
  • Scheduling and administration
  • Teaching and learning
  • Course subject matter
  • Other

Scheduling and administration
  • Timetabling of events
  • Locating venues
  • Arranging meetings
  • Example concepts
  • today
  • tomorrow
  • Monday
  • swap
  • meet

Learning and teaching activities
  • Course assignments and course delivery
  • essays
  • exams
  • lecture notes
  • clinical options projects
  • Example concepts
  • lecture
  • tutorial
  • essay
  • project
  • poster
  • diary
  • elective
  • portfolio

Course subject matter
  • Medical and scientific terms
  • Medical topics
  • Example concepts include
  • cells
  • blood
  • secretion
  • anatomy
  • system
  • heart
  • inflammation

  • General information-seeking behaviour not covered
    by first three categories
  • Dissemination of information
  • Announcements from class representatives
  • Example concepts
  • find
  • question
  • wondering
  • idea
  • email
  • www
  • announcement
  • message
  • help

Other findings from Leximancer
  • Differences in conversational style for males and
  • males more likely to be aggressive, make jokes
    and insult each other, particularly in Year 1
  • females are less direct, often phrase sentences
    as a questions and tend to downplay their
  • Limitations of using software for content
  • analyses transcripts cant capture implied tone
    of voice
  • one thread entirely written in haiku
  • speech is often like text messaging

Staff activity
  • Number of staff posts has remained steady over
    the 3 sessions
  • relative to numbers of student posts staff
    activity has decreased.
  • Core group of about 60 staff users
  • over half are the EEMeC team and
    administrative staff
  • remainder are highly-motivated teaching staff
    with an interest in
  • learning technology

Staff comments (from interviews)
  • easier to get in touch with the student body
  • if there is anything to discuss it can be done
    and sorted very quickly
  • gives course organisers more flexibility
  • good way of getting students stimulated to
    discuss things amongst themselves
  • educational benefits are immense
  • I like the informality of electronic
    communication (but some members of staff might
  • might lead to conflict with some members of staff
    who like things to be more formal
  • students might be more empowered because of the
    possibility to discuss things more with their
    colleagues in public
  • has a beneficial democratic tendency
  • might not appeal to some staff members that dont
    want students to have a voice
  • staff should not be able to see the non-academic
    boards at all (smacks of big brother)

Summary of findings
  • Year 1 males make up the most unusual
    sub-group in this study
  • Boards have evolved from a unmoderated tool
    merely made available to users
  • Discussion boards are becoming more
    differentiated over time
  • Certain threads set up specifically for
    learning/teaching activities
  • Self-policing button adds a layer of
  • Analysis of academic content shows four
    categories of concepts
  • There are gender differences in conversational
  • Males are more active on EEMeC and post more
    messages on the boards
  • Males post equally to the academic and
    non-academic boards
  • Females make more than twice as many academic
    posts as non-academic posts
  • There is a small, core group of staff users

Discussion boards in context of MBChB
  • We know that discussion boards
  • allow participation in the MBChB community to
    continue when students are geographically removed
    from the blended environment
  • many subgroups that interact face-to-face, such
    as sports teams, clubs etc. also interact via the
    discussion boards
  • contain some threads that are started and used
    solely by ethnic subgroups
  • We think that discussion boards
  • allow those who are more reticent or
    self-conscious in face-to-face interactions to
    participate more easily
  • are a valuable way for students to establish
    collaborative working practices
  • help develop a cohesive supportive community

Further research questions/topics
  • More in-depth content analysis by gender
  • How much, if any, learning is being done via the
    discussion boards?
  • learning-related activity is only one theme among
  • To what extent do discussion board activities
    foster a sense of belonging to the MBChB
  • To what extent do the discussion boards reflect
    the real-world (non-virtual) MBChB community?

  • For students, discussion boards have been one of
    the most heavily used and valued features of
  • this has made the system viable for many other
    activities and services
  • has helped to build user base for more direct
    online teaching, learning and
  • assessment
  • the importance to staff is therefore greater
    than it may seem
  • The idea of online discussion for teaching and
    learning is becoming more pervasive and embedded
    in the culture of the MBChB.
  • will more staff be curious or motivated enough
    to experiment with online discussion?
  • demand for discussion boards to be incorporated
    in structured teaching/learning activities will
    most likely originate, or continue to originate,
    from the student body