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Tag: facilitating effective online discussions

Artificial intelligence is quickly integrating itself into all parts of learning as a tool for both students and faculty. Now it is coming to online discussion in the form of Packback, a tool that integrates into the learning management system (LMS).

Packback addresses two limitations of the traditional LMS forum. One, it tends to be entirely instructor driven, with the instructor asking the initial question and students answering it. Students themselves rarely ask questions. Two, the feedback on posts tends to come from the instructor at the end of the discussion during grading, when it is too late for students to revise their posts to implement the feedback.

By contrast, Packback uses features of modern social media and artificial intelligence to encourage development of ideas, as well as student questions, and facilitate feedback from other students. First, the AI system analyzes each post and provides real-time advice on how to improve it. It also encourages students to ask questions to improve their scores. Second, students give one another feedback via rating posts, which leads to a leaderboard. This peer-to-peer feedback system encourages students to improve on future posts and raise their position on the leaderboard.

Maricopa County Community College District incorporated Packback into its Canvas LMS in 2020. The students reach it through the navigation menu and post comments like they would in any discussion forum, but the AI system provides feedback on content and writing in a side panel as they craft their posts. For instance, it might tell them they’ve made “great use of an open-ended question” or “appropriate use of paragraph breaks.” It might then suggest changes, such as “Cite a source to increase your post’s credibility” or “You may be using passive voice. Consider revising.” This allows students to improve their posts before they hit the system.

The students also earn curiosity points on the level of engagement and critical thinking in their posts. For example, if a student asks, “How many bones are in the body?” and the post includes only basic details about the human skeletal system, they might earn only 20 curiosity points. By contrast, if a student asks, “Why do some women grow facial hair on their chins?,” which requires a more nuanced answer and a more elaborate post about the role of androgens in the body, the post may receive 75 curiosity points. The system even checks the veracity of the scientific evidence. Moreover, the system moderates posts to flag inappropriate language. It holds those posts and notifies the instructor, who can then choose to release them.

Students encourage one another by assigning one to four stars to each post, similar to online product reviews. The system tabulates scores to create a weekly leaderboard to encourage engagement.


Preliminary data from a pilot study I conducted using Packback in five of my online courses indicated that it promoted critical thinking as the questions had to be open ended and the responses supported by scientific evidence. My students’ average curiosity points rose from 45 points at the beginning of the semester to almost 82 points by the end. Data from this study revealed that 72 percent of the responses cited at least one scientific evidence to bolster their argument compared to only 10 percent in a traditional canvas discussion board (Figure 1).

Pie chart showing 10% of Canvas discussion posts and 72% of Packback discussion posts included scientific citations
Figure 1. Comparison of students’ citation use in Packback and Canvas

I also found that the quality of their arguments improved and they more often provided evidence to support their claims. The data further suggested that student participation was higher and more consistent in the courses after students’ engagement on Packback as than with Canvas discussions alone. Sixty-five percent of students posted more than three times in each week, either putting in their own questions or responding to their peers compared to 20 percent in Canvas discussions (Figure 2). The overall data was highly supportive of Packback helping them engage with their online courses.

Pie chart showing that 20% of students using Canvas posted thrice per week, compared to 65% of students using Packback.
Figure 2. Comparison of students’ post frequency in Packback and Canvas

Many students wrote in their course evaluations that posting on Packback really helped them engage with the course material and discuss real-world implications of the topics they learned. Some have even gone on to network and collaborate with their peers outside their learning community on Packback.

Here are some recommendations on some best uses of Packback’s features:

Packback calls itself a “digital TA”—an apt description as the system takes on much of the yeoman’s work of moderating discussions and improves postings so that instructors can focus on the more interesting work of engaging students in their thinking. It also provides an opportunity for students to encourage one another with ratings and a leaderboard, thus improving motivation. By incorporating emerging technology, it takes the online discussion to a new level.

Sudipta Biswas, PhD, is a biology faculty member at South Mountain Community College, part of Maricopa County Community College District in Phoenix, Arizona.