In these ‘unprecedented times’ (yes, I said it) one thing at least is certain…like it or loath it, online teaching is here to stay.
This ‘new normal’ requires us as educators to consider new and innovative ways of engaging students with course materials. Simultaneously, we are challenged with fostering a sense of community and connectedness at a time when we have never been more isolated from one another. Online forums are just one tool that can help tackle both these challenges at once.
Forums can play a big part in providing peer-learning opportunities for students, strengthening relationships, lessening the effects of social isolation and empowering students to develop a social presence. From an educational perspective, forums provide students with space to reflect and apply their learning which in turn aids knowledge retention.
In short, ‘forums construct a learning experience around collaboration as a means of deepening understanding.’
Assuming my powers of persuasion are strong, and you are now itching to set up a student forum, here are some simple suggestions for establishing and managing forums to maximising student participation and connectedness.
- Don’t keep it a mystery
Ensure early buy-in from your students by being explicit about the benefits they can enjoy by being an active participant on the forum (see above). If these are made clear, students will be much more motivated to get- and stay- involved.
2. MIND YOUR Ps & Qs!!!!!! – online etiquette or ‘netiquette’
Good forums provide a safe space to openly share ideas, opinions, questions and considerations. This can only be achieved if students feel that it is a respectful and supportive environment. Take some time to consider some simple ground rules you expect students to follow. This could simply include asking students to avoid excessive use of capital letters and explanation points – no one likes to feel they’re being shouted, whether it be online or in person.
You could also provide more structured guidance to encourage a positive culture based on thoughtful and constructive engagement, this will help create an inclusive environment which encourages reluctant students to engage more freely.
Example: the ‘3CQ method’ suggests contributions should include compliment, a comment, a connection or a question. This helps to keep discussion constructive and supportive whilst also avoiding dead-end comments like ‘I agree’.
3. Creative contributions
Make your forum somewhere that students want to come to by making it interactive and fun. This can be achieved by encouraging contributions which use multi-media, such as pictures, weblinks and personalised videos, YouTube content and PowerPoint presentations. Lead by example by contributing multimedia yourself. Your contributions will help set the tone and demonstrate to students that the forum can be a place for creative contributions outside of the traditionally academic.
4. Get involved
Forums are driven by discussions. Your active involvement on the forum will have a big impact on student engagement. Take the time to respond to comments and messages to keep the forum dynamic and lively. Follow up on questions, both privately and publicly, and provide affirmations, prompts, feedback and pose open-ended questions in order to encourage students to think deeper and more critically. Your involvement may also help identify any students who are less engaged and you can encourage their participation.
A word of warning – although your contributions help keep the forum dynamic and active, it is also important to give students space to discuss and share ideas. Try not to dominate.
5. Lose the lurking
Research shows that introverts are more likely to engage in forums than contribute in class. You may still find however, that some students are more eager to get involved than others, you may even get the odd ‘lurker’ – someone who views the forum but doesn’t actively contribute.
Lurking can occur because of a perception that those students who confidentially contribute have a better understanding of discussion topics. More often than not, active contributions have little to do with greater knowledge acquisition and far more to do with a student’s general confidence to engage with forums as a learning tool. Encourage lurking students to participate, contact them privately to tease out and challenge any preconceptions they may be harbouring about active contributors and encourage them to get involved by reiterating the benefits that can come with active engagement.
If you would like any help with setting up a forum please get in touch with DEO or attend one of their drop-in sessions details of which can be found here.
Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching Co-ordinator