This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle and with the author’s approval.
People often ask me to name my favorite online teaching tool. My answer is always the same: Hands down, it’s online discussion forums.
As a veteran online teacher, I view discussion forums as the meat and potatoes of my online courses. They are where my teaching happens—where I interact with students, guide their learning, and get to know them as people. The joy I’ve come to find in online teaching stems directly from those interactions.
Covid-19 has all of us preparing for a fall semester unlike any we’ve ever seen. Online teaching is front and center again, but remains underexplored terrain for many faculty members. Learning how to use online class-discussion forums to their best advantage is probably the smartest, and easiest, thing you can do to improve your online teaching and your students’ learning.
Why? First, online discussion forums reinforce what we’re all hearing from teaching experts: Lean into asynchronous teaching, and do more with your campus learning management system (LMS). That’s been my focus in this online teaching series (with previous installments on how to connect with students and how to be more inclusive).
Second, online discussions are the equitable and inclusive workhorse of online teaching. Using assistive technology, students with disabilities can use an LMS forum more easily than a Zoom discussion. And the low-tech nature of the forums can diminish inequities in other important ways:
- Students can submit discussion posts at any time of the day or night, and they don’t need a fast Internet connection to do so.
- They’re not required to show their physical surroundings to participate.
- Forums get students to interact with one another, which is crucial to helping them feel connected and engaged in virtual classrooms.
Leading an effective discussion in an online forum is a skill you can learn, much as you learned how to lead class discussions in person. A forum discussion just seems harder to oversee because it’s so unfamiliar—you probably never participated in one yourself as a student. To that end, here are six simple ways to foster meaningful conversations in an online forum:
Take Part in the Discussion
Full disclosure: There is a school of thought that suggests only students should comment in your course’s online discussion forum and not you, the instructor. But I’m in the school that argues just the opposite. Would you announce a discussion in your brick-and-mortar classroom, and then walk out the door? If not, don’t do it online.