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Teaching and learning with discussion forums

Moderating an online forum can provide your students with an inclusive digital space for them to share their ideas with one another.

26 June 2015

Steve Rowett and Jessica Gramp, part of UCL Digital Education, discuss ways to facilitate this.

Discussion enables students to acquire and check their ideas, as well as promote deep-learning by allowing students to build upon and challenge each other’s ideas (Weimer 2011).  

If you want to use online discussions in your own course, the first question you should ask yourself is “What do you want the discussion to achieve?“.

Potential purposes of online discussion forums

You might consider using discussion forums to allow students to share and collaborate about:

  • Expectations and experiences
  • Individual tasks
  • Group tasks, using the discussion as a collaborative constructive workspace

Or you may use discussion forums to enable:

  • Questions and answers (how often will you respond?)
  • Reflection
  • A social space

The 'rules' of using forums

Whatever the purpose, you should:

  • use clear signposting;
  • outline ground rules (personal conduct, language, spelling and grammar); and
  • make a warm and welcoming initial post.

When setting up a new discussion forum it is advisable to set it to auto-subscription so your initial welcome post is emailed to everyone enrolled on the Moodle course, but staff and students have the option to unsubscribe if they choose to.

Moderating an online discussions involves a number of roles in which you will:

  • Control
  • Facilitate
  • Encourage
  • Prompt
  • Challenge
  • Regulate

Practical tips for moderating discussions online 

  1. Keep discussions focused on a specific task.
  2. Ease people in to using discussion forums with an icebreaker – such as asking each participant to introduce themselves to the group.
  3. Large numbers of small e-tivities work better than one or two daunting ones.
  4. The e-moderator sets the environment and tone – make it welcoming and model good online behaviour.
  5. Small interventions go a long way in providing support.
  6. Encourage people to discuss rather than giving them the answers straight away.
  7. E-moderators need to spend more time initially to support participants and get the discussions started, however, over time the group becomes more self-sufficient.

Example welcome posts

These can help you to get started with forums.

1. Expectations and experiences

‘Describe your expectations of this module, your experiences of this subject in the past, and whether or not you are looking forward to the work to follow. If you have any early questions, post them here and I’ll give a reply.’

2. Individual task

‘Think of a film that you have recently watched. Based on the criteria you have seen in the lectures, comment on the roles and development of the characters, and their interplay with the dialogue and staging. Reply with your thoughts (perhaps 300-400 words) in this discussion before the next lecture.’

3. Group task

‘You will be assigned into groups of four people, each with a private discussion forum. You are asked to produce a requirements specification (no more than 10 pages) for a software system to manage patient records and appointments at a doctor’s surgery. Use the discussion to collaborate as you produce your document, and submit it at the end of the term in the usual way.’

4. Questions and answers

‘This discussion board is for you to ask questions about the module or the work that we are covering. I will check the discussion on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and will respond to your posts at those times. If a number of people are having difficulty with the same area, then I will arrange additional workshop sessions, details of these will be posted in this discussion.’

5. Reflection

‘Many of you will have used hardware or software packages with pupils with special needs. Choose one, and reflect on how you used it, what worked well, what could be improved, and whether you would recommend it to others. Also comment on how your skills developed as a result, and any recommendations you would make to others using the same software.’

6. Social forum

‘This discussion forum is set up to allow you to talk socially to other students on the module. Discussion of work is permitted, but not posting of answers to questions or any attempts at plagiarism. I won’t be responding directly to your posts, but I will pop in occasionally. We will keep a log of all the messages posted, so be polite and constructive in what you say.’

The case study originally featured on the UCL ELE (E-learning Environments) blog on 2 March 2015: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/ele/