Facilitating a discussion forum is very similar to facilitating a small group activity in a face to face seminar. If you would normally pose a question or a set of questions in your seminar and divide the students into small groups to discuss it/them, then this can work equally well online. You can also design the activity as a plenary with all of the students working within one group. The choice is yours and depends upon how big your group is and how comfortable you are with facilitating online discussions. The ideal group size is between five and seven. With larger groups it is possible for some students to lurk and to not make an active contribution; with smaller groups the discussion can falter as more work is needed by each group member to keep the discussion moving forward.
Hratsinski (2008, p.52) comments that in an asynchronous discussion forum ‘students may spend more time refining their contributions, which are generally considered more thoughtful compared to synchronous communication.’ In my experience, students often feel that online discussion activities allow everybody to participate equally. Students feel less intimidated as very confident or particularly opinionated individuals are unable to dominate the learning environment like they can in a face to face seminar. Everyone has to compose their response in text format and this slows down the extrovert and gives the quieter student the chance to make a valid point or even to contradict an opinion which they would not necessarily feel comfortable doing in a face to face setting.
Although dated, this is still a really useful document when considering using discussion fora:
Here are some suggestions (in no particular order) for successfully facilitating online discussions:
- Set open questions that encourage discussion (i.e. not those with yes/no answers). Think carefully about your questions and the type of answers you are expecting. If you struggle to think of a response then the chances are your students will struggle too.
- Use Bloom's Taxonomy to determine what type of question to ask and how to phrase it. Consider increasing the complexity of your questions gradually (particularly if your group is new to online discussions). Perhaps start with a lower order thinking question (e.g. to check knowledge or comprehension) to get them familiar with the discussion environment before gradually moving to a higher order thinking question (e.g. evaluate or synthesise a piece of information). Discussion activities can be very effective at encouraging higher order thinking if used appropriately.
- Certainly for novice groups think about providing scaffolding. Identify where the discussion will take place (in Moodle this is simple) and make sure students have easy to follow instructions on how to access and participate in the discussion activity. This can take the form of a short video with screen shots or a written document - whatever works best for your students.
- Make discussion a lesson aim/objective and think about adding this to the description of the discussion activity at the top of the page.
- Experienced discussion moderators often specify a minimum number of postings and replies per discussion topic. This will vary depending upon the complexity of the initial question and the size of your group(s) but a worked example might be: 'Post one message (250 words maximum) in response to the question above and then reply to one colleague's post (100 words maximum).'
- Ensure any instructions and questions are clear and jargon-free. If this is not possible then explain any jargon used and consider setting up a glossary activity alongside your discussion to explain any subject specific terms or acronyms you have used. Glossary activities can be set to allow students to add entries which can help the students take ownership of the learning process. You can also set up students as discussion moderators so that you do not have to manage the process.
- Decide on a format for the presentation of your discussion activity and stick to this throughout the programme or module. This makes things easier for students as they always know what to expect.
- Test any links you use before posting your question or replies - nothing is more frustrating to students than links that do not work.
- Spell check your work and also check any grammar; remember you want to lead by example. Moodle does not have an inbuilt spellchecker faciliyy so it is worth copying and pasting your message into Word just to make sure your spelling is correct before posting it. You may also want to consider saving your messages in Word anyway so that you have a backup of what you have written (this is particularly important if you decide to assess discussion posts).
- Do not use the back button in your browser when composing discussion posts. Moodle does not auto-save like Word, so unless you physically hit the Save button your work could be lost if you use the back button to visit the previous page you were working on.
- Be explicit. Use bullet points rather than reams of text where possible. Students should be able to understand the main points at a glance. Use bold to underline key points. Do not use capital letters unless they are acronyms as this is deemed shouting.
- Be creative – using multimedia is great (as long as the links work). If you are using images ensure they are your own, are copyright free or have been made available under Creative Commons. If you are posting images of children or colleagues in a classroom to illustrate a point you will need their permission to do this.
- Keep the discussion dynamic. If a conversation has stopped, pose a new question. If students see that the questions change regularly and/or that people are responding in a timely fashion to their posts, then they are more likely to keep engaging with the activity.
- Think about the timing of your discussion activity - does it clash with an assignment deadline? Can you use it to follow up a discussion that started in the previous seminar? You can set release criteria for your discussion that will limit student participation to a specific date and time - this can help to focus students and encourage task completion.
- Consider using informal spaces such as a 'virtual cafe' to encourage off topic discussions. If students go off at a tangent, rather than shutting down the conversation, transfer it to the informal space and let it continue. Do not moderate conversation in an informal discussion area unless you have specifically said you will be doing this at the outset. I've seen enthusiastic tutors wade in on what students think is a personal conversation and this can cause feelings of distrust amongst the group.
- Consider awarding credit for participating in discussion activities. Some programmes or modules include participating in discussion activites as part of their assessment criteria and award a small number of marks for posts.
- Manage your students' expectations. Do not say that you will respond individually to each post within 24 hours (even with a small group this is virtually unworkable). How quickly are you realistically going to be able to respond given your current workload? Do you want to become embroiled in indiviudal discussions or are you going to respond on a given date to the whole group? Experienced moderators will often respond with a round up of the key points from all of the posts and refer to specific sections that are particularly good or pertinent which they then send to everyone in the class rather than to individuals (this is particularly useful if you have a large group). You will need to tell your students at the outset that you are not going to respond to individual posts so they know not to expect this.