5 Ways LMS Forums Can Be Used By Educators
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How Educators Can Benefit From Using LMS Forums

Late last year, I worked with a university department in Northern England to create an online course. For most of the faculty, online education was entirely new.

Working from the ground up, the team talked our way step-by-step through some of the foundational questions educators ask when setting up an online course. We discussed questions like how student attendance would be measured, how we would set assessments, how we would conduct formative assessment, and how students would be exposed to the core assessable content.

During the process, one question stimulated extensive conversation. This was the question of how and when to use the LMS discussion forums. From that conversation, the team developed a sketch of the ways LMS forums can be used, and to what end.

We found the group analysis of the affordances of forum discussion to be incredibly useful. It helped us to clarify our expectations of our students, and indeed our intentions of how they will go about learning.

Below are the 5 means of using LMS forums for learning and teaching that the team identified:

1. Proof Of Attendance

The most basic proposal for using LMS forums was in order to prove student attendance, which is often very low in online learning. It was proposed by some team members that forum contributions act as documented evidence that students ‘turned up’ for the weekly discussion.

The proof-of-attendance approach to using LMS forums had merit for meeting our desire for accountability measures. The team discussed the possibility of having a percentage of each student’s grade linked to weekly contributions to tasks. This might provide an incentive for students to show ongoing engagement with the learning materials and may even act as a motivating factor for students.

One downside of the proof-of-attendance approach to LMS forums was that it is an extrinsic motivator. The team agreed that students forced into making timely forum contributions may only contribute cursory comments in order to meet the minimum attendance requirements.

Furthermore, we questioned the use of forums purely as an accountability measure capitalized on their potential. Given that forums are set up for two-way communication and brainstorming, this proof-of-attendance approach left a lot to be desired. We, therefore, remain concerned that this approach to forums alone may not represent quality eLearning pedagogy.

2. Student-Paced Tasks

The second approach to LMS forums considered was what we called the ‘student-paced’ approach. With content delivered upfront, we saw the forums as giving students the opportunity to engage with their teachers and peers at a time that suits them.

Indeed, one of the advantages of forums over live classes is that they are asynchronous. Students can pick and choose when they want to engage with the learning content. We felt that this approach might support our widening participation agenda, particularly for working students and full-time parents and carers who are common demographic groups for online courses.

Nonetheless, the team was aware that allowing a student-paced approach to forum participation may be a barrier to communication and collaboration. If students are entering the forums at sporadic intervals over a four-to-twelve week period, many students will have completed the set forum tasks well before others. This disadvantages both the early students who may not get valuable contributions from late coming peers, while also preventing those late contributors to discussions from getting feedback from their peers on their comments.

Thus, while student-paced forum contributions may be beneficial for group participation, there remains a need for reasonable guidelines to be set for forum contributions if students are to get the most out of the collaborative potential that forums have to offer.

3. Formative Assessment

The theme of formative assessment highlights the possibility of forums for assessment of student progress. As the use of forums for proof of attendance, this approach can be seen as fundamentally being an accountability measure.

However, the use of forums for formative assessment also has additional pedagogical value. A dedicated forum for students to share their ideas for upcoming essays allows teachers to take the pulse of students’ progress and differentiate their teaching to best support all students in their class.

Our initial concern with the use of forums for formative assessment is that this could be achieved through many other educational technologies such as wikis or even email. Thus, we felt that this use of forums again does not maximize the affordances of forums for collaboration between students.

4. Question And Answer

Our fourth approach to the use of forums was as a question and answer hub for students. We brainstormed the potential of using dedicated forums for each assessment. One of the major benefits of this was collating common questions in a public space that all student could utilize.

This question-and-answer forum would be primarily teacher-centered, in the sense that students ask a question about assessable items for clarity, and the teacher provides the clarifications.

Nonetheless, this approach to using forum acts as a community resource is responsive to students’ needs. It is thus likely to be a resource that students would find significant value in, while also preventing the repetition of answers and the unnecessary burden on behalf of the teacher.

While I acknowledge that a Q&A forum does not necessarily embrace a full peer-collaboration model, this fourth approach to LMS forums has significant potential for developing a smooth, resource-rich and responsive content archive for students.

5. Peer Collaboration

A peer-collaboration approach to student forums moves the use of reply functions to the forefront of a teacher’s pedagogy. Through this approach, forum tasks would be designed in ways that encourage or even necessitate student interaction.

A simple example of this approach would be if we formally asked students to take turns in taking the role of ‘commenter’ and ‘responder’. The 50% of students whose turn it is to act as commenters would have the task of initiating conversation in response to a prompt provided by the teacher. The 50% of students whose turn it is to act as responders for the task would be required to read their peers’ initial comments and provide constructive comments linking their peers’ comments to real-life examples, scholarly literature or their own perspectives on the topic.

This fifth approach to using forums is perhaps the one with the most pedagogical potential. This fifth approach emphasizes the collaborative potential of online forum discussions and directs students towards reading and reflecting upon their own peers’ perspectives. Here, social learning theory is employed to emphasize the importance of reading others’ perspectives in order to challenge and extend personal beliefs.

Using LMS Forums: Choosing Your Own Adventure

In our brainstorming, the faculty agreed to use several, different approaches to forum building in their online courses. The Q&A approach was found to be of great benefit for time management and build-up of resources, while the group broadly agreed on the fact that the peer-collaboration approach would act as a core method for engaging students in weekly tasks.

The exercise of brainstorming different approaches to the use of LMS forums was, therefore, less of a task in eliminating certain types of forums as worthless, but more of a way to build forums with clear pedagogical intent. The team was then capable of moving forward in the development of their online courses with a clearer vision for how their classes would run, and how the forums would deliver a positive learning experience for students.

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