The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented opportunities to shift training and development to the online format. This new reality is a challenge for educators whose preference is face-to-face leadership development. My teaching experience affirms that some competencies that surface through online education that be concealed in traditional courses or training sessions. This article addresses the discussion board as a leadership training tool. As noted by Sull (2012), discussion boards are the backbone of online training for reasons that participants can freely interact with one another; share; debate; and offer ideas, insights, suggestions, and information that stimulate learning. In my courses, I operationalize discussion board posts as those made when a learner (a) submits an original entry, (b) replies to others' entries, or (c) offers a counterstatement to an earlier post.
The educator sets the tone for the discussion board conversation by inviting learners to respond to varied inquiries. For learner engagement, various questions should be used to reveal cognitive, affective, and psychomotor proficiency. Some questions can target self-discovery or personal reflections when leading and managing. In contrast, other questions tap into learner responses that will deepen knowledge relating to course content, debate problem-solving strategies, or trigger how the learner has synthesized didactic knowledge with leadership experiences.
The astute learner's job is to grasp the inquiry's intent before posting, then prepare a relevant message that is focused and does not stray from the subject. From a leadership development perspective, discussion board posts allow the educator to capture the learner's ability to focus (stay on topic), use constraint (not wavering into nonrelated subject matter), and communicate with purpose and clarity (an expectation of leaders).
After the post is entered, the focus shifts to peer discussion in the chat room. Unlike verbal conversations that can resort to unfiltered ideas, a scholarly discussion board has a persistent air of thoughtfulness and curated information. A high-quality post reveals new information that animates the discourse with citations and added sources from other courses, readings, or experiences worked into the conversation. Redundant entries—where the respondent merely agrees with, affirms, or praises the ideas made in previous statements—are avoided. These affirmational tributes create noise in the discussion room and fail to steer thoughts to a higher level. An example of an affirmational response makes the point in a post addressing organizational decision making: “I really liked what you said, Jasmine. It was a nice post and I've had that happen to me at work, too.” Although affirming, it sets off chain responses that echo “me, too” statements from other participants. The conversation then dies.
A good post generates dialogue. The example above contrasts this post: “When you described decision making, I discovered a blind-spot for evaluating the outcomes of my decisions. Am I alone in this? In the decision-making model by Jones et al. from our assignment, the importance of evaluation is underplayed in this model.” Although the first example affirmed but failed to advance the conversation, this post is reflective (a leadership attribute), inviting (showing relational and feedback capacity—both leadership qualities), and models knowledge integration (about the Jones et al. course reading). Finally, learners should determine whether any collective patterns and ideas surface to elevate the conversation to critical or higher level concepts.
An example of pattern detection appears in this post: “Each of us strongly identifies with decision making at the moment, yet there hasn't been any discussion of the downstream impact of decision making that deserves attention. A staffing decision I made that helped me now used up the human resources I needed for weekend staffing. Should we think about risk/reward factors in decision-making?” Revealing this pattern shifts the discussion board from being an affirmational board to one where high-level discussions emerge. The blend of information shared, even using questions to generate discussion, is another desirable leadership ability.
Educators generally are responsible for evaluating the quality and quantity of the discussion board responses. An alternative is to allow learners to host a discussion topic for a designated time as an assignment, whereas the educator serves as a background coach to the learner-host.
