I have really appreciated reading everyone's comments and suggestions.
I've found the current platform to be generally superior to WebCT in everything but the internal e-mail feature, but generally not as intuitive nor as extensive as Blackboard (the monitoring of student activity -- length of time, days and hours of access -- that Blackboard allows is a very nice feature).
As others have mentioned, the best way to record discussion grades has been a bit of a frustration, but I try to spend more time and energy coming up with objective grading criteria for student submissions. The over-achieving students can write tomes in response to some postings while the less industrious, procrastinators, or time-strapped will often reply with something along the lines of "good posting...I agree with you." I really try to quantify what constitutes a solid, college-level initial posting and response postings. The criteria include not just length, but things like quality of writing, consistency of reasoning, use of supporting evidence, whether it is really germane to the topic, as well as whether it is decorus to a public discussion.
I try to post these in the syllabus and give feedback in the first discussion so that students get a sense of what constitutes a substantive posting and response and how they will be graded. Any other ideas about this would certainly be welcomed.
I know there are a number of ways to give feedback to students about their papers. Some students leave space at the end of the paper for comments. I've found this to be quite difficult to manage. The method I've found to be helpful is to use the comment features in Word. Word 97 is a bit awkward since it puts the comments in a separate window at the bottom of the text (sort of like endnotes). Word 2002 is better in that it uses comment bubbles that can be placed right in the margin with a marker right in the text where I want to comment. I save the document, add the comments, spelling corrections, suggestions, etc. and then post it for the students to download. I also indicate how many points they lost or earned and where that occurred. Then at the end there is a final bubble with a grading rubric that shows the total points deducted and the final numeric score for the paper. One problem is that most students need to activate this feature on their tool bar before they can see the comments, so they need to be alerted to this.