When a few students take on all the “heavy lifting” in your online discussion boards, it doesn’t feel equitable. Learn how to facilitate equitable, meaningful dialogue in your course with discussion board roles.

Making Online Discussions Equitable

Spring 2021 was the first semester I incorporated assigned roles into weekly discussion boards in my Introduction to Digital Literacies (English 213) course. I had two reasons for this change. First, I wanted the discussion board conversations to be more equitable. In previous semesters, I noticed that the same students were always doing the heavy lifting in online discussions. This was an important observation for me because as Elizabeth F. Barkley (2010) explains, students who are working the most are learning the most. By assigning roles, each student gets an opportunity to begin the conversation, respond, and summarize major themes of the discussion.

Taking Risks, Taking Ownership

Second, I wanted to provide several ways to participate in class discussion. According to Jay Howard (2022), “Class discussion involves risk-taking on the part of the students and the professor.” For some students, speaking in class might be too risky, but the online discussion board is a space where students can take their time to respond.

As a result, participating in the course discussion boards might feel like less of a risk than speaking in class. The risk for me as the instructor involved giving ownership of the discussions to my students. This allows students to “become co-creators of knowledge” (Howard, 2022). The students present the content for consideration, ask the questions, respond, and summarize the themes of the conversation without my presence in the space.

Discussion Board Roles

I use the roles of architect, landscaper, and closers.

  • Architects find an article, Tweet, Meme, short video, social media post, etc. That relates to the topics from this week’s class. They pose one or two discussion questions for landscapers to consider and discuss.
  • Next, landscapers (everyone not assigned as an architect or closer role) read/watch/engage with the content posted by the architect(s) and respond to the discussion questions. I encourage landscapers to use the language of the class and make connections to their life experiences.
  • Closers summarize the conversation or major themes discussed on the landscapers’ posts. Online discussion boards continue the class conversations outside of class, but also, as Howard notes, if an online discussion is a success, it can help build the conversation in class as well. By reading the conversation in the discussion board space I can see the connections or the missteps that are being made and bring this back into the classroom. 

Conclusion: Making Connections 

Incorporating discussion board roles also promotes critical thinking, a skill that they need not only in other classes but in their future careers. Additionally, the concepts they learn in-class become functional in their lives as they make connections to their own and others’ experiences on the discussion board. Overall, I saw more total students participating in discussion boards, more interaction between students, and more connections between students’ experiences and course topics.

While I’m still working through using discussion board roles, my experiences have allowed me to reconsider the discussion boards as spaces to promote equity, create more opportunities to participate in the class, and encourage students to think critically about the content and their experiences.

How do you structure your discussion boards for equitable dialogue? Do you use discussion board roles?


Barkley, Elizabeth. F. 2010. Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Howard, Jay. 2022. “Hold a better class discussion.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved April 1, 2022. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-hold-a-better-class-discussion/#2

  • Kat Greene

    Kat Greene, Ph.D., is the interim director of the Ball State Writing Center and is an assistant teaching professor of English. Greene is a co-author of the digital textbook, Research, Composition, and Argument for a Digital Age. A lifelong Cardinal, she is a past winner of the Writing Program Summer Research Fellowship and Writing Program Outstanding Teaching Award.

    View all posts