UPDATE: Kudos to the Coursera staff: they have implemented weekly subforums. That should help a lot in managing signal-to-noise, esp. since the first class essay assignment will be announced tomorrow. Very nice! I am impressed by the quick response to this particular issue.
Here are three ideas (I chose just three in honor of the Brothers Grimm, of course… the Law of Three) about some things that might help make the discussion boards more useful - ideas that fall within the limits of what the software itself allows (no profile pages for participants? no avatar images? ouch! I really miss those features). Anyway, here are some ideas:
1. More Specific Forums. Instead of "General Discussion" it would be good to add some more specific forums in which to create threads - like Brothers Grimm, for example, and similar forums for each week. I'm very interested in reading about Brothers Grimm this week; I am less interested in the random topics people are posting about (although I'm sure there are people interested in the more wide-ranging threads). So, I would really like to see a "General Discussion" forum for truly general topics but ALSO a dedicated forum for each week's reading, so that those of us with less time can focus in on threads related to the actual reading.
2. Featured Threads. I don't really have time to weed/read through all the threads, many of which are not exactly discussion threads, or which are not likely to lead to good sustained discussion. It would be great if the course moderators identified threads of good general interest and promoted those. I don't know if it is possible to have "featured threads" in the software itself (I just see last updated, top threads, newest and subscribed), but even if there were just a list of links to "Featured Threads," that would work.
3. Help with the HTML editor. Almost no one seems to be including images in their posts, and few people are including links. A little introductory video with a step-by-step how-to showing the use of the editor and positively encouraging people to include links and images might help. (I, for one, had never seen the Markdown system and it is a bit odd at first.) Images can really help bring online discussions to life and break up the black-and-white monotony of text text text - especially without avatar images, it sure would be nice if people were inclined to include images. We can all use a meme now and then.
Truth be told, I am mostly interacting with people via Twitter, Google+ and blogs… but I am trying to visit at least a few threads every day. These are just some thoughts about how that experience might be more productive/efficient, at least for me. Thanks for listening… if someone is out there listening…? :-)