Benefits, Drawbacks of Online Class Discussion Boards

Online discussion boards lead to different kinds of student relationships.

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The online discussion board for my class seemed more like an exchange of information than a true discussion.

When I started my online class, I imagined becoming fast friends with my virtual classmates.

We'd turn into Facebook pals, connect through LinkedIn and arrange Google Hangout sessions where we would help each other – or more likely, just me – with homework. We'd swap observations about our professor and other students. And by the end of class, I'd have at least a dozen couches throughout the country to crash on.

But now that I've finished the discussion board segment of our personal finance class – the only part where I was required to interact with my classmates – I've been forced to face reality.

Contrary to tales I've heard from other online students, my virtual classmates will not turn into lifelong Internet pen pals. In my case, at least, our online discussion board did little to create the kind of relationships you often find in face-to-face classrooms.

[Discover whether online learning is right for you.]

"Really?" you may be wondering. "Isn't this analysis coming from someone who didn't even finish the second portion of her discussion board assignment?"

Point taken.

But I did log in and read the discussion threads after the due date, and it seemed as though very few students who actually made the deadline were engaged in a true, back-and-forth dialogue about the chosen topic: our individual personal finance challenges.

The way the assignments were structured – each of us had to write one researched post and then respond to two other people's posts, also using research – made it seem more like an exchange of information than a true discussion.

The posts would start with something like, "I agree with you that having a lot of student loan debt is a problem, Tom. According to (fill in the blank publication), X amount of recent graduates say they are worried they won't be able to pay off their loans."

One student seemed to respond to everyone else's posts, but most students just did the bare minimum and called it a day.

[Learn whether an online degree program is accredited.]

That's not to say the posts weren't interesting. People opened up about being unemployed, lacking spending discipline, drowning in debt and other concerns.

But while the posts were intriguing, they weren't always that easy to follow. I was surprised by how my classmates interpreted our professor's request to keep our posts "professional."

While some students wrote what looked like a perfectly cited academic paper, others typed up a conversational response with no punctuation or any attempt to use spell check. Some posts reminded me of a poorly edited, politically charged Facebook rant.

In retrospect, it might have been my adherence to English grammar – and not my analysis of the debt ceiling crisis – that got me high marks on the first part of the assignment.

My classmates seem like nice people. They range from young adults to middle-aged parents and grew up in states like Florida, New York and Ohio.

They are undergraduate students looking for an accounting degree credit, adults trying to earn their bachelor's degree after taking a few years off and everyday working Americans trying to get their finances in order.

Like me, they've got some other responsibilities on their plate, so I understand why making online besties may not have been their first priority.

Free couches would have been nice, but it's time I learn to budget for hotels.

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