1.3 More on Forums
I find forums really interesting. They are such a great tool for giving everyone an opportunity to express their thoughts, especially people who really like to think about a question before replying. They don't get much of a chance to do that in a classroom discussion when all the extroverts are talking.
Types of Forums
I also like forums for the range of activities that you can cover with them. Besides working with faculty at my school, I also teach a course in project management every fall. It's a class that meets face-to-face once a week in the evening, so I use forums to try to keep them connected to the course throughout the week. These are the kinds of topics I give them to help them develop their understanding of course principles:
Scenario Response: I provide four different short scenarios and ask them to choose one for their reply. Each scenario requires them to review what they know about the related content and then formulate a response as a recommendation for what should happen next, based on their understanding. I encourage them to critique each others' responses.
Reading Response: Students read articles (both academic and from current events) and respond to reflective questions.
Personal Response: Students relate an experience to a course concept (for instance, Planning to Fail: What experiences have you had with bad planning? What do you think was going on in the organization that contributed to the less-than-optimum results? Was it due to processes or people? How might the situation have been avoided?)
Personal Reflection: I ask students to reflect on what they've learned so far by asking them what has surprised them about what we've worked on together and what insights they have gained.
Interpretive Response: In Project Management at the Movies, (shown above) I ask students to draft a brief analysis of a movie that demonstrates either good or bad PM principles. For this forum, I always provide a model response comparing the PM characteristics in Apollo 13 and Toy Story (these movies have more in common than just Tom Hanks!). Consistently, my students vote this as their favorite forum!
Q & A: Besides using forums for routine discussion, I always recommend having a Question & Answer forum for students to pose general questions about the course. I always subscribe to this forum so that I am notified as soon as a student posts a question.
Peer Review: In my PM course, I also use forums for ongoing peer review where groups of three students read and comment on each others' project forms throughout the term. There's also a group forum to support their work as they build a case study of a catastrophic project.
Instructor Participation in Forums
Discussion forums are a great way to extend the conversation for face to face classes and are usually the heart and soul of an online course. Some strategies for balancing forum involvement could include:
- assigning roles to individual students so they have responsibility for posing questions or guiding the discussion, helping them understand that it's about more than just them
- having students discuss in small groups, either to take the place of a class-wide discussion or to craft a joint response that they post and defend in a large-group discussion
- using a rubric to assess forum participation and include criteria related to encouraging others to speak up and valuing the contributions of others in a substantive way
- providing private, corrective feedback to individuals who might not be allowing others the space they need to express themselves
Some instructors feel they need to respond to every post, creating a balancing act of a different sort. A lot of factors go into how much you need to be "present" by responding to posts: the educational level that you are teaching, cultural expectations, the degree of formality of the forum (e.g., highly structured or very relaxed), the role of discussion in the course itself, the degree of technical sophistication of your students.... there are a lot of variables! Besides these considerations, you also need to be aware of your own capacity and of the effect your participation in a forum.
Generally, it's just not practical to respond to every student's post—not if you'd also like to have a life! You also don't want to hover over the discussion to the point that you stifle participation among the students. Chiming in from time to time can give your posts more value.
Often, instructors respond personally to each post in an introductions forum to welcome each student, then back off in later forums to some extent, posting to redirect, refocus and/or summarize the discussion as needed.