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Author: Aimee Whiteside and Suzanne Ensmann

The learning management system (LMS) discussion forum comes off as archaic and overly controlling to today’s students, who are used to working in a much richer social media environment. Whereas the LMS forum is designed for lengthy text comments, young people are used to communicating with a variety of media, including videos and images. Plus, traditional LMS discussions are set up by the instructor with a prompt that all students need to answer along fairly limiting parameters for a grade.

Yellowdig is a modern alternative for hosting discussion in a visually appealing mashup of social media and gameful experience that many students find motivating. It extends the traditional discussion board features within an aesthetically pleasing environment that allows images, videos, links, poll, and other features.

Additionally, Yellowdig offers a gamified experience. Instead of grading students on a traditional A–F scale that subtracts for errors, it counts up points that students earn though a mix of content and social interaction. Students can earn points by using social media reactions (likes, loves, claps, and various emojis and graphics), which mirrors TikTok, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Instructors determine the total number of points that students can earn each week as well as the point values for each post or interaction, whether that’s creating a new thread or responding or reacting to a classmate’s post. Yellowdig also uses a leaderboard to motivate students to participate through friendly competition (Figure 1).

Example of a leaderboard organized by total points earned
Figure 1. Leaderboard example

One foundational characteristic that distinguishes Yellowdig from other platforms is that how students earn their points is entirely up to them. This shatters the age-old paradigm of weekly discussions that begin with the instructor’s post and end with procrastinators’ posts that no one ever reads. For over 20 years, instructors have engaged students in discussions that abruptly stop, often before true learning occurs. Yellowdig’s approach allows students more autonomy. It empowers them to begin discussions that continue throughout the course. The process is seamless: they simply click on the “create” button, choose a topic, and compose their post. Additionally, because instructors no longer have to keep track of posts and responses, they have more time to focus on teaching the materials and extending the course discussion in meaningful ways.

Figure 2 illustrates how Yellowdig differs from traditional discussion boards. The “discussion” assignments on the left side depict the traditional form of weekly discussion boards. Since many of the earliest LMSs, instructors have engaged students in discussions where they post to an instructor-led question and respond to two or three other students. Those discussions abruptly stop after one week, often before true learning occurs. The right side of Figure 2 showcases Yellowdig’s dynamic model, where both instructors and students can lead discussions. In this approach, discussions continue throughout the term.

Two side-by-side images with a traditional discussion board approach and Yellowdig's more community-based approach.
Figure 2. Traditional discussion board vs. Yellowdig’s community-based approach
Note: Above images reprinted with the permission from Yellowdig.

Four ways to use Yellowdig

Yellowdig can be integrated into almost any teaching philosophy and instructional approach and in introductory or advanced graduate courses in any modality, including in-person, online, blended, or remote courses (Ensmann & Whiteside, 2022). Although there are many ways to integrate Yellowdig, we centered on four ways: connecting, extending, journaling, and supporting (Whiteside & Ensmann, 2021).


Connecting refers to creating opportunities for connections. Students may come into a course with the misguided perception that it is a one-on-one experience with the instructor. They can miss the importance of a learning community and not fully understand that they are building knowledge with their peers (Whiteside, 2015, 2017). In graduate school, many of their peers form a micro community of supportive colleagues. In an undergraduate environment, students can form lifelong friends. Courses can form the foundation for these relationships to build and grow.

Thus, as instructors, we build opportunities for students to connect through modeling robust introductions, communicating about campus events, and creating student-to-student activities. Yellowdig offers a vessel from which to launch those connections. Although instructors can also  accomplish these goals in a traditional LMS, Yellowdig offers an easy-to-use, aesthetically pleasing platform with the ability to add and search on topics, which allows students to connect to each quickly and easily. Figure 3 illustrates an instructor post that invites students to celebrate their accomplishments and to develop their graduation plans. It also showcases the student social media reactions and responses.

Image of a Yellowdig post about graduation plans that depicts student connections
Figure 3. Connecting example with student comments

Although some of the connections were academic, many connections were on a personal level, including students realizing that they went to the same high school a thousand miles away, have the same breed of dog, or share a love of vintage films or records. As Conrad and Donaldson (2004, 2011) suggest, once connections are established, instructors can create a safe environment in which to engage and leverage the academic content.


