Moodle is an open-source learning management system that is widely used by colleges and universities. Moodle offers instructors a wide variety of ways to provide content and assess student learning. One particular function is the discussion forum tool. This tool allows instructors to engage students in conversation around course content and assess their learning.
Because Moodle is an open-source platform, the user interface is not as well developed as its competitors such as Canvas or Blackboard. Poorly designed UI can lead to frustration among users who struggle to find features or understand how certain features work. This project seeks to understand how faculty members use the discussion forum feature in Moodle and the problems that they encounter using this function. This study asks, “What frustrates instructors about the discussion forum feature in Moodle?”
Interviews are an excellent tool for understanding how and why people use a certain product as well as any challenges they face using the system. The flexible format of interviewing allows for participants to share their experiences and raise issues that research and design teams may not have considered. For this project, I conducted two interviews with college instructors who use Moodle Forums in their classes. I recruited the participants through my professional network and conducted the interviews via Zoom. Each interview lasted approximately 45 minutes. I recorded the interviews and produced loose transcripts of the conversation which served as the primary data for my analysis.
I use participant numbers to protect individual privacy.
Participant 1 is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice. She’s been teaching full-time for six years. She currently teaches at a mid-size public university in Louisiana. She teaches a variety of online and in-person courses to undergraduate and graduate students. She only uses Moodle Forums in her online courses. She has experience with Blackboard in addition to Moodle.
Participant 2 is an Assistant Professor of Sociology. She’s been teaching full-time for three years but has about seven years of part-time teaching experience at community colleges. She currently teaches full-time for a large public university in Florida. She teaches a variety of online and in-person courses to students of all levels. She primarily uses Moodle forums in her online courses but sometimes includes them in face-to-face courses. She has experience using several learning management systems in addition to Moodle, including Canvas and Blackboard.
Why Instructors Use Forums
Participants reported several goals for the discussion forums including:
- Providing opportunities for students to engage with one another around the course material
- Encouraging students to apply the concepts they are learning about in conversations
- Creating low-risk opportunities for students to test their knowledge
- Providing opportunities to develop written communication skills
“A lot of times, the problem is Moodle itself – not that I don’t know how to do something. It’s that Moodle doesn’t have the function I need.” – Participant 1
Instructors are frustrated by the inability to provide private/individual feedback to students on discussion forum posts. Participants noted that they can provide private feedback in other assignments such as quizzes and uploaded papers, but they cannot offer the same feedback on discussion forums. This creates two significant problems for users. First, students do not receive adequate feedback on their work, and second, faculty have to spend additional time responding to student inquiries about their grades.
Regarding student feedback, Participant 2 stated, “I want to acknowledge students who are doing a good job, but there’s not an easy way to do that in the discussion boards.” Additionally, Participant 1 explained that she is afraid that students may not know how to improve before the next assignment. She believes that some students just accept the numerical grade and move on. However, it appears that not all students are satisfied with their numerical grades and will email the instructor for additional feedback.
Thinking about the last time she graded discussion boards, Participant 1 reflected that she received about 10 emails from students who wanted feedback on their assignments. Participant 1 estimates that it takes five or 10 minutes to respond to each inquiry.
Both interview participants reported that they use discussion boards to help students develop professional communication skills and to apply concepts that they are learning about.
“If I can’t give them personalized feedback, I can’t help students build the skills they need,” stated Participant 2.
If instructors cannot provide adequate feedback, it may negatively affect student learning and the overall experience in the course.
Participants unanimously agreed that Moodle developers should add a text box for faculty to provide private and individualized feedback to students’ discussion forum posts. To reiterate, this functionality is already available in other assignment types, including quizzes and written assignments. Therefore, it should be easy to integrate this feature into the discussion forums. Faculty participants agree that such a feature would benefit student learning and reduce the amount of time they spend grading and responding to student inquiries about grades.
Unrelated to the discussion forums, participants reported that Moodle is generally slow and that it takes too long to complete minor tasks, particularly related to the grade book. Additional research should examine this problem in-depth and across user groups (including both students and instructors).
Want to know more?
I completed this project as part of the Understanding User Needs course offered by the University of Michigan via Coursera. I’m happy to share my full report upon request.