I include discussion board topics to gauge how the students are thinking and learning about the topics we cover. It is so much easier to asses code, and it creates a big temptation to fall back on "just coding". The discussion board has been a great way to read along with their learning process.
For this to work we have to really structure it at the beginning. This is not a type of writing that high school students are used to. Add the natural joy they feel at hearing "Now we are going to write about..." it can take a while to get them going.
The first topics of the year year focused on how to effectively participate in a discussion board. Students do not know how to do this yet, so the skill must be taught. Lots of feedback and very clear guidelines are a must.
They must do at least three responses a week. I am very specific about what I am looking for, and what will not count. A response must:
- Move the conversation along, not just rehash other posts
- Add a new analysis or fact to the discussion
- Ask a question ("I don't get it" doesn't count)
- Respond to another student's post ("I agree" or "LOL" is not a response)
- No Profanity
- No Plagiarism
- No Paraphernalia (drugs, alcohol, etc)
- Play nice - no bullying
I developed these when I was in college sponsoring a local high school's literary magazine and they work in lots of teen-related situations.
This can also be a good time to talk about their digital life. They don't often stop to think about the information they are leaving online for the world to see...this makes a great discussion board topic, in a self-reflexive kind of way.
Need more? This PDF from TeacherStream is one of the best resources on facilitating discussion boards I have found. Edutopia has a whole list of resources for online learning that can be helpful in a traditional classroom also.