Using Discussion Boards to Enhance and Build Community in the Online Environment

By Christopher Felix


            Many people think that math is mainly a solo pursuit.  That is there is no benefit for students learning math to discuss math.  This opinion is changing with programs such as CPM (college preparatory mathematics) where students are encouraged to learn math through exploration and group discussions.  Even though this opinion is changing in the face-to-face environment, it still remains the principle way that math is taught online.  The online environment is an ideal place to create a community of mathematics learners.

Teaching math online has more difficulties than face-to-face for several reasons.  Probably the biggest of these hurdles is that in online math courses the student usually learns in isolation.  The student reads a lecture and sees a few examples.  He or she then tries to do the problems on their own not knowing if the work that they are doing is correct.  In a face-to-face setting the student can ask questions at any time when they do not understand the lecture.  In the online environment when a student has a question, they ask it via a discussion board.  They then wait for it to be answered.  This could take a few hours, depending on when the question is asked.  The student then hopes that the instructor fully answers all of his questions.  If the instructor does not fully answer the question then the student will have to wait again for him to answer clarification questions.  This process can be slow and time consuming for both the instruction and student.  When they are having trouble with the homework, they can attend office hours for extra help.

Many people do not like to ask questions for many different reasons: they are afraid they are the only one who does not understand, slowing down the class and making other students upset.  One of the advantages that online courses have over face-to-face courses is that students have the ability to hide their face behind the keyboard.  Most students are afraid to ask for help out of fear for asking “dumb” questions.  With an online course, questions can be asked through a discussion board.  With the discussion board, no one will know who is asking the question.  This will make students more confident to ask questions since they do not have to be worried about the student who is asking the “dumb” question.  This will make an environment where students are more comfortable to ask questions and therefore they will get the help they need before they are too far behind the class.

Students who are afraid to ask questions because they are afraid of slowing down the class do not have to be worried in an online class.  With discussion boards, students do not have to read every post.  So if a discussion post does not cover the topic that a particular student is having a problem with, they do not have to read the post.  This will make it easier for students with questions to ask them and for students who understand the material to not be slowed down by other students.

Using discussion boards an instructor can build a community that will become strong enough to teach itself. By requiring every student post questions and responses to the discussion board, the students will start to teach themselves.  Students who need help will receive it quicker.  Instead of waiting hours for the instructor to answer questions, students have multiple instructors in fellow students and therefore have the chance for students to get their questions answered quickly.  This will allow for quicker turn over from questions asked then there would be with no community.  Also, the benefit to the student answering questions is also great.  For a student to explain a mathematical concept/problem, they will need to have a deep understanding of the math.  So for a student to answer a fellow student’s problem, they need to reflect on their understanding to be able to address their problem.

With online courses discussion boards can be used.  Online discussion boards promote a sense of community and creates an opportunity for discussion that otherwise would not happen in a standard classroom (McDuffie, 2003).  One of the hardest things to do as a math teacher is to get students to ask for help when they are having difficulties.  In an online class, 44.6% of students ask questions everyday compared with 33.3 % with a face to face class (O’Dwyer, 2007).  Students also talk about math more online 84% compared to standard classroom at 68% (O’Dwyer, 2007).  This shows that there is more communication in an online class than there is in a face to face class.  This is probably due to the fact that many students are scared to ask question or speak out loud in front of the class, especially in a math class.  This is mainly due to the fact the most people are not confident in their abilities when it comes to math.  Using discussion boards, students feel more confident or, at least, more anonymous.  This confidence will help students ask questions that they would not have asked in class.  Students can use these discussions to find help with homework they cannot figure out.  Also, students value the use of discussion boards because it gives them the opportunity to go back and review previous statements (Curtis, 2001).  This ability to go back and review will give students the opportunity to go back and review how other problems were solved and apply that method to the problems that they are currently working.  Only using discussion boards will not be sufficient in an online course.  Curtis states that there is a need for students to use live chats as well as discussion board and they should be incorporated into online courses (2001).  Sometime students need instant response to a question or when they need help.  This is why live chats are also useful and will be used.  With chats question can be answered instantly and the student then can move on with their homework.  When these discussions are focused on math, they will become a collaborative group that will focus and derive the best methods for solving math problems (Stahl 2005).  Stahl states that using discussion boards will help the students “gain fluency in communicating mathematically” (2005).  When students talk to each other on the discussion boards, their understanding of the material increases.  This socialization will help these students succeed.  As Levy stated, “student socialization with other online students greatly affected their success in the course” (2003).

Another hindrance of teaching math online is mathematical notation.  Certain characteristics of math make it harder to teach online than other subjects such as writing mathematical notation online (Smith, 2005).  It will be hard for students understand math and apply it to other courses if they do not know how to write in proper notation.  Most computer programs do not have proper plug-ins to write mathematical notation.  For example, to write x squared it would have to be written as x^2.  This notation is confusing and difficult for most students to understand.  That is why tools like Doodletoo are a great resource that should be included in any online math course.  Doodletoo is an online chat tool.  What makes Doodletoo unique is that you are able to also draw messages.  This will give the students the ability to communicate about math using proper notation.  Without this tool, it would be hard to discuss certain math topics.  This tool will help continue to build community because it gives the class a great tool to discuss math.

At the beginning, the development of this community will be slow.  There will be a need of a constant presence of the instructor.  But as students get more comfortable discussing math, this community will grow.  Students will feel more comfortable discussing math and more confident sharing their knowledge.  As this community gets stronger, the instructor’s presence will go to the shadows.  They will only help when there is a great misunderstanding that is not being properly addressed.  Student will then take responsibility in their learning and the learning of their peers.  This community, once built, will benefit all.




Curtis, D., Lawson, M. (2001). Exploring collaborative online lerning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(1), 21-34. Retrieved from:

McDuffie, A. R., & Slavit, D. (2003). Utilizing online discussion to support reflection and challenge beliefs in elementary mathematics methods classrooms. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education [Online serial], 2(4). Retrieved from:

O’Dwyer, L., Carey, R., Kleiman, G. (2007). A study of the effectiveness of the Lousiana algebra I online course. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 39(3), 289-306. Retrieved from:

Smith, G., Ferguson, D. (2005). Student attrition in mathematics e-learning. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(3), 323-334. Retrieved from

Stahl, G. (2005). Proceeding of the 2005 conference on towards sustainable and scalable educational innovations informed by the learning sciences: sharing good practices of research, experimentation and innovation.  The Netherlands, IOS Press Amsterdam.  Retrived from:


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