Over the summer, I attended a Blackboard workshop ("Courseweb" as it's called at University of Pittsburgh, but the software is the same) in the hopes of upgrading my skills and seeing what was new.
Many of the Blackboard features seem geared more to large lecture classes or to classes that employ considerable quantitative testing, but I was intrigued by the Discussion Board feature and decided to try it out. In the past, I had taught Intro to Modern using the Arnason survey as my textbook, supplemented by two additional readings per week, one read by one half of the class and one read by the other. Each group had to present their reading to the other half of the class.
While on the whole that had worked well (although one half of the alphabet proved to be much more prepared to discuss than the other, which is something that just can't be predicted), it did take up class time to have the two groups discuss how they were going to present the readings. This seemed like something that the Discussion Board feature could really assist with.
Both of the courses I teach this semester are done with this same two-group method. Intro to Modern is an evening class and as it needs a short break, I let the groups supplement their online discussion with face-to-face prep during the break. American Art is twice per week and thus all of their discussion is online prior to presenting. Usually one group presents on Tuesday and the other on Thursday, although there will be a few days when both present on the same day (today will be the first of those).
Both classes are making good use of the Discussion Board feature. They recognize that this is part of their participation grade and for the most part are diligent about posting analyses and comments about the readings. Even though we are not yet halfway into the semester, I'm already seeing improvement in the quality of the overall discussion and increasing attention to how their own posts relate to what has already been said. To some extent they critique the readings, which gives me some sense which readings work well or even which ones are dry and somewhat unpopular but produced good discussion. The students are beginning to really relate these readings to themes in the course (particularly in the American Art class) and to bring in thoughts from other work they have done (for example in religious studies, environmental studies, and ethnic studies) and to think about how present-day works such as Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans memorial compares to early 19th-century memorial art.
Both classes, but especially the Intro to Modern class, are getting to know their classmates quickly and work well with them, and are becoming increasingly comfortable about speaking up during the presentations, although naturally some students are more comfortable presenting than others. Since the shyer students know that their Discussion Board contributions are read, they know that while I do expect them to help present, it is not as problematic to give a nervous presentation as it would be if that were all they were assessed by. Their online comments are there for me and the rest of the group to read, and in class the group can chime in with additional comments to round out the presentation.
I will definitely be using the Discussion Board feature in the future and recommend it highly. It does take a little extra work on my part, but really not much, and it will help me grade my students much more fairly in the end.