What is a discussion forum?
- Usually text, web based only, asynchronous discussion board that enables multiple users to engage in discussion with each other online. This is similar to an email discussion, but unlike email, all contributions to the discussion are collected on a "board" which displays all the messages that have been posted to the board. Discussions are usually oganized into forums, which are separate folders each dedicated to specific broad discussion topics. Within a discussion group members contribute their comments by responding to the intial discussion question or by responding to each other. All these responses can be shown in the form of an outline or thread so that responses appear following the entry to which they are replying. For example, the following screen shot shows the
- All users have Internet connection; broadband connection not necessary (unless there are large files attached) but does reduce down and upload time. Forum can be a stand-alone environment (e.g. WebCrossing) or be a component of a course management system (e.g. WebCT, Blackboard, Moodle).
- Technology requirements: Computer with access to the Internet; browser.
- View screen shots showing different types of discussion forums: Web Crossing, Moodle, WebCT, Blackboard.
Why use a discussion forum?
- For users to engage in written online discussion with others at times that are convenient to the individual user (asynchronously). Since discussions can be accessed at any time via the Internet and can be archived, users can review these even after the discussion is over.
- So all learners can participate and are responsible for participating in a discussion. These discussions can be social (to build a learning community) and content based.
- When used in conjunction with a face-to-face or other form of synchronous class, to enable students to engage in reflective discussion in preparation for or as a follow-up/reaction to class (e.g. to debrief after guest speaker, field trip).
- Forums can be used by students to share examples of their work with each other, to engage in group work outside of class, and to ask questions of each other and/or the instructor about topics being studied.
- Examples of use:
- WebCrossing extensively used as primary instructional and learning tool in UMD M.Ed Learning Community model for critical reflection & discussion of course material and its application to students' work experiences; some classes fully online, others using hybrid face-to-face & WebCrossing or ITV & WebCrossing
- Used across campus by many faculty as supplement to face-to-face classes to engage students in discussion about course readings, field trips, speakers, and other class activities
- Increasingly used in hybrid courses, replacing face-to-face class time (similar use to face-to-face supplement, but more time spent in online discussions than when used as face-to-face supplement).
Advantages of discussion forums
- The asynchronous format enables users to review and participate in discussions with others at times convenient to them.
- Easy to use: with minimal guidance students are quickly able to use the technology to engage with others online. Having student photos helps personalize the online community.
- Every student in class is able to respond to questions.
- All students can be "heard" because even if one student posts repeatedly in an online discussion, other students can choose how much attention to give to that student's posts and can still respond without interruption.
- Students who are normally reluctant to speak in face-to-face classes report being more willing to do so online. Not only does this benefit them, but also the whole class benefits by hearing the opinions of all students rather than the most confident, dominant students who typically dominate face-to-face class discussions.
- Makes students individually accountable and responsible for their learning, and enables instructor to assess student responses systematically (especially if a rubric is used) and provide more frequent & individual feedback.
- Instructors search for and generate a list of posts for individuals, and in this way examine each student's responses over time to assess the student's progress.
- Enables students to build on face-to-face learning experiences, readings and outside experiences e.g. online discussion following guest speaker, field trip, movie, lab, or continuation of face-to-face classroom discussions.
- The process of writing responses leads to more in depth critical reflection & dialog -- writing helps students know what they know (as opposed to them writing merely to show others -- the instructor and peers -- what they know).
- If questions are well designed to have students connect their learning to their lives, it helps them examine their assumptions.
- The asynchronous format allows students to take the time first to make sense of what others are saying and then to think about and plan their responses. This is especially an advantage to students whose first language is not English (even though writing in English may be a challenge for students whose first language is not English, the asynchronous nature of the discussion gives them the extra time needed to create their written responses).
- To be meaningful, questions asked by instructors (and other students) must engage students in higher level thinking (application, analysis, synthesis & evaluation, as well as in the affective domain) and call on students to connect the course theory to their own lives. This means that learners explore topics in much greater depth.
