Teaching brings moments when class discussions seem to take on lives of their own. Students lean forward, with several of them raising their hands to participate. You, the instructor, race to keep up, excited that everyone is so engaged. You are negotiating
replies and rebuttals among the students, adding in the occasional question or comment to keep things moving in an academic direction, and then … the bell rings. Class is over. The moment is lost.
Those moments can be commonplace. The answer is the online forum. Over a decade of research reveals a set of best practices that assist forums to achieve their potential. Forums are easy to run, provided you follow a few key guidelines, which perfectly support the trends toward hybrid and wholly online learning. This article briefly illustrates the five essentials of effective forums, so efficiency and effectiveness are maximized.
The number one determiner for whether or not a forum achieves the higher-order thinking and class socialization goals that are the hallmarks of excellent discussions is instructor participation. Forums are not magic bullets that save time. They require frequent, meaningful instructor participation that is, at the same time, balanced in a way that allows the students to come to their own understandings. This participation takes three forms. First, as the “guide on the side,” you keep the forum’s discussion on topic. When students stray too far it is your role to nudge them back to the topic. Second, as the “meddler in the middle,” you challenge threads that are slowing down prior to achieving the depth of learning that you desire by asking more questions to the participants. Third, as the “sage on the stage,” it is acceptable for you to supply enough information to get the conversation moving again. Just be sure that they exhaust alternatives first.
A second essential for a successful discussion is an open-ended prompt that encourages multiple opinions. In fact, the more numerous and nuanced the positions taken on the prompt, the more potential academic gain. For example, rather than asking a question like, “Did Germany’s invasion of France in 1914 guarantee a continent-wide conflict?” you can ask, “At what point did the 1914 conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia make a Europe-wide conflict irreversible?” An excellent source for developing the skill of crafting such prompts is Dr. Sam Wineburg , professor of Education and History at Stanford University. A lesson plan on how to ask open-ended questions can be accessed at Stanford’s K12 Lab Wiki .
A word of caution is necessary here. Some forums fail to develop rich, varied responses because participants are more concerned for maintaining social cohesion that they are concerned for intellectual honesty. It is essential that instructors build into the grading rubric the necessity of students responding to positions other than their own, and to do so with evidence and respect. If this atmosphere does not already exist, then modeling of effective, respective debate needs to take place prior to the implementation of forums. We want our students to go beyond themselves, and insisting on this level of debate helps them to stretch their intellects.
Next, group students heterogeneously, combining introverts and extroverts. Only a few researchers tested for this balance, yet the evidence is strong that such a blending significantly enhances the quality of the discussion. Forums made up of a blend of intro- and extroverts give voice to the quiet, more philosophical students, and push more outgoing students to think carefully. This Myers & Briggs page may help you to determine your students’ natures in this regard.
Finally, while forum “trees” make sequential correspondence obvious by nesting responses through indentation, several researchers suggest creating an additional labeling system that instantly allows the viewer to recognize what kind of response to a post each entry is. Is the response a question, a statement of support, a rebuttal, or something else? I like color coding, if the system allows. You can also instruct participants to title their responses with a symbol (“?” for questions, “S” for supporting the above argument (with evidence), “R” for rebuttals (with evidence), etc.), followed by a dash, followed by the title of the response. An example of a rebuttal might look like, “R-Russia’s refusal to stop mobilization guaranteed a general European war.” The research data show that additional structure leads to more frequent and more additive posts.
The Bullet List:
1. You, the instructor, must be actively involved in the forum.
2. Craft meaningful, open-ended questions.
3. Create and post a rubric that insists on participants addressing opposing views.
4. Keep forum groups mixed between introverts and extroverts.
5. Use a coding system for responses that further clarify the nature of posts.
See if your school or district already has the ability to host forums. If not, Wordpress is a free blog host having several forum plugins to choose from, and no advertising. Each subject, indeed each instructor, is unique. Beyond the above five suggestions, experience will guide you in crafting your own online discussions. Enjoy!