Once students have established connections, instructors can challenge students to create their own content by bringing in new examples or applications of their learning. For example, after a lesson about intercultural communication in a technical communication course, a student extended the lesson in Yellowdig by leading a post that extended the class discussion by showcasing several examples of translation errors that cost organizations millions of dollars.

Once students realize that Yellowdig allows them to be autonomous learners and create their own posts and shape the discussion, they often choose to advance their knowledge in nuanced and sophisticated ways.


In addition to extending the course content, Yellowdig can serve as a journaling tool that tracks students’ learning over time. Instructors can use this strategy in a variety of course modalities as a reflective tool and an archive of experiences.

For example, students may finish a reading and then engage in the Yellowdig environment, addressing how they will directly and immediately apply that process or strategy to their own work. Although this approach can also be accomplished in a traditional LMS, Yellowdig gives students the ability to sort, review, and search posts by topic, allowing them a quick and easy method to see their growth over time.

In Figure 4, an academic writing student comments on how they had that “aha moment” where they came to understand the importance of audience analysis for their manuscript and other writing.

Image of a student journal post depicting their experience in a research project
Figure 4. Journaling example in an academic writing course

This approach can be helpful for students when instructors ask them to showcase the culmination of learning, such as in a reflective final exam essay question.


Finally, since our students are still coping after having lived through Covid-19 lockdown and protocols, they may be in need a supportive network (Ensmann, Gomez-Vasquez, et al., 2021; Ensmann, Whiteside, et al., 2021). Yellowdig allows instructors to build a supportive environment where students feel comfortable sharing anxieties with each other. Because students are not locked into a weekly structure requiring just one post in Yellowdig, they are, instead, empowered to create their own posts where they can share their anxieties and support each other in a way that might not occur in a traditional paradigm.

In Figure 5, students in a senior portfolio course address their anxieties about graduating, adulting, and competing with others for highly sought positions.

Image depicting an example of how Yellowdig can be employed by students to support their classmates
Figure 5. Supporting example

Ultimately, this method encourages students to find a support system in each other, allowing the instructor to focus on academic learning (Ensmann & Whiteside, 2022).

In closing, Yellowdig can pair with almost any teaching philosophy and instructional approach. The tool’s versatility allows it to work in any modality and in a multitude of disciplines and levels (Ensmann & Whiteside, 2022). We focused on four ways of pairing Yellowdig with our instructional approaches, but there are numerous educational applications that can allow our students to advance their learning in new and exciting ways.


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Conrad, R., & Donaldson, A. (2011). Continuing to engage the online learner: More activities and resources for creative instruction. Jossey-Bass.

Ensmann, S. Y., & Whiteside, A. L. (2022). “It helped to know I wasn’t alone”: Exploring student learning with a gamified social media-like discussion board. Online Learning Journal, 26(3), 22–45. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v26i3.3340

Ensmann, S. Y., Gomez-Vasquez, L., Sturgill, R., & Whiteside, A. L. (2021). A pandemic case journal of one higher education institution. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 21(3), 19–23. https://www.infoagepub.com/products/Quarterly-Review-of-Distance-Education-21-3

Ensmann, S. Y., Whiteside, A. L., Gomez-Vasquez, L., & Sturgill R. (2021). Connections before curriculum: The role of social presence during COVID-19 emergency remote learning for students. Online Learning Journal, 25(3), 36–56. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v25i3.2868

Whiteside, A. L. (2015). Introducing the Social Presence Model to explore online and blended learning experiences. Online Learning Journal, 19(2). https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v19i2.453

Whiteside, A. L. (2017). Understanding social presence as a critical literacy. In A. L. Whiteside, A. Garrett Dikkers, & K. Swan (Eds.), Social presence in online learning: Multiple perspectives on research and practice (pp. 133–142). Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Whiteside, A. L., & Ensmann, S. Y. (2021, November 17–19). Strategies for college-level student engagement in multiple modalities [Conference presentation]. Florida Educational Research Annual Conference, Tampa, FL, United States.

Aimee Whiteside is a professor at the University of Tampa. She has published over 50 articles and book chapters, and she coedited the award-winning book, Social Presence in Online Learning: Multiple Perspectives on Research and Practice, with Amy Garrett Dikkers and Karen Swan.

Suzanne Ensmann is an associate professor who directs the instructional design and technology program at the University of Tampa. Ensmann teaches hybrid and online courses in distance education, instructional design, human/program performance, and research and evaluation. Her research publications focus on gameful learning, wellness with digital devices, and global education.