New study shows how much value adult learners are getting from online discussion boards

We continue to find that high engagement among online learners and their instructors is crucial to improving student outcomes. That’s one reason why our online programs are rooted in online discussion boards, where students can interact with their peers and instructors anytime, anywhere on the subject matter at hand, sharing new ideas and feedback in an asynchronous learning format.

With online discussions so vital to our online education program, we’ve been studying how students — and instructors — can get the greatest value from them. As a result, we’re continuing to identify ways to improve our online discussion approach.

I led the latest study we conducted in this regard. It was an outgrowth of the MBA discussion board guideline study I ran in 2011, in which I examined Post University’s approach for balancing education quality and student workload in online discussion forums.

This time around, I wanted to look more deeply at the relationship between workload invested in online discussions, and the value that adult learners (who comprise the majority of our online learner population) and instructors each perceived as a result. I set about my study by conducting a year-long survey of adult learners and instructors participating in Post University’s Online MBA Degree Program.

The survey generated 72 instructor responses and 280 adult learner responses. We surveyed adult learners and instructors from 106 courses, which varied in level from foundation to core, concentration, and capstone.

Our team has completed the analysis and evaluation of our data, and I’ve written a report on our findings in an article for the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT). The editors have published my article this month, and you can read it now for all the details. It’s called “Online MBA Asynchronous Discussion Workload and Value Perceptions for Instructors and Learners: Working Toward an Integrated Educational Model for Professional Adults.”

If you just have time for the nutshell, though, I’ll sum things up here. First, here’s a look at some of the biggest findings from the survey.

Adult learners’ responses

  • Across all course levels, learners spent an average of 55 percent of their course time on discussion boards.
  • 59 percent of learners perceived the discussion workload for themselves to be “medium,” and 27 percent said “heavy.”
  • 36 percent of learners said the discussions had “high” value to them, and 16 percent said the discussions had “very high” value.
Graph of Students' Discussion Value perceptions

Instructors’ responses

  • Across all course levels, instructors spent an average of 65 percent of their course time on discussion boards.
  • 69 percent of instructors perceived the discussion workload for themselves to be “medium,” and 19 percent said the workload was “heavy.”
  • 51 percent of instructors perceived the discussion to have “high” value for their students, and 38 percent perceived the discussions to have “very high” value.

Overall, for both learners and instructors, discussion workload perceptions were centered around “medium” and value perceptions were centered around “high.” This is the balance that our Discussion Guideline was aiming to achieve while enabling learners to increase their knowledge throughout the program.

That said, we’ve distilled several recommendations for how we and other colleges and universities can develop and use online discussion boards to achieve an optimal workload-to-value ratio for students and instructors. A few, for instance, that we plan to continue to do are:

  • Design courses for high yet defined engagement levels through discussions.
  • Train faculty and learners on the discussion guideline expectations.
  • Require new students to have substantive work experience.
  • Create average class sizes of 12 students.

Several more recommendations are in my report, as well as detailed information on our method, study sample, results, and analysis. Feel free to look it over.

Thanks to the editors of JOLT for publishing my paper. And a thank you also goes to the editors of for featuring my paper on their site.

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