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Fostering an Active Online Discussion

How to foster community and conversation in a digital classroom

June 23, 2015

Heather VanMouwerik is a doctoral candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Follow her @hvanmouwerik or check out her website.




When I was an undergraduate, in those heady days of invite-only Gmail accounts and “Heather is…” Facebook statuses, there were only two ways to communicate with classmates: seeing them in class or stalking them after. If you wanted to hold a study group, were confused by the reading, or wanted to work on a group project, then you had to plan to meet in advance.


At the time collegial community could only be built through face-to-face contact—students physically occupying the same space with the same goals and the same schedule. This model works great within a certain set of parameters: at a university with an in-residence student body, small student-to-teacher ratios, and in courses with high attendance and daily discussion requirements.


Although this describes my university experience at a small liberal arts college more than a decade ago, it no longer represents the experiences of most undergraduates. Our students are older, have full time jobs, commute to campus, and have larger classes and less contact with professors. In addition, many of them are choosing to take online or hybrid courses alongside more traditional classes. All of this means that traditional methods of fostering a positive community in classes are not as effective as they once were.


Despite the changing realities of higher learning, course community continues to be important. It teaches students to take responsibility for their own education, builds upper-level communication skills, and contributes to a positive learning environment. Though I will always be nostalgic for earlier times, our students, especially in hybrid or online classes, will not have the same learning experience.


Instead, the question becomes: how do we build a digital community that fulfills the pedagogical importance of peer-to-peer communication?


In my courses, the answer has proven to be an active online discussion forum. This is a platform where students post comments, questions, or links that the entire class can read and comment on, like a class-access-only Twitter feed. It is something that continues to exist and function when you (the instructor) are not logged in. This space allows students to communicate on course content without the direct intervention of the professor, share course-related material, and connect in a more informal atmosphere.


Despite the best of intentions, most forums fail from either lack of participation or interest in their success. Early on in my career as a teaching assistant I used forums as a way to alleviate my own workload or tacked them onto a course to make it seem more interactive. Yet, the sound of crickets chirping quickly overwhelmed any student interest in participation. Each and every forum failed to create any sort of community, let alone a self-sufficient one.


When I became more invested in digital pedagogy and course design, I began circulating a student questionnaire at the end of each quarter. In response to a question on the usefulness of the discussion forum, one student replied, “I don’t know what this question means.” If this student made it through an entire quarter unaware that we had a discussion forum, then I was clearly doing something wrong. My confusion over how to develop community spread quickly to my students.


In the years since then, I have experimented widely with discussion forums, in both form and content. The easiest way to foster community in these forums is to:


  1. Clearly articulate the forum’s objectives: On the syllabus and online, in class and via email, it is important to consistently and clearly communicate the goals for the class forum to your students. What do you consider active participation? What type of questions should they post on the forum? Who should respond to them? When? How often? If you are clear from the beginning, then students will know exactly what is expected of them.

  2. Redirect all appropriate questions to the forum: The first few weeks of class, I am always inundated with emails about the course, from expectations to content. Rather than reply individually with “please consult the syllabus,” I politely refuse to answer their question until they post it on the forum. The key here is consistency. Every single appropriate question, every single time. By forcing the students to make a habit of seeking advice on the forum, the students will increasingly rely on it.

  3. Create assignments that require a forum post: The most successful discussion forum I ever participated in was for an online historical methodologies course. The first week the students had to post a short comment about their favorite zombies (the course’s theme); the fifth week they had to post a 6-word summary of their course project. By making a forum post an assignment, complete with guidelines and a grade, the professor was simultaneously demonstrating the forum’s centrality to the class and promoting community through publicly sharing students’ ideas. An early project starts the students off on the right foot, and a mid-course assignment reminds students of the forum’s importance.

  4. Offer Community Participation Points: Participation points are a trope in undergraduate classes for one reason: they work! If I am planning a course where participation in an online forum is required, I offer a negligible number of points to students who actively participate. Depending on the forum’s objectives, this could mean anything from answering a classmate’s question 2-3 times a week, to posting their own comments a few times during the course, to linking to relevant news items. Luckily most of the software that these forums run on provides user statistics, making quantifying these participation points easy.

  5. Be the active participant you want your students to be: Silent forums start feeling like a blinking neon sign after a while, garish arrows pointing to my failure as a teacher. Sometimes, despite explaining the importance and planning the forum, students do not post. My natural inclination is to turn away, to downplay the forum as a way of downplaying this failure; however, that is the opposite response that a silent forum should elicit. Instead, make sure that you are posting regularly, answering and asking questions, and linking to interesting materials. For the class on zombies I mentioned above, the students had to write a fake primary source. I started finding news articles on recently found materials—an unknown diary in an attic or a new book in a bank box—and asked the students if they thought these were fakes. I was happily surprised how interested the students were in these real-world examples.  


If you are interested in using a forum in your class, I would recommend seeing if your university already has a forum function tied into their classroom management system. If they don’t or you don’t like the system they provided, you have several options. You could have students use Twitter with a course-specific hashtag. Or use a private system, like Piazza.


The system you choose, however, is not as important as what you can get students to do with it. Discussion forums, when active and engaging, use a digital tool to solve a pedagogical problem. Although the community of face-to-face or traditional classes cannot be completely replicated online, forums approximate that experience by facilitating informal connections between students and providing opportunities to share their work.


Do you find forums an effective tool for online learning? How do you foster active participation in them? Please let us know in the comments!


[Image by Flickr user Loughborough University Library and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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