Discussion Hero Saves Students from Boring Discussions


As part of a Graduate course this winter in Learning Environment Design at Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies, students squared off as heroes and villains using a new and innovative tool called Discussion Hero™.

In contrast to regular discussion boards, Discussion Hero™ is designed to pit “heroes” against “villains” in a debate-style discussion board. It is the product of a collaborative effort between Northwestern University ‘s School of Professional Studies, Information Technology department, and the Provost’s Office, which funded the project through a digital technology fellowship.

Discussion Hero Homepage

How Does it Work?
When students enter Discussion Hero™ for the first time, they are asked to choose between being a hero or a villain and to select an avatar to use during the course. They will then identify with their chosen avatar and are encouraged to take on that avatar’s heroic or villainous characteristics during a discussion. By default, real names are hidden and students only know each other by their avatar name. Students are asked to defend their position and, if they choose to work as a team, to defend their fellow heroes or villains.

The Discussion Hero™ designers insist heroes can’t exist without villains. By taking on a sort of “adversarial” mindset, students may end up defending a position they wouldn’t normally support. This provides them with a unique opportunity to challenge their “adversaries” and bring out high-quality discussion posts for each side of the topic. The instructor plays the following role: they provide a topic to debate and the framework in which the heroes and villains will interact. It is then up to the students to find supporting evidence from the course readings and materials, or other reliable sources, and to argue and defend their position.

Design Features and Accessibility
Discussion Hero™ includes advanced features such as dragging and dropping images and small media files directly into a post. You can also add a clickable link directly to a website by adding the full web address (e.g. https://www.northwestern.edu). Discussion Hero™ has also been designed with accessibility in mind and includes settings to adjust sound, animation, color, contrast, and even toggle between a graphic that displays threads as a connected network of user posts, and a standard Canvas discussion style layout.

Discussion Hero Image

Gamification Features
Besides the use of roles and avatars, heroes and villains can view their status in Discussion Hero™ at any time by clicking on a progress meter. The progress meter shows the leading avatars based upon the frequency of posts, quality of posts, and interaction with others in the discussion. Teachers can even customize a grading rubric and export ratings to the Canvas grade book.

Discussion Hero Image

Early Pilot Results or Student Response
During the pilot phase of the Discussion Hero™, it was evaluated in four graduate classes in the School of Professional Studies. On average, student participation increased by 54% and student responses to satisfaction surveys were overwhelmingly positive. When asked why they chose to be a villain rather than a hero, one student simply replied, “I like to be a little wicked sometimes.''

For more information on Discussion Hero™, contact us at discussionhero@northwestern.edu.

Keep learning,

Reba-Anna Lee, Jacob Guerra-Martinez, and David Noffs
Northwestern University

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