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Author: Tawnya Means, PhD

Yellowdig engaging online students
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he limitations of traditional online discussion boards are well-known. Yellowdig is an alternative that I have used to simplify grading, encourage student-driven conversations, and engage students so that they consistently participate throughout the semester. With familiar, social media-like features, Yellowdig is an LMS-integrated discussion tool with an instructor configurable point system that automatically passes a participation grade to the gradebook, and offers the ability to search, filter, and tag content, and create groups and topics. Similar to popular social media tools, Yellowdig features a single-feed design that lets users scroll through posts (arranged chronologically or by trending topics), like or love posts (or mark posts as irrelevant, moving them to the bottom of the feed), tag users, and use hashtags to help students find content and follow trends in the class. Composing visually interesting posts and sharing links is intuitive for students, and the pin editor has modern capabilities for writing posts and includes autosaving. To streamline grading and reward student behaviours that drive an active, quality discussion, instructors can determine the total point goal and the number of points earned for different actions. The Yellowdig system uses the point goal and a student’s current point value to automatically pass a proportion to the LMS gradebook, where it is converted to a participation grade. To help students find specific content within the single-feed design, Yellowdig has search capabilities, as well as instructor-generated topic tags which students then associate with their posts, and additional default filters which can be added in combination with one another (e.g., to find a post by a specific user in a specific date range). In the undergraduate blended course that I teach on leadership, communication, and teams in the virtual world, students use Yellowdig to share videos and articles related to the course content. Provided with a list of questions to think about each week, students reflect and then seek out examples that they can share with the class. Alternatively, given a prompt, they put their own thoughts on a blog post published on Medium. In either case, students create a “pin” on the Yellowdig discussion board that consists of a title and URL with a minimum 50-word summary. Students then are awarded credit for reacting to and commenting on their peers’ pins. The discussions are automatically scored based on a configurable algorithm looking at length and frequency of pins, comments generated by the pin, and the responses of peers and instructor. Limits on the number of points allowed each week ensure that students participate on a regular basis throughout the semester. Points for comments that they receive encourages students to create pins that generate interest and engage others. In the graduate MBA capstone course I teach, students create pins for videos and articles that directly relate the course topics to their work experience. Although the course requirement is for a minimum 40-word pin, students frequently post much more than expected, with the average pin approximately nine times more than required. Comments students make on their peers’ pins are at least twice the length required for credit. Although graduate students are likely to post more content and interact more heavily, even in the undergrads are posting pins that are double the length requirement, and each pin is receiving an average of two comments with an average word count 30 percent higher than required for credit. Feedback from the students in my classes has been positive. I award 10 percent of the overall course grade based on Yellowdig discussions. While a very small number of students do not engage in the discussions (choosing to forfeit the points), the majority of students not only participate actively, they do so consistently from the start to the end of the course—even when we are not in session and after they have achieved the maximum points for the discussions. As a practice, I tend to post more comments and feedback to students in the beginning of the semester, but I have found that even without the discussions being driven by the instructor, students are writing high-quality posts and engaging with each other. Since the point of using Yellowdig in my courses is to encourage conversations, in future semesters, I plan to reduce the number of points that are awarded for students to post an initial pin, and instead more heavily weight the points they are awarded for making and receiving comments. My hope is that this will drive the conversations further, with more depth to the discussions and more than the “one post and two comments” behaviour that is typical in discussion assignments. There are other tools available to encourage dynamic discussions within the LMS, some focused more on video interactions (e.g. Flipgrid or Vialogues) or collaborative problem-solving (e.g. Piazza or CueThink), and all are worth checking out. Their key benefit over traditional LMS forums is the way that they meld content and interaction, which is a key to learning. I prefer Yellowdig for its variety of features and flexibility, and it has become an invaluable tool in my graduate and undergraduate, online and blended classrooms. Tawnya Means is the director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.