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10 Top tips for creating more effective online learning forums

Asynchronous teaching is more challenging when it comes to creating learning activities. There’s a wealth of information and materials that you can use to teach online, but activities have to be carefully planned. It takes some trial and error to figure out what works and what doesn’t for a particular group of students.

Online learning forums are the most accessible way to engage students. Yet, sometimes the attempt to create amazing discussions falls short of expectations. Some teachers complain that students aren’t motivated to contribute, plus it’s hard for a single educator to keep up with the many ongoing conversations.

Read more: How to facilitate meaningful discussions in hybrid or virtual classrooms

Still, online class forums can be a great source of information and learning when they do work well. I remember fondly of my days as a student, having engaging discussions on old-school forums with my colleagues. We didn’t do it because we had to, it was more of an opportunity to use the internet to help each other with schoolwork. Forums are not at all an obsolete medium, just look at Reddit and its popularity right now.

Additionally, online forums have unique benefits, which include:

  • allow students and instructors to share their interests and collaborate no matter where they are;
  • lead to new knowledge since students have the opportunity to really take in what their colleagues have to say (or write);
  • convenient and can accommodate all students, regardless of their abilities;
  • in asynchronous-only learning, students get to know their peers and instructors and actually develop relationships;
  • since online collaboration is already so important in the workplace, students learn how to work in virtual teams early on;
  • students can engage in thoughtful conversations as a group, not just a 1:1 online discussion;
  • all student replies and knowledge are stored in a single location — the class forum — which becomes a learning resource in itself.

That being said, you don’t have to teach asynchronous classes to reap the benefits of forum discussions. Any type of class, including blended ones, can have discussion forums. Even if it’s for sharing learning resources!

10 Top tips for creating more effective online learning forums

We all know how much time and effort it takes to create a good learning environment. In the same vein, online forums don’t become good collaborative learning environments overnight. Here are some tips to help you start using them the right way or troubleshoot the classroom forums that you’ve already set up for students:

  1. Choose a good forum structure

    The forum structure is very important! The best part of a forum is that it’s usually pretty intuitive to follow. However, not all students are familiar with old-school forum structures. They need an updated version that can display a clear hierarchical reply tree, in which it’s clear to see who they’re replying to and who is the original poster.

    Otherwise, students will probably not be able to quickly make connections between the different levels of a forum and be confused. In fact, even teachers can struggle with this part, so if necessary, try to recruit your colleagues to test out forums with you.

  2. Set clear goals

    What do you want to achieve? In asynchronous learning, the largest objective is student engagement. However, social learning comes close, with more and more teachers wanting to recreate a classroom discussion online.

    That’s why it’s good to lay out your intentions so all students can understand the final goals and, most importantly, why they should try to engage in the first place. Additionally, a forum can also be an assessment tool, in which case students have to be aware that their final grade might suffer if they never reply or have too little activity.

    Read more: Assessing with multiple choices instead of multiple-choice

  3. Have forum rules

    Teachers can start the school year by asking students to come up with forum rules. That’s because students are more likely to follow them if they’re directly involved in the process. Regardless, some good rules include:

    • Choose a specific topic before you post;
    • All students must be active on the forum;
    • Make sure to interact with one another by leaving replies;
    • Don’t open offtopic posts. Instead, ask questions using the chat room.

    Too many rules spoil the fun, but having zero rules can be distracting, especially in asynchronous learning, where students could spend too much time sifting through offtopic comments to find what they need.

  4. Allowing multimedia replies

    Text-only communication has its advantages. For instance, it can help students practice their writing skills. However, adding images and videos to the discussion is just as relevant, if not more relevant, in most learning scenarios.

    For example, a video reply can also be an accessibility feature, which opens more possibilities for students with disabilities. Some subjects, such as Biology, rely heavily on demonstrations and visual aids rather than abstract thinking. That’s why you should make sure that students can embed images and video replies or add links to different resources such as YouTube.

    Read more: A call for more visual learning elements in schools

  5. Enable social media features

    Low motivation to participate in asynchronous discussions can be a challenge for any teacher. In this case, you can raise their interest with a forum geared towards social media users that feels more familiar to students.

    For example, as we’ve discussed before, they should be able to reply to any comment they want, even if it’s a sub-comment of a comment.

    Additionally, having “likes” really makes a forum feel more familiar, as they find that social validation from teachers and peers to be encouraging. In this way, the conversation should go smoothly, regardless of the main topic.

  6. Enable active participation

    Creating a good environment for collaboration takes more than just encouraging students to reply to your questions. The forum has to be for them and about them.

    As a teacher, you have enough on your plate already. If you’re the sole conversation starter, it’s high time you changed your approach.

    Do this by allowing all students to open topics, especially if it’s to ask for help with understanding a specific topic. It’s a gold mine for asynchronous learning, in which teachers usually have a hard time checking for understanding.

    Active participation also requires planning ahead, so point out to students that they can also post in the forum.

    Read more: 5 Reasons why active learning classrooms are the future of HE

  7. Monitor participation

    Depending on how many students you have in your class, monitoring participation can be quite difficult. It takes a lot of time to read all the replies and give individual feedback.

    However, much like in the spider web discussion method, teachers can monitor participation by checking the forum information. For example, they can filter by name and see which students have participated and the detailed activity of each one of them.

    This is an easy way to see who is engaged and who needs a little more encouragement to express their opinions.

    Read more: Making spider web discussions work in asynchronous online classes

  8. Sort forum topics

    Categorizing messages also helps you monitor participation. To keep everything organized, choose a few keywords that students can use to start a new forum topic.

    A few suggestions can be #homeworkhelp or #exams for exam questions. Whenever you or your students want to find a particular conversation, use the search function to sort through messages. At the end of the semester, you’ll have a few big categories to make a final assessment of this activity.

    Moreover, categorizing forum topics offers valuable insight into what students want to know, how they try to help each other, which are the subjects they’re struggling with the most, etc.

  9. Use gamification

    This probably comes as no surprise! Gamification is all about the positive reinforcement of all behaviors related to collaboration and deep learning within the forum.

    So, if you’re using a platform that allows you to reward students for posting and replying to the forum, it helps motivate students to participate. This is true even if they receive one point per reply or a badge since it can quickly add up.

  10. Give feedback to students

    Students can be encouraged to take ownership of the forum and discuss freely, but teacher feedback is necessary.

    In this case, you can establish a timeframe for reading through the comments each day or a few times per week, depending on the number of students. Try to give feedback to students directly through a forum reply or through private messages.

    Additionally, a discussion rubric is also a good idea. Basically, you can have a few codes, such as I-Inspiring for whenever a student leaves a reply that inspires others to participate or Q-Question for whenever a student asks a relevant question. Use these codes to quickly assess their progress through a forum and what each student brings to the discussion.

    Read more: 6 Digital tools for giving feedback to students

Could the humble forum be the answer?

Asynchronous discussions have many benefits, but the most important one is that students don’t have to be in a classroom at the same time to learn from each other. Many teachers have found that class discussions can work just as well through an online forum, as long as it’s organized, has a clear structure, and students can rely on teacher feedback.