The forum tool enables participants to have asynchronous discussions (ie discussions that take place over an extended period of time). Discussion forums are a way to add social presence to your FLO topic and foster a community of practice. Participation in the forum could contribute to an assessment grade, and could also indicate problem areas for students.
Participants can subscribe to a forum to receive notifications of new forum posts. Forum posts can be rated by teachers or students (peer evaluation). Ratings can be aggregated to form a final grade which is recorded in the Gradebook.
The general discussion forum is a WebPET(Web Presence in Every Topic) requirement. See also Discussion forum etiquette (students may need to be guided in appropriate use of forums).
Uses in learning and teaching
Forums have many uses both formal and informal, such as:
a social space for students to get to know each other (eg a student lounge)
discussing topic content or reading materials
preparing for an assessment item, or as an assessment item (this can reduce emails to staff)
troubleshooting (a great way to foster a community)
continuing online an issue raised in a face-to-face session
a 'help centre' where tutors and students can give advice
Social presence is crucial to online learning and teaching. Students need to feel connected to others in the online environment, especially if the topic is fully online (refer to Literature and resources for more information).
Model social presence (you could be the 'meddler in the middle', but whatever your role you need to be 'seen'). It is particularly important to be engage with students early on, before they gather their own tempo for engagement.
Scaffold and model the behaviours you expect and have made clear – posts, feedback on other posts. See Netiquette (discussion forums). Model an identity presence that shows students how to be authentic and communicate who they are online.
Promptly acknowledge first responses to the first forum. This will create the right 'culture' for forums in your topic and encourage participants to respond to each other.
Encourage students to use smiley faces or other emoticons to add character to their posts, and clarify emotions and meaning.
‘Create a learning environment that encourages critical reflection and discourse through open communication and trust’ (Vaughan 2010).
Model community mindedness: respond to posts that others don’t, acknowledge posts, invite ‘quiet’ students to post, link people together, draw in participants.
Encourage dialogue rather than monologue – monitor for branching behaviours that end conversations prematurely or miss opportunities to generate interest and deeper learning (see also Facilitate and monitor a forum).
Use multimedia – encourage students to post links, videos, audio files or other multimedia to the forum (if relevant) for richness of input and interest, and diversify contributions and learning formats. You might also ask them to upload a task document.
A teacher presence in the forum is necessary even if it is a student-run forum, as you will need to make sure that netiquette is being followed – when you set up the forum, it is worth reminding students about netiquette in the Description field. You will probably also learn a lot about your students and may get 'signposts' for teaching in the topic.
Provide instructions, discuss expectations and your role (eg 'meddler in the middle') with students prior to their participation. These details could go in the description for the forum.
Trigger discussion through preparatory materials, a scenario, a question or challenge to stimulate debate. Enliven the discussion by ‘using open-ended questions of a contentious nature or real world issues as stimulus’ (Redmond 2011).
Scaffold students towards independence – support them early on to develop online communication skills and meaningful interactive discussion threads.
Encourage evidence-based responses that take students beyond personal experience (prompt them to justify their arguments).
Save time by picking up on commonly asked questions/misconceptions, and answering them to everybody, or addressing them in face-to-face time. You could also create a glossary of frequently asked questions for the topic that is rolled over each year.
Where appropriate, encourage student-led discussions that are inclusive of all students. Maintain a presence, but allow students to lead, and give them time to generate responses.
Facilitate deeper learning and higher order thinking by picking up on strong points/threads and exploring them, or confused ideas and clarifying them (‘intervention episodes’, Dawson 2006).
The forum/s may be set up as an assessment item. Students could receive a non-graded pass (NGP) for forum participation, or a series of forums could amount to 10% (for example) of the topic's assessment.
If the forum is rated, it will automatically be added to the Gradebook. If not, but it is an assessment item, it will need to be added manually to the Gradebook.
Talk to teaching peers about issues around forum participation and assessment.
Decide what marks to assign to the forum (it could be a non-graded pass or a percentage).
Give students a rubric/marking guide that shows them what effective participation means – criteria could include originality, scholarly argument, type of interactions between students and demonstration of critical thinking skills (quality), as well as quantity of posts and word length.
Decide whether to use peer assessment (ratings) – this approach could help create a sense of community and deepen learning:
Decide on the range of ratings (eg 5 which means students can rate each other on a scale of 1-5)
How might students give feedback other than just a rating? It might be to reply to the rated post saying why they think it is worth x, and their own response. This is forum etiquette anyway when replying to posts (‘I don’t agree with…’ etc) and helps develop a critical but constructive approach when they post.