Yes, poorly done message boards and forums can feel a bit like this. It involves some planning and thought!
message board flickr photo by Hungarian Snow shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license
Although my current online class, EC&I 834, uses synchronous sessions in Zoom and student blogs rather than discussion forums, the format of a discussion board has been a staple of digital interaction for most of the life of the public internet. Message boards were the early form, dialing up to that address and posting your message, checking back later to see if anyone has replied. Email listservs also can have a similar function (or rather, variety of functions). When you get right down to it, a discussion forum is a way to have an asynchronous interaction around a topic. (Although you can schedule something synchronously, there are better mediums in most cases.) This means that students and instructor(s) can have flexible schedules and check in when it is convenient for them. It also means that anyone posting has a chance to read what they are posting, everyone gets a chance to speak, you can go back to something someone said earlier if you want to reply to it (these are often bonuses for introverts).
Since the online class I am working on will require some definite forum interactions, I really wanted to think this through and make sure I had a good grasp of the options to help keep the forums as an integral and useful part of the course.
So in my experience with instructors as well as my research, I’ve found there are some big issues that need to be highlighted when discussion forums come up:
- What is the purpose?
- How much should the instructor be involved?
- How do I get students to participate?
1. The Purpose
This might seem obvious but honestly, it isn’t always as clear as instructors think. It is always assumed that the purpose is discussion. So it is a replacement for face-to-face in-class discussion. Right? Well, that depends. The purpose needs to be clear before a question or prompt is formulated. Here are some of the purposes I see:
- Check student comprehension. The questions are usually fact-based and require reading the content but often don’t require a significant amount of thought or additional work. The exact same question could be handed into the instructor privately and have the same learning outcomes. The only outcome is to confirm that students have read/watched/heard/seen specific content. E.g., “What are four uses of discussion forums? Choose your favourite and explain why.” As a student, I don’t get much benefit from reading the responses of others. This is not going to encourage much discussion (and no one would expect it to in a classroom).
- Debate a topic. Although this requires careful preparation including appropriate behaviour (or netiquette), it can be a good chance to have students come in on various sides of a controversial topic. This is going to get participation from students who have strong feelings. This is precisely the sort of thing that happens in classrooms and can easily eat up much more class time than expected when it goes well. E.g., “Are discussion forums the best format for discussion in online learning and why?” Someone will, invariably, disagree with my answer or I will disagree with someone else because there is not a single right answer.
- Resource sharing. This can be an easy way for everyone to post articles they find, images, websites, etc. It isn’t as searchable as other tools, and you can’t reuse it in a later semester, but it is a great option for quick posting. E.g., “Post any news articles you come across that relate to cats.” This can work well if you are getting students to share resources for research projects or if you are covering a topic that will be in the news often. Discussions can easily spring up around certain shared items and it keeps that all in a single place. It even works well for sharing experiences or anything like that in a less formal way (it needs to be less formal if you are sharing something like that to have students get invested).
- Groupwork. I am not a fan of forums for this as I tend to prefer other forms of communication, but it can facilitate groups discussing projects. Just be prepared for some groups to ask to use other resources unless you mandate using the forum, which could aggravate students.
- Ask a question. Forums are perfect for having students ask public questions that other students may also have. It can also result in students helping students. It provides the sort of “ask your neighbour” opportunity that classrooms and hallways facilitate. It also means that a single answer can reach most students without clogging up the email of students who are not interested.
- Interactive creation. This one might not jump out, but it can work to have students write something asynchronously, as a group. It requires some prepping to ensure that multiple students don’t post at the same time and all reply to the same thing, taking the project in multiple directions, unless that is intended. Preparation also can prevent long pauses in which no one is sure who should post or long waits for someone to start the idea. E.g., “The zombie apocalypse has begun. What is Amy going to do?” It could be a story but it could also become a case study response. The instructor could interject at various points with more information, or to answer questions, or to keep things moving along.
Getting creative can have some interesting impacts on forums and tend to make them much more interesting.
2. Instructor Involvement
This isn’t easy and I will say right now it can depend a lot on the group of students you have. Sometimes the students need little prompting and will be vocal by nature, online or face-to-face. Other times they are much more reluctant, or there are a number of silent wallflowers (or “lurkers” as they are called online). Instructors need to decide if that is acceptable or not ahead of time and structure that into how forums are discussed and/or graded. But here are some basic tips I would recommend:
- Model what you want. Be more engaged in the first and even second forum to show students what you are looking for, to prove to them that you are reading what they write, and to keep things going.
- Do not pose a question and never respond to responses that involve questions. If you want to poke at a discussion, make sure you check back in as students will respond directly to you.
- Make sure you continue to engage. It could be posting after a few days and some posts to encourage or fill in some more ideas. It could be sharing an interesting and relevant article. It could be redirecting the discussion. Students need proof that you have not checked out and in many cases they assume you have something to contribute. You shouldn’t respond to everyone every forum but you should be seen. Since they can’t rely on your body language, they need you to post.
- Avoid “posting from on high.” Unless there is an inappropriate post or comment that needs to be stopped immediately, remember that you are there to facilitate discussion, not provide the be all and end all. If you do that, students will either not have anything more to add or will be reluctant to engage for fear of being called out on being wrong.
