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Why you should be using forums and discussion boards in your Online classes

This post is a segment of the Online learning series that explores various Online tools available for facilitators and teachers to use in their classrooms. It is primarily aimed at K-12 and HigherEd educators in India who have moved to an Online setting recently for teaching.

MAKING THE SHIFT TO ONLINE LEARNING
MAKING THE SHIFT TO ONLINE LEARNING

The world has changed. The shift towards Online learning in the past few months has been remarkable. If you are an educator, you must be doing Online teaching considerably often than what you were doing last year. Many of us have adapted fast since we were familiar with basic applications like email and video call software. But is that enough to offer the same quality of learning that we provided as part of in-person classrooms?
This series explores the challenges, gaps in moving to Online classrooms and the means to fill them and even go beyond what was in traditional classrooms

We consume information from the internet in plenty of ways. Videos, blog posts, memes, eBooks, and more. A lot of this material is passively consumed. Forums and discussion boards are one of the few formats available currently that encourage knowledge consumption and creation interactively in the Online ecosystem.

INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET
INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET

What is a Forum?

An Internet forum, or message board, is an Online discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages.

Wikipedia

Here are a couple of popular message boards you may be using and aware of – Quora, Stack Overflow, Reddit. And a great deal more. Most social media communities have discussions than act as message boards too.

What is an Internet Forum?
What is an Internet Forum?

Why should I Care?

Should an educator care?
Should an educator care?

Online classes you do today are video-based – either live or recorded. The learner sees it, does specified activities connected to it. If there are assignments, they complete and submit them. You examine them, grade them, and give them feedback.

What happens when they have a doubt? What happens if you want them to work together on a project? How do you discuss giving everyone an equal chance to share their thoughts? What happens if you want them to comment on each other’s assignments? And complete this in the limited duration you have for your class?

ONLINE CLASSROOM
ONLINE CLASSROOM

Forums are the answer to these questions. 

FORUMS are your answer
FORUMS are your answer

Forums are comparable to the lunch period in schools. Learners are just hanging out. A few are having fun. A group is showing off their works. A handful is finishing up their extra work. Another group is probably making trouble. But a significant amount of learning happens there without effort. More than that, they become friends. It helps to establish a sense of belonging.

Build a community of Learners with forums
Build a community of learners with forums

Forums differ from lunch periods in the sense that they are asynchronous – learners could share ideas in a forum at any hour. Multiple learners may share opinions simultaneously. And lastly, because not time-bound, it encourages continuous and connected learning. When learning a fresh subject, learners can continue to discuss past material, while further creating new knowledge connecting both the topics. This is something that might not have been possible easily in an in-person classroom.

Forums are asynchronous
Forums are asynchronous

Forums can help learners to clear each other’s doubts. Clearing their classmates’ doubts, your students reduce your workload. It makes them better at what they are learning.

Forums are efficient
Forums are efficient

Collaboration is a key 21st-century skill and Forums play a crucial role in encouraging collaboration. If you want them to work on a research project together – A forum can enable all the team members to brainstorm their ideas, discuss their roles, and anything else they need to discuss while working on the project. The best part of this:  all the discussions are captured for everyone to see. No one misses anything. 

Peer reviews are another important aspect of learning today and no better way to do it than in forums. Peer reviews provide feedback to the learners. The more people reviewing them provides them with more constructive feedback. 

Forums are efficient
Forums encourage Collaboration

The last advantage is that it improves the clarity of thought and communication. Ever felt things are clearer when you write them down? Well, a forum enforces the learner to do exactly that. Moreover, they are being read by their peers who would help clarify the ideas by asking more questions. This clarifies the writer’s thought besides providing feedback to them on improving their writing.

Forums improve Communication
Forums improve Communication

I am convinced. How do I use it?

Getting started with forums
Getting started with forums

Finding out what is the Learning Management System (LMS) you are using is the first step towards using forums. Most LMS have inbuilt discussion boards.

Use an LMS - always!
Use an LMS – always!

Here is how you can use it in Google Classroom

Setting up a discussion question in Google Classroom
  1. Login to Google Classroom and choose the class you want to create the discussion board for
  2. Go to the Classwork tab
  3. Click on the create button and choose the Question option
  4. Type the question for the forum. Choose the type of answer as ‘short answer’ (this is the default option)
  5. You can type in any further instructions. This is optional. 
  6. If you need to attach any files, you can do that as well by clicking on the add / create options – these are like any other assignments, you create in Google classrooms
  7. On the right, set the options appropriately: You can make it graded. You can set a deadline if required. Topics will help you organize the discussion boards. Make sure you select the option ‘Students can reply to each other’
  8. Once you are ready click on ‘Ask’ 

What questions to add in the discussion board

Now that you know how to set up a forum discussion, what questions can you ask? The right answer is ANY question!

How to use discussion boards
How to use discussion boards
  1. Have a discussion question for everyone to introduce themselves
  2. Have a general discussion question for learners to interact on things that are not directly related to the subject
  3.  Normally my classes have a driving question board where I encourage learners to keep adding questions they would like to get answers for. You can choose interesting questions from here and post them.
  4. Post a separate question thread for each topic. Learners can discuss anything related to the topic, doubt clearing here. Leave out due dates and grades for these threads.
  5. For peer reviews, Create a separate question asking for peer feedback per assignment. Students cannot attach a file in their replies. So you can either 
    1. Share the folder where the students’ assignments are stored. 
    2.  Ask students to share the link for their work
  6. If there are group projects that you want them to work on, create one question per team for the project. In the options part, you can select only the team members. This will allow only the members of that team to collaborate. 

If you are not using an LMS, what can you do? The simplest answer is – start using one. While it may be easier in the short term not to have an LMS, I recommend you to start using one. If not, you can use options of creating private groups on social media with your students (parents, if your students are children) and you can use them as an alternative to forums.

It can’t be all Hunky Dory! What do I need to watch out for?

Of Course, there are challenges.

Low participation in forums
Low participation in forums

First, for ungraded discussions, it could be a challenge to get students to take part. So, I normally have a combination of graded and ungraded discussions. Having interesting questions is the best way to increase participation. Watch out for students who participate infrequently and highlight their substantive posts to encourage them to post more.

Bullying
Bullying

Bullying! This is more challenging in Online environments than that in offline situations. First, set clear ground rules of respect. Second, have moderators to enforce ground rules – delete posts that don’t follow the etiquette you have laid out. One thing to try is to make the student who is bullying as the moderator – we should use this with extreme caution

Plagiarism
Plagiarism

Students posting comments that are not theirs or not providing credits. There are a lot of plagiarism detection tools. You can use them. If the students are plagiarizing each other’s work, communicate with them individually, and use this opportunity to help them understand the importance of their opinions. Publicly set the expectations and then enforce them with the help of moderators.

Conflicts
Conflicts

Any discussion can have conflicts. Use conflicts to reaffirm the expected behaviors. You can post common posts on how to express opposing views without blame.  You can further reduce conflict by providing feedback to posts that contribute only to conflict and not to the topic. If the issue persists, you can resolve by reaching out to parties involved in the conflict privately.

Forums are indispensable
Forums are indispensable

Forums are becoming an indispensable part of Online Learning and rightly so! If you haven’t been using one, now is the time to set one up! 

Share which LMS and forums you have been using in the comment section below

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