Creating Community: Leveraging Forums in Online Learning

Courtesy of Flickr User mjsonline

This semester, I am teaching a course on Global Systems and Societies that is completely online.  Previously, I taught it as a blended class with in-person and online portion.  Having struggled in the first semester with communication and sorting out the line between in-person/online expectations, moving to the all-online format allowed  for a clear delineation of assignments and mediums for communication.  On the other hand, it also meant that these students would not be interfacing in a way that lead to natural learning community-feeling and ability to have discussions in a traditional format.  I knew that I had to be careful and cognizant of the ways in which I would engage the class and foster that kind of participation.

Anyone who has taken an online class knows this and that lack of interaction contributes to some of the dissatisfaction with online learning. Some surveys suggest that online courses with clear online communication streams are preferred by students.  Others conclude that discussions are not particularly preferred or favored, but consistent homework and assignments are cited as the greatest learning vehicles.  Yet, from Dewey to Bandura to Hatton & Smith, educational theorists and researchers have proven that when students have the opportunity to reflect and construct their own perceptions of experiences and material, they learn more.  Thus, maybe it is the type of reflection and discussion offered that matters and not the mere existence of it in the coursework.

From my personal experience, I find that it is oftentimes the type of communication that makes the difference in student engagement and participation.  Guided reflection and the response to a prompt, rather than free forums with no structure, get a higher feedback rate.  Students see the purpose and linkage to curriculum when you give a prompt and ask their opinion about a specific issue.  When done right, reflection and discussion can add to a class in a way to build that online learning community.

Tips for creating an online class community:

  • Set clear guidelines and expectations and communicate those expectations.  If you build into your course forum participation, blogging, or other forms of connective communication, convey that it is an essential part of the grade.  Students are then more apt to post.  Be sure to communicate those expectations in the syllabus so they know the weight of the discussion on their final grade.
  • Utilize the Writing to Learn (WtL) model.  These short, impromptu writing assignments allow students to get out their ideas without the stress of perfecting their grammar or writing.  This method, coupled with formal writing assignments that reinforce their grammar and communication skills, allows them to use writing as a medium for both exploring and reporting.
  • Structure the writing assignments to have clear prompts and goals.  I have found that students respond best when they have both the freedom to convey their opinion and a structured prompt to get them thinking.
  • Participate!  As the professor, make sure that you are blogging/chatting/posting frequently, as well.  Having an engaged professor shows students that you value their thoughts and opinions and you are paying attention.

You cannot always guarantee that students will use these communication tools for their maximum efficacy, but it will at the very least give you a bit more connection with those who are participating.  Online learning is still developing and growing.  We have yet to harness its full potential, but through improving our pedagogy and incorporating the tools we have been given, it can make for a more rich experience for both student and professor.


One Comment on “Creating Community: Leveraging Forums in Online Learning”

  1. John Masura says:

    I had a pleasant online community during one of my doctoral classes. I really enjoyed it and still speak with more than one participant.

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