Online discussion forums are probably the most challenging aspect of online learning. Yet they are the most critical in establishing and maintaining a sense of community in the online classroom. They also provide a great opportunity to engage students who may have been too shy or introverted to speak out in class, to engage students in the practice of reflection, in promoting collaborative problem solving, and to conduct meaningful conversation without the usual distractions that can occur in a face-to-face discussion. But they take practice to master. You can start by checking out Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation for some useful tips.
Discussion forums don’t always have to be instructional. It’s helpful to provide options for students to connect with each other or to even help each other if they have expertise in some area such as technology troubleshooting for example. At a minimum, I keep three discussion forums operating at all times in my classes: Instructional forums for all content related discussions, a Social forum for connecting with other students, and a Tech Help forum where I encourage students to help each other. Individual forums can also be created for you to communicate one-on-one with students or where they can post content related reflections. Instructional uses include debate, role play, review, consensus building, and KWL.
Perhaps the most important indicator of discussion success is purpose. Having an established purpose to a discussion, and relating that purpose to students, is important for motivation and interest. If there is no real reason for a discussion, other than evaluating what students know by posting textbook questions, then you can expect to generate flat, rote responses. Related to this is the dreaded “post once” and “respond to two classmates” requirement that has become so common in online discussions. Please don’t do this unless you have provided a specified purpose for doing so. If you can’t come up with a reason, then don’t ask your students to do it!
Online discussions forums should not be used for questions that require right or wrong answers, essay or short-answer responses, and yes/no responses. Discussion prompts that initiate interest and a sense of curiosity will engage learners more readily and hopefully result in conversations with breadth and depth. So what does a good discussion prompt look like? Here are just a couple of examples of good and better prompts that are designed to address higher level thinking while maintaining a sense of authenticity and real-world connections:
|Do you think we should go to the moon again? Why?||Humans have been to the moon and walked on the lunar surface. What are your thoughts on humans surviving and creating a civilization on the moon, based on what you have learned about the air and surface of the moon? Do you think we should support life on the moon? Why or why not?|
|Explain the role of scarcity in the U.S. Economy.||Use real-life examples to explain how you function in the US economy. Relate your experiences to (1) your role in both the product market and the resource market and (2) how scarcity has had an impact on your decisions.|
When creating discussion prompts, consider including learners in the process by providing opportunities for them to take the lead in discussions, to suggest possible questions they would like to discuss on a topic, and to choose questions or prompts from a bank of questions you provide. If your curriculum provider gives prompts for you, take advantage of opportunities to extend thinking through your follow-up questioning strategies.
Your ultimate goal in online discussions is to encourage engagement and participation. The role most commonly associated with this type of facilitation is referred to as guide on the side. In this role, you should consider yourself the supporter of learning and communication among learners, not the focal point. Good facilitators never provide all of the answers. Your primary responsibilities are monitoring discussion activity, summarizing responses, redirecting conversation if necessary, and clarifying misconceptions when needed. Some tips for facilitating online discussions effectively:
- Model appropriate responses using questions to probe for deeper learning, offering descriptive comments, providing constructive criticism, posting early, checking in, asking thoughtful questions, responding respectfully, using personal experiences, and verifying appropriate grammar and spelling.
- Instead of trying to respond to each student, post occasionally and thoughtfully. Establish this pattern early on, so that learners understand your intentions. (This applies to almost all cases except in the case of introductory activities where you should make a concerted effort to respond to each and every student.)
- Establish protocols that assure learners you are reading every post, even if you do not respond to every one. Do not just tell learners this. Show them through summarizing, highlighting selected posts, and providing frequent encouragement (not praise).
- Differentiate your role within discussions. Some will require extensive involvement, whereas others will require very little. Similarly, differentiate your voice and tone, depending on the purpose of the discussion.
- Avoid public praise of contributions. Instead, reflect student ideas and foster deep exploration of content by highlighting posts that are on the right track. Summarize two or three posts, and pose an additional question that challenges the learner to dig deeper.
Some things to watch out for in online discussions
Students who have challenges with writing and reading. Provide options for posting discussion responses such as video and audio. Allow struggling students to use text-to-speech and speech-to-text software.
Inappropriate content or language. Model and teach appropriate behaviors. Allow students to moderate each other, by reviewing responses before they are posted. Have students practice reading their responses aloud before posting – sometimes the spoken word will be more revealing than text. Remove any inappropriate posts and contact the student privately through email.
Exclusive and bullying behaviors. Save all documented evidence of the behavior, and report the incident if necessary. If the behavior is resulting in students being excluded, devise practices that promote heterogeneous grouping and partnering. Require that learners respond to one set of classmates in one post and another set of classmates in another post.