- Instructors become facilitators in a community of learners, rather than being the focus/hub; this leads to more constructivist approaches in their teaching.
- A valuable use of the forum is for students to post drafts of their work and invite feedback from peers. Both the student receiving this feedback and those giving it benefit from this process of reading others' ideas, asking each other questions, responding to each other.
- Because they are able to "go to class" at any time, the process of student learning is more continuous. Especially at the graduate level, students report being more engaged on an ongoing basis in reflecting on what they are learning. Additionally, when they think of something they would like to say in response to a discussion, they don't have to wait for class to "start" -- they can enter the online discussion at any time to record their thoughts.
- Students (and instructors) are judged by the quality of their ideas and not by external appearance and/or their spoken language skills/accent. This can be a very important factor for people who have experienced discrimination based on these factors.
- Empowerment: By having their responses validated, their voices heard, and seeing their ideas contribute to the learning community, students gain confidence in speaking out even in face-to-face classes.
- Even after a discussion is over, students can refer back to it for review.
- Outsiders (such as experts in the field) can be invited to contribute to a discussion, greatly enriching the conversation and connecting it to real world contexts.
Disadvantages of discussion forums
- Time consuming for instructor and students (takes much longer to type a response than to engage in face-to-face discussion).
- Although any type of digital file can be uploaded to a discussion forum for downloading and viewing by others, online forums tend to rely almost exclusively on written communication, thus limiting use of other learning modalities by learners.
- Many of the subtleties of communication using non-verbals and the tone in spoken words may be lost. This is especially a disadvantage to people who are not as expressive in writing as through their spoken words and non-verbals.
- The asynchronous nature of this learning environment means that misunderstandings cannot be quickly and easily corrected, and can lead to serious problems (e.g. if students misunderstand an assignment, and instructor does not read the discussion until after the students have headed off in the wrong direction on an issue. In a face-to-face class, an instructor could immediately pick up on confusion and correct/clarify).
- Students who do not communicate well in writing are greatly disadvantaged by not being able to express themselves through spoken words.
Issues & problems related to discussion forums
- A very common theme among users of discussion forums is the amount of time that it takes to teach using these, especially when students are required to post multiple times within a discussion. Even though the extent of the instructor's presence may not be evident (as it is inadvisable for instructors to post too much within a discussion), they still have to read every post; when they do respond it is very important that their comments are carefully worded so as not to stifle or shut down discussion -- and thoughtful posts take time to develop. It is significant that almost all instructors who have been teaching online using discussion forums as a major element of their courses report feeling worn out by the process. These same instructors also state how important and valuable these discussions are to the quality of student learning (especially for graduate level classes, but this same finding has also been reported by faculty who teach undergraduates). Thus they are torn between their own need to find balance in how much they can do, and wanting to ensure the highest possible quality of learning experience for their students.
- Some instructors report that using a hybrid class format in which students meet face-to-face once a month or more frequently can undermine the quality and depth of online discussions because some students tend to hold off posting their thoughts and engaging in depth in online discussions, preferring to wait to share their ideas in person during the face-to-face class. However, by the time the class meets, students' responses have lost the connection to what was discussed online, especially if more than a week has gone by.
Emerging issues and tips related to discussion forums
- Necessary to take time at the start of a course/cohort to teach students not only how to use the tools within the forum, but also how to communicate constructively and critically with others as part of an online learning community, using posts that are short and to the point. Additionally it is very important to start out with discussions that help students build confidence in their ability to communicate in writing and online, and also for them to develop trust in the learning community. A key factor in creating this sense of trust and safety is keeping the forum closed to outsiders (unless an open folder is created when outside speakers are invited in). Students need to feel safe to engage in critical self-reflection and able to examine their own assumptions without fear that others will say hurtful things and judge them. This requires skill in the development of initial activities and in the ways instructors facilitate discussion & provide feedback.
