March 5th, 2018

Seven Ways to Facilitate Effective Online Discussions

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facilitating effective online discussions

Unlike a lot of faculty teaching today, Brian Udermann learned about the potential of online discussion boards almost by accident. It all happened about 15 years ago when he noticed the online discussion forum feature in his institution’s new learning management system and decided to set one up for his face-to-face class in health and nutrition.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” said Udermann, now director of online education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “There were no grades affiliated with it. I didn’t even create a prompt, or a question, or an activity, nothing. I just told students, ‘Hey, this is available in our class, this discussion forum thing, and if you ever want to go out there and interact with each other, you certainly can.’”

Nothing happened for about a week or so, but then one day a student posted a comment about something he found interesting from the day’s lecture. Then another student chimed in, then another. And for the rest of the semester a small group of students would drift in and out of the discussion forum, chatting about the most recent class and the things that piqued their interest.

Fast forward to 2018 and Udermann is teaching others how to facilitate effective online discussions. He knows firsthand the challenges of engaging online students and hears from faculty about the frustrations of trying to find the right balance with their online presence as well as the age-old challenge of cultivating meaningful dialogue among students.

He offers the following seven strategies for creating robust discussion board activities that students will find interesting along with helpful tips for managing instructor workload related to reading and grading posts.

1. Identify your optimal number of discussion forums.

Oftentimes, an online instructor will determine the number of required forums based on the weeks in the semester. So, by default, a 15-week course has 15 forums. That can be too much, especially during weeks where students have midterms, papers, or other large projects due.

In surveys of online students at UW-La Crosse, Udermann says they started noticing a theme about five years ago whereby students said the discussion boards sometimes feel like busywork. It’s that kind of feedback that can help faculty reconsider the structure of their discussion board requirements and reflect on what they’re really hoping to achieve.

“We always have this conversation with new instructors before they teach their first online course,” said Udermann. “Why are you using discussion forums in your class? Is it just because it’s an online class, and you think that that’s what you’re supposed to be doing? What’s the purpose? What’s the meaning? What are the students going to learn? What do you want them to achieve based upon their participation in these forums? Are your discussion forum activities tied into the student learning outcomes for the class?”

Once you have the answers to those questions and a clear purpose to each assignment, share it with your students. The reason we’re having this discussion forum this week is because ________.

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