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Using Discussion Forums to Extend What's Possible in the Classroom

Sep 10, 2020 9:14:02 AM

This fall, instructors at virtually every higher education institution across the country will be using technology in new ways to support teaching and learning. Some instructors will be teaching remotely; others will find themselves in a physical classroom, but with a limited number of students in attendance to facilitate social distancing. In both cases, instructors will likely rely on video conferencing and other technologies to deliver lectures and facilitate student interaction.

In either of these scenarios, instructors who believe learning is deepened when students work collaboratively to explore ideas will face new challenges. While video conferencing tools do provide a few different ways for students to interact, those interactions are typically limited to class time. Instructors who want to use technology more successfully to extend what can happen in an online environment should also consider asynchronous tools in addition to live or recorded video sessions. 

Why?  Simply put, asynchronous tools aren’t bound by time or space. Platforms like Chat and discussion forums extend the “walls” of the classroom in new, more flexible ways. While both are sometimes maligned--chat for being too “light” and discussion forums for being too perfunctory, asynchronous tools can be used in powerful ways to facilitate student interaction--especially if the platform you’re using combines both to support authentic engagement. 

Below, I focus on discussion forums, since that’s a tool that most instructors and students are likely to have access to. Here are three ways to use discussion forums this fall to expand what’s possible in your classroom--whether that’s in a physical space, online, or somewhere in between:

  1. General Q&A Discussion Forum
    Every course should have a general questions and answers discussion forum, prominently displayed on their course’s home page. 
    A general Q&A forum is a place where students are invited to ask questions that they may have about the structure or content of the course, or even about using the technology. This relatively open space to ask questions can be comforting to students who may have anxiety about remote, hybrid, or online learning. 
    Because the idea of managing an open Q&A forum may be daunting to an instructor, he or she should ask that students try to help each other in the forum as much as possible. This is not only a way to share the load of a Q&A forum, it’s also a way for students to connect and engage with each other, building a sense of community.
  2. Extend Access by Providing an Asynchronous Option
    If you teach live video sessions where you typically have students discuss ideas with each other or work in small groups, you can use the online discussion forum to move these activities to an asynchronous environment. This is especially helpful when students are struggling to adapt to different time zones, spotty internet access, or other constraints on their time and availability. 
    Create an online discussion that corresponds to each class session where students would ordinarily be expected to interact.  In the initial discussion post, provide any material relevant to the discussion -- you might want to link to a video recording of the live session. Design your prompt (the question your students will discuss) and provide any supplementary materials. Be sure to tell students if they need to work in pairs or groups, if applicable. If you set up discussions to correspond to activities in live sessions ahead of time, you’ll save yourself a lot of work and stress once the semester begins.
  3. Connected Discussions
    A classic method of extending a discussion beyond the limits of a face-to-face class session -- and of ensuring all students have a chance to participate to the fullest -- is by creating connected discussions

    A connected discussion typically begins in a live session, where instructor and students are engaged in discussing one or more topics. Near the end of the live session, the instructor points the students to an online discussion forum where they should continue the discussion in the time between live sessions. During that time, the instructor should make note of important points or threads that arose in the online discussion, and recap, summarize or further explore those ideas during the next live session.

    Connected discussions leverage both online and face-to-face environments to improve student discussions and increase participation. With a bridge across these two environments, students feel like they are participating in a single, connected experience.

    These are just a few simple ways that online discussions can be used in your course, no matter how it’s being taught this fall. Adding regular asynchronous activities helps promote student interaction and engagement. And instructors can develop a set of activities that can be reused to enhance their teaching no matter how it is delivered.
    Look for more ideas? Download the Best Practice Guide for Online Discussions authored by Rhonda L. Blackburn, President of the United States Distance Learning Association.

    Best Practice Guide for Online  Discussions

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