- Instructors report the value of creating initial discussions that invite students to share personal stories (in ways that are appropriate and relate to the course objectives) not only to help build students' confidence, sense of belonging, and understanding of each other, but also to provide a foundation. As the course evolves, especially if taught following constructivist principles, instructors can integrate this information learned about students into course content and in building discussions that connect the content to students' experiences. This is especially important in working with adult learners who are working full time (connecting course in meaningful ways to their work and personal lives).
- If the forum is used as a Course/Learning Management System (CMS or LMS) (as is the case with WebCrossing in the M.Ed program) it is very important to teach students how to navigate their way around the system.
- Creating a "virtual cafe" folder within a course discussion folder is helpful in providing students with a place to engage informally and socially with each other online. This social need is important to creating a strong learning community, and having this designated location enables students to keep discussions more focused on the topic within the other (academic) discussion folders.
- Create discussion groups (as opposed to having all students post responses in one big, whole class discussion). Especially if students post more than once, a whole class discussion quickly becomes disconnected, hard to follow, and far too lengthy for anyone to read what everyone has said, and thus students become disengaged. Having smaller groups (5-7 students per group) is more personal, easier to follow, and students can then engage with each other in more meaningful, deeper, and more critical discourse. Students can still go into other discussion groups to read and learn from those if they wish.
- If you give a grade to students for their posts, provide clear guidelines on your expectations about quality (ideally in rubric form).
- If you expect students to engage with each other in discussion beyond each posting their initial response to instructor questions, it is important to give deadlines for when students' initial responses be made and then a second deadline for subsequent posts
- Be very judicious in your contributions to discussions. The ideal is to facilitate the discussion only as needed, so students know you are reading what they have to say and that you will step in, if and as needed, to help guide and redirect, but without your presence dominating. Use public posts within the discussion to encourage, redirect, deepen, and expand students' thinking; use personal emails to communicate with individuals when providing individual feedback and correction.
Time saving/ management tips:
- For students and instructors, use email notification feature so that when a new post is added to a forum, you are notified by email. This means that you don't have to keep checking in to see if there is anything new.
- For instructors:
- create a separate "Assignment Questions" discussion to accompany each assignment, so that if students need help they post their question within this, rather than embedding their question within the discussion. Instructors can then commit to checking this questions folder daily while reviewing other discussions less often.
- Related to this: it is very important to tell the students up front when and how often they can expect you to review their online discussions, and then instructors should build into their schedules blocks of time to do this (just as you schedule in time to teach face-to-face classes). This helps reduce the common complaint from faculty who teach online that they feel as if class is always in session.
- It is not advisable to respond to every post made by students. Not only does this stifle discussion among students and make the forum very teacher dominated and teacher centered, but it will very quickly lead to your feedback becoming superficial and to your "burning out." If you do feel a need to show students that you are there and have read their posts, you can place a plus sign of some other mark next to their response (by actually editing their response as opposed to replying to it, as the latter can really disrupt the flow of the discussion threads).
- Limit the number of discussions required within a course (as having too many can overwhelm both the students and the instructor and reduces the quality and depth of student reflection).
- Keep a discussion question bank from past courses so that you can draw on this for future classes. Even if you do use past questions, however, it is helpful to adapt these so they are relevant to and build on developments that emerged in preceding discussions within your forums that semester.
- Connect the questions to current issues and developments in your field (e.g. providing links to relevant online news stories).
- Simplify grading rubrics so that they are more holistic.
- If points are given for student posts, using WebCT as the grading option enables scores to be entered directly into gradebook as you review student posts.
- Some faculty recommend that you don't read all discussions: skim to get an overall sense (just as face-to-face instructors do when they circulate among in class discussion groups -- they don't listen to every word said in every group).
- Administrators: Increase credit given to instructors of courses that rely on online discussion forums as a significant component of the course.