Asynchronous discussion forums as a teaching tool

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When done correctly, asynchronous discussion forums can be a wonderful tool for enhancing learning, generating community, and engaging the student, however if careful thought and planning is not put into the way this tool is used, it can degenerate into busywork for the student and a time sink for the teacher. The design of the question used is critical when setting up an asynchronous discussion forum (ADF). The desired learning outcomes of the assignment must be taken into consideration as well as the format that the question will take.

Studies have shown that problem solving or debate types of questions tend to generate higher level thinking in the responses of the students. Another possible option is to let the student ask the question instead of having the instructor provide one. For this approach to be successful the students should be provided with strong guidelines as to how to set up their question, and an examples of they types of questions expected should be given.

Other things that can be taken into consideration when using discussion forums in an online class include:

  • It must be graded if it is to be taken seriously by the students.
  • Breaking the class into smaller groups for discussion can prevent the forum from becoming overwhelming.
  • Giving an example of what a “quality” forum post and response looks like can help the students to better understand what is expected of them.
  • Providing a rubric for grading can also help the students ensure that their post meets the required standards as well as helping the teacher determine how to grade the post. (Solan and Linardopoulos give a sample rubric in the appendix of their article “Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a grading Rubric for Online Discussions” that would be useful for many courses)
  • If the learning management system allows for it, allowing or requiring the students to make audio posts can result in a more conversational discussion. The teacher could require to student to provide an written outline of their primary post to assist students in crafting a reply without having to listen to the post multiple times.

In their article “A Journey on Refining Rules for Online Discussion,”  Chen, Wang, and Hung (2009) investigated many of the common rules to determine their effectiveness and determined that while some make sense, others actually have a negative impact on the quality of forum responses. Two areas where they suggested improvements could be made are:

  1. Students are required to respond to other students’ posts, but instead of requiring a specific number of responses, they are required to respond to any post that responds to something that they posted. This results in a better back and forth in the forum.
  2. If a student can’t think of anything to add to the discussion, they have the option of summarizing what has been posted up to that point. This results in a synthesis of ideas that isn’t always present in forums.

Finally, instructor involvement can play an important part in the success of an online discussion forum. The teacher should monitor the forums and get involved when necessary to keep the discussion going and get it back on track. However, it is important that the instructor not micro-manage the forum, but let the students take the conversation where their interests are – the exchange of ideas being one of the main benefits of a discussion forum.

In the video “Asynchronous Discussion in Online Courses,” Dr. Alisa Cooper demonstrates how she uses discussion forums in her online English courses. She makes several good recommendations in this video including using screen-casting to give the students feedback on their posts, letting the students pick the question that they want to answer, and including a Q&A forum where the students can ask questions and get responses from the instructor.

I have struggled with the successful implementation of of discussion forums in my online course, so when I was required to do a literature review paper last semester I chose ADFs as my topic. Much of what I have discussed in this blog post was learned in the process of writing that paper. Sources mentioned directly are cited below. All sources used as well as more details on using ADFs as a learning tool can be found in my paper “The Use of Asynchronous Discussion Forums as a Learning Tool in the Online Classroom.” Based on what I learned in that research, I have changed my approach to discussion forums in my online course. Instead of the traditional linear forums, I am using padlet, which works more like a bulletin board. Below is a screenshot of one of the forums that I am using in my Information Technology course this semester. We haven’t done a discussion yet this semester, but I am optimistic that this will generate a better response from my students.

Photo Manipulation Discussion Board

References

Chen, D., Wang, Y., & Hung, D. (2009). A journey on refining rules for online discussion: Implications for the design of learning management systems.  Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 20(2), 157-173.

Solan A, & Linardopoulos, N. (2011). Development, implementation, and evaluation of a grading rubric for online discussion. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(4), 452.

Cooper, Alisa [soul4real]. (2013, March 6). Asynchronous Discussion in Online Courses. [Video files]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S57oOlu9Y0Q

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