The Fully-Threaded Forum Concept
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Meaningful Student Interaction In Online Classes

Online instructors often have difficulty creating forums that contain meaningful student-to-student interaction. There are two methods instructors use to combat this. One method is to create content-focused forums, emphasizing the student’s initial post, and the second method is to put the instructor more at the forefront of the discussion, controlling the focus of the forums. Unfortunately, there are issues with both methods. First, if the instructor makes the forums focus mainly on the initial post, the forums will become "mini-essays" for students, defeating the idea of spontaneous student interaction. If the instructor uses a "top-down" approach, the forums will feel more like a lecture, where the instructor is the main knowledge provider. Instead, one simple method instructors could use to create stronger student-to-student interaction is to use the "fully-threaded" forum concept, as opposed to the typical "semi-threaded" forum.

Most online courses are set up where a student creates an initial post/response to the discussion forum question and then two responses to other classmates’ posts (in other words "semi-threaded"—students create a thread and respond to a thread). This does give some interaction, albeit on a surface level.  Students do post replies, but the interaction often stops with that reply, since the initial poster may never respond back. Forums that are 'fully-threaded" might help solve some of these issues for students who do not post an initial response (the "mini-essay," as discussed earlier). Instead, forums focus on the student responses to a discussion forum question. In this way, the "fully-threaded" forum may appear to be more like a typical face-to-face discussion, where students respond to each other about the weekly lesson.

Setting up this "fully-threaded" concept is easy to do in most Learning Management Systems (LMS). Using your LMS, customize your permissions in the topic settings, so students can only make responses to threads. Then, before the course begins, create initial posts for all of the forums that contain the weekly discussion forum question (or questions); the posts you create would be where the student interaction occurs. Make sure to also change the forum rubric so that it is fully based on student replies—no initial post section should be needed within the rubric. It helps to make it clear that students need to respond once to the assigned "question" thread earlier in the week and the rest of the responses (up to a certain word count) should be completed by Sunday. As an instructor, it is important to still actively monitor the threads as the facilitator, keeping students from getting off track, watching the tone of the responses, and asking meaningful questions when appropriate.

Reactions To The "Fully-Threaded" Forum Concept

You may find that your students have the following reactions to the "fully-threaded" forum concept:

  1. Students might be confused about the "fully-threaded" forum idea at first. To help alleviate this confusion, create a video showing how the forums should operate and a "Forum Questions" thread.
  2. As compared to courses with "semi-threaded" discussions, the students in "fully-threaded" discussions may post earlier in the week. Because the initial posts in "semi-threaded" forums are longer, usually with more requirements, students often wait until the due date to post. With the "fully-threaded" concept, students may post earlier because there isn’t a word count for the first reply (the word count is cumulative, taking into account all of the replies, so students could post a shorter reflection/response).
  3. Students may interact with each other more often, discussing a concept back and forth over a few days.
  4. Because the focus is on responses, students may refrain from "compliments" because their post must give some sort of point/focus for the next responder.
  5. Some students may find it more difficult to focus solely on classmates' responses, for they not only have to reflect on the readings, but they also have to reflect on their classmates’ posts as well. In other words, this method forces students, not the instructor, to be the “content managers.” As the content managers, students learn new opinions and reflect upon different points of view, highlighting additional critical thinking. In the end, this could make for a richer, more meaningful discussion.

Replicating the traditional face-to-face classroom inside an online forum can be quite difficult, if not impossible. The "fully-threaded" forum concept may help solve this problem and highlight student interaction.

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