The learner-host is given a topic in advance to prepare for the hosting responsibilities. On at least three occasions (onset, midpoint, and summary), the learner-host assumes leadership for the discussion board by monitoring and reacting to posts using the evaluation rubric as a feedback guide. The learner-host stimulates the learning environment by offering new information, redirecting, or refocusing individual posts, and provides a scholarly critique. At the end of the week, a synopsis shows how the discussion progressed—where it waxed and waned—that is, how the engaged dialogue began, how conversations evolved, and where they ended. Any lessons learned through the lens of experiencing the leader/educator role are also documented. If an executive summary format is used when summarizing, it is another leadership skill to practice and refine. For the learner, this activity reinforces that value of creating and monitoring standards (e.g., those used in organizational accreditation), offering peer review, determining patterns and themes of ideas, deepening knowledge in the subject matter being discussed, and documenting the value of synthesis to help build a learning community. In short, the host simulates functioning in a leader/manager role, shows longitudinal oversight of a bigger picture, and uses persuasive skills to redirect or add information, all which tie into effective leadership. For peers, the value of engaged participation increases to show support for the learner-host and advances colearning options. Argyris and Schon (1996) noted that an exercise like this promotes productive reasoning skills (where learner confidence is built), illustrates shared examples, tests inference, and reflects inquiry and advocacy in the posts.
The Evaluation Rubric
If the discussion board is part of an academic course, student learners will clamor for points that lead to grades—understandable in most educational environments. If the discussion board is used in nonacademic settings, the learner will clamor for feedback oriented toward evaluation and growth. In either case, in the context of leadership development, the primary focus should be on high-quality feedback that can expand leadership consciousness, confidence, and competence.
There are many discussion board rubrics in use, and most are criteria based. Examples of criteria include the categories of critical analysis, learning community engagement, etiquette, knowledge, understanding, writing skills, application, peer responsiveness, applicability to practice, use of technology, assignment submission and length, content knowledge, collaboration, connections, and more. With these evaluation categories, the judgment about the post's impact is rated using terms such as unsatisfactory, limited, proficient, exemplary, above standard, below standard, not acceptable, somewhat acceptable, acceptable, highly acceptable, exceeds, meets, and requires additional support. As an evaluator, the rubric and rating system is significant in these ways:
- It reinforces the purpose and function of each post.
- The scholarship expectations are made clear.
- The tone of each entry supports standards of civility, equity, inclusion, and other social factors.
- The level of engagement is normalized.
- It narrates expressive and analytic communication standards.
In situations where grading is a requirement, I award points in two ways. The first method is starting at zero points and grading each post, leading to a grade total at the end of the learning period. The second method is to award all points upfront and notifying students when a deficit has occurred. I use the latter grading strategy when teaching large classes, noting that it takes less time to reduce grades than to cumulatively add points for each student.
In leadership training and the spirit of simplicity, three dimensions of performance demand my attention: (a) learning community engagement, (b) analytic capacity, and (c) professional communication. Civility, harassment, or other unexpected behavioral breaches are not evaluated by rubric because they represent a zero-tolerance approach in the teaching and learning environment. Also, in the spirit of trust for adult learners, I choose not to monitor the number and type of posts beyond minimal expectations. Unless gross neglect and patterns of nonengagement are detected, learners usually fulfill their learning obligations. Regarding categorizing learner attainment, two categories are sufficient in my experience: below expectations and fulfills expectations. The caveat here is that educators can always point out exceptional work in the discussion board itself.
Within the category of learning community engagement, evaluation criterion can address learners who post frequently enough to add to conversational threads, ask thoughtful questions, engage peers equitably, share resources and references to other works, and accept feedback from peers or the educator. In the category of analytic capacity, the criterion can address the learner's content knowledge, use of varied source documents (including evidence-based, where possible) to advance arguments for or against a position, willingness to share relevant life experiences and observations, and suggest new ideas/innovative use of knowledge drawn from other disciplines or cultures. Communication criterion can address the learner's personal style (business writing), conciseness (developing and shaping a message that is audience-sensitive), correct use of professional terminology, tone, and ability to use and build upon others' ideas logically, respectfully, and inclusively. Although many rubrics are available online, the work of Vandervelde (2020) is an excellent starting point.
The discussion board is a powerful tool when used optimally. Specific leadership competencies can be identified, nurtured, and evaluated with a rubric that supports leadership development. Educators play a crucial role in selecting questions, setting the norms for discussions to evolve, and providing feedback; there are ways for learners to engage in these roles, adding another layer of leadership development.