3 Design Tips To Improve An Online Discussion Forum
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How You Can Improve An Online Discussion Forum

Students have long been used to class discussions within the confines of a brick-and-mortar classroom. Even if a formal discussion doesn't occur, there is always a bit of informal time with their teacher and classmates to discuss and gauge their understanding of the class material.

Understandably, discussion forums are an integral part of an online class; however, students routinely voice their annoyance with-or downright hatred of- these forums. While some students would rather work in isolation and just get their work done, most students would like to get more out of their class. Why do they resent discussion forums? Could it be that they sense the lack of authentic and meaningful interaction? Could it be that they view it as just another assignment with a "right" and "wrong" answer? In some instances, they would be spot on. While it is important to have forums for discussion, it is just as important to set them up in a meaningful way.

A successful class discussion format creates a sense of community, enabling students to connect with one another. This connection not only helps students better enjoy the online experience, it also results in a deeper investment in the class. This intrinsic motivation is important to overall success. Additionally, a carefully-constructed student discussion allows the teacher to pick up on misunderstandings or weaknesses that can be proactively addressed with the entire class.

Below, there are 3 design tips to improve your online discussion forums:

1. Clear Expectations

Students can't succeed if they don't know what you expect of them. Create a rubric, sharing specific expectations within that rubric. For example, address exactly how many different classmates they should respond to, as well as the number of separate days/times you want them to post a new thread or reply in the forum. You should give examples of how they can move a conversation to a deeper level of understanding. It can be as simple as instructing the student to ask a question for their classmates to answer, being specific that it should be one that has no simple yes or no answer. Pulling a sample of a successful discussion forum exchange can be very helpful to your students.

In order to encourage your students to participate, consider giving credit for their time and effort in the discussion, not correctness of their posts. If you do this, you can specifically add a note that it should be apparent the student spent time on the course material. Posting an article or a case study for students to discuss is an excellent way to start a classroom discussion. You can also create a "study group" atmosphere by asking them to quiz one another on course material.

2. Don't Hog The Space

It is important to understand that every post you make in the discussion forum carries a lot of weight. While your input is essential when answering direct questions from students or when correcting homework, it can be disastrous to the success of an online discussion. Keep in mind that the discussion forum is not just another assignment students are graded on.

With this in mind, there is a fine balance between being a participant in the discussion and taking over the discussion in an authoritative manner. While it can be helpful to post more often in the first few discussions, it is important to phase yourself out of being seen as the main participant. Don't feel like you have to respond to every post; in fact, weigh the cost vs benefit each time you respond. Ask yourself if your post will encourage further discussion or stifle it. More on this below.

3. Dig Deeper Without Killing The Vibe

Within the realm of the discussion, your job is to keep students on track, guiding them into a deeper understanding of the course material. This should all be done within a supportive environment. To foster this, resist the urge to reply to posts with a "correct" or "incorrect" mindset.

To make this possible, consider having a separate "Question/Answer" forum to pair with your discussion forum. The "Question/Answer" forum is where you take the lead. You will use this forum to discuss homework answers, as well as to address any misunderstandings or clarifications you'd like to make in response to posts in the discussion forum. This can also be the space students can ask questions about the course material. The "Question/Answer" forum can also be a great place to share your answer to an emailed student question.

With careful design, the online discussion forum can meet its pedagogical importance in the online classroom, enabling students to more deeply enjoy, commit, and master your class.

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