- Be less formal. This can be a tricky one for a lot of people. It is easy to get into the habit of typing more formally and less conversationally but if you type like you are writing an academic paper, so will your students, and that can really limit conversation. The forums can be part of building a community but to do that, you have to be part of that. Open up a little, relax, and let students relax. That means not writing in a style that sounds like an exam question (unless you really want that type of response).
- Consider the time commitment. In a face-to-face discussion, the timing is fairly limited. Students say what they have to say and you may cut them off if they talk too long. Online, they can think about things more and may end up taking far longer to write their post than you anticipated, especially if you assigned additional work to do the forum. So if you want more time for discussion, ensure that you aren’t loading them up with a bunch of prep work BEFORE they can post (e.g. reading multiple articles or difficult articles, watching a long video, doing research, or formulating the perfect response for an exam). The more time they put in before they post, the less time they will have for discussion.
- Give some marks. Although face-to-face you may not need to give marks for participation, online you may. They don’t have you staring at them or calling on them to ensure they say something. You may have to show that you value the time and effort the discussion requires by assigning it marks. If you prefer unmarked, you need to make it engaging and something students would want to do and can do easily. For example, sharing something they already know o do or think like introducing themselves or sharing a cultural quirk can get participation easily. If you want more work, however, you need to demonstrate that it matters. You also need to ensure they learn from it. So asking students to regurgitate information is not going to garner much participation.
If your students feel like this, they aren’t going to want to participate and forums will feel like pulling teeth.
Boredom flickr photo by QuinnDombrowski shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license
3. Student Participation
Forums should really be about the students (unless the point is just to push information out, which can be done but isn’t too exciting). If you want them engaged, they need to have a reason. Discussions that get students invested face-to-face are exactly the kinds of things that get students engaged online too. They even have more time to do it, theoretically. But you have to plan it. You need to think about the time investment required and be thoughtful. Also, remember this is happening over a wider period of time usually. So some students will work more on class things on the weekend. Some will try to power through and have everything done right away. Some want to read what others are up to first. If any of those are an issue, you need to structure your assignments and instructions accordingly. But most of all, give them sometime they will care about and have something to say about. Regurgitating the textbook is boring. It’s boring for you to read it from every student. It’s boring for them to write it, let alone read it from someone else. If that is the purpose of the forum, be prepared for minimal discussion (I personally think that kind of assignment is not helpful unless it serves another purpose, like having them write or practice citation, etc, but at the very least, just make them hand it in to you and not pretend they want to respond). If you want conversation, have them talk about something meaningful. Make it relatable to their life, to the real world. Give it a purpose.
It is worth noting that not everyone wants to be the centre of attention. Some students will be leery of posting their thoughts publicly. Moreover, some topics are way more sensitive. Some topics require eye contact. Heard of trolls? It is so, so much easier to be a jerk on the internet because you don’t have to look most people in the eye. So be aware that a) you need to prepare for that potential and be preventative and b) you need to be thoughtful about what you ask. Come up with agreed rules for behaviour. If the students help with that, it is easier to get buy-in and they better understand why it matters. But be prepared for what you will do if something does happen. For example, if a student posts an inappropriate response, know how to delete or hide it, consider whether you might use that as a learning opportunity or deal with it privately, know how to document issues in case that is needed. Do not ask students to out themselves about sensitive issues, or at least don’t require it. or example, if you are talking about mental illness, don’t ask students to share mental illnesses they experience. Some may want to share but some may not. Do not treat students as representative of particular identities. For example, if you have one student from a particular region of the world, don’t use that student as the example of that or as your token student. Prepare students for difficult discussions. For example, if you will be talking about a sensitive subject, let them know ahead of time. Give them a chance to talk to you if there is a concern about public participation.
And, in all honesty, you might have to offer marks. The learning should be the focus, I agree, but right now we are stuck in a system that demonstrates value through grades. So show that you value their work. If the forums are worth 1 point per post, skipping a point isn’t a big deal and students will figure that out. Marks are a way to get them to come to the forums but good questions and discussion make them want to stay.
Tony Bates discusses forums although his coverage is just brushing the surface as it fits into his focus on collaborative learning (there are numerous other forms of collaborative learning like Google Docs, wikis, blogs, Prezi, online chats, etc that have nothing to do with discussion forums despite his narrow discussion). I wanted to highlight something that he briefly touches on that is very important:
Thus teachers need to be aware that there are likely to be students in any class who may be struggling with language, cultural or epistemological issues, but in online classes, where students can come from anywhere, this is a particularly important issue.
If your class is going to have cultural variation, be prepared. Be clear about your expectations but also decide how you want to deal with students who do not feel comfortable or who have different expectations. This is something I definitely want to consider, so I don’t plan to grade on grammar or anything like that. I also think that students should have the option to be silent or quieter. I find forums comfortable so I can be guilty of talking too much but others should have the right to not post as much if they can demonstrate learning in what they do post. But that expectation has to be laid out. What will I do if someone DOESN’T post? I have seen “choose 4 of 8 forums” go very poorly and that requires a fair bit of double checking on my end. But I also want to allow students to participate at a level that works for them. To a point.
Obviously I’m still thinking that part through.
So if you’ve participated in forums, what advice would you give me? I give advice to instructors all the time but I could always use more from students. I’m the type who talks a lot in text so I’m not always a good example to use.