Discussion forums are a foundation of online courses because they serve as a hub for student discussion of a subject. However, many online courses have become oversaturated with discussion forums that often serve as attendance assignments or ask obscure questions that really do not add to the purpose or content of the class. For my English composition course, specifically Freshman Composition II, the forum serves as a virtual location for students to discuss and center their ideas on a specific reading before moving to a major writing assignment.
The forum accomplishes three purposes: to engage them in conversation, to assess their comprehension of the text, and to serve as the first scaffolding task that leads to a major written task.
Begin the conversation
Following their reading of an article or editorial, students respond to a set of guided questions posed within the forum. For example, they are asked to identify the intended audience of the reading, identify the main idea of the piece, and consider the purpose for writing the piece. Finally, students are to explain if the author accomplished his/her purpose.
After posting their individual responses, students are encouraged to respond to their classmates, focusing on an aspect of the post which may be re-examined, elaborated, or questioned. A conversation amongst the class is the intention. As the instructor, I interject comments to confirm a student’s interpretation, commend a student’s explanation, redirect students to the article’s main idea, question a perception, or clarify a student’s question. I attempt to interject comments sparingly so that students feel comfortable conversing without fear of me hovering; in such cases, students then believe their responses must be either correct or incorrect which defeats its purpose.
The following week, students summarize the assigned article, for within the forum, they have pinpointed the article’s main idea and support. The forum has now placed students on the same playing field; they all have the same information. There is no need to search for the information for it is clearly expressed in conversations within the forum. Each student summarizes the piece using their own voice but with a sense of authority because they have been empowered by dissecting and deciphering the key aspects of the reading. The summary clarifies a student’s comprehension of the text; the student is then able to move to beginning the major assignment.
Expansion to the major project
The forum may be used to expand to a larger project such as a rhetorical analysis. Within the conversations, students may have addressed the tone of the author, its purpose, and the intended audience. More importantly, students have highlighted strong or weak aspects of the author’s writing and explained if the author accomplished his/her purpose. Each of these areas may be examined within a rhetorical analysis.
The forum is always accessible, so students can return to it to re-examine their initial posts as well as comments from classmates or the instructor. By revisiting their initial response of whether the author accomplished his/her purpose, students may create a thesis statement that communicates their own ideas, giving students an authoritative voice as well as providing reasons they may use as support in their own paper. These ideas can be reshaped to form an outline and draft of the written assignment.
Advantages of the forum
The discussion forum serves as a catalyst for the rhetorical analysis. It promotes conversation between classmates, not simply a rote response to posed questions. The interaction among classmates creates a learning community which may prove helpful as students continue throughout the course; they continue a dialogue with classmates regarding upcoming assignments, conduct peer review of drafts without directive from the instructor, and develop a positive relationship with others in times of frustration.
As the instructor, this type of forum allows me to monitor the discussion without having to respond to each student; instead, I focus on key responses and encourage students to reconsider a thought by posing guiding questions, all without appearing to be overbearing or absent from the forum.
Disadvantage of the forum
Now, this is how the forum is intended to operate. Unfortunately, this utopian-like forum is not always a reality. Issues arise when students, for instance, post their initial response, reply to two classmates but never return to the forum to read any responses from their own posts, or they do not read general comments I have made to other students or read the summation response I may provide at the end of the week.
In other cases, students’ posts are not timely; they post their initial response a few hours before the due date which prevents them from engaging in conversations with classmates. Sometimes, students do not participate in the discussion forum at all. They ignore the assignment because it does not have a grade attached to it. Without participation in the forum throughout the week, students do a disservice to themselves as they attempt to compose a summary, for instance, which may incorrectly identify the author’s main idea or focus on minor details instead of major ideas of support.
Refining the forum
Some experts have discouraged faculty from beginning a forum with questions saying that it is outdated, or students are bored by the structure because it is overused; however, in an asynchronous online English class, such forums reinforce the idea that writing is not an individual activity; it may be a community endeavor. Students should be able to generate ideas and shape those ideas with the help of classmates. Students should be able to express their ideas and be prepared to defend those ideas—both are done through conversation.
However, I do acknowledge that other forms of technology may foster the same types of conversations. Using Voice Thread, for example, allows students to view an image and vocalize their responses instead of reading them.
While new technology allows faculty to engage students, the discussion forum should not be a tool for which one should dispose but it should be refined or repurposed for each course. More importantly, students should be encouraged to view the discussion forum not as another “busy” exercise to complete but as one that will assist them in exercising critical thinking skills, developing a learning community, and building a cohesive and informative essay.
Crystal Edmonds is a retired college educator. She served as program director for English at Robeson Community College in Lumberton, NC. While there she not only handled administrative duties but taught developmental and college-level courses. In addition to having a master’s degree in English from UNC Pembroke, she has a masters in humanities from Tiffin University. Although she is retired, Edmonds is an adjunct English faculty at Fayetteville State University in Fayetteville, NC.