Online discussion boards: getting a handle on them

Reflective  practice is an important part of the learning process. As learning and development professionals, we invest many hours in ensuring that we adopt and implement the most appropriate learning strategy to our online courses that reflect the needs of the business and our learners. Engaging our learners in the right way remains a balancing act.

Like, blogs, online discussion forums, or boards are a great way to tap into what learners are thinking, how they are behaving, and how they are interacting with their peers. We give you a best practice guide on how to get a handle on online discussion forums.

When do you use a discussion board?

As with every tool you use in the design of your course, an activity integrated into the course must serve a learning purpose. In my workplace, we used the comment section in Wiki’s to generate engagement but found people didn’t respond or initiate discussion in this format. When the business moved to a social media tool to build connections and a learning community; the discussions generated exceeded expectations. Staff were sharing content, know-how, and pointing to learning nuggets through online discussion. Take time to consider what you want your learners to do with online discussion.

You can use discussion boards for:

  • reflective practice: learners posting comments about their personal reflections on topics showcases their progress and creates a shared experience among learners.
  • assessing tasks or as a summative assessment. I particularly enjoyed a course where after each guest speaker; I had to write a reflective piece on what I got out of the seminar. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on my response but also to read how others were impacted by the seminar. It made for wonderful discussions.
  • developing critical thinking and writing skills.
  • facilitating new ways of learning. Learners can review and respond to their peers and simultaneously introducing them to different approaches to learning.
  • empowering learners to express themselves.

Best practice: the mechanics of using online discussion forum

Etiquette also applies to the virtual community; establishing discussion or contribution guidelines will help learners and the trainer to manage online discussions effectively. Creating a safe and fair learning environment is equally as important online as it is face to face.

  • Write good discussion questions. Shape your questions to reflect different kinds of thinking. Asking questions with ‘Why’, ‘How’ stimulates convergent thinking. Questions that begin with ‘Imagine’, ‘How might’, or ‘Can you create’ encourages divergent thinking. For evaluative thinking that stimulates reflective practice, consider beginning your questions with ‘what do you think about…’, ‘Justify’. Avoid open and closed questions that give you a yes or no response.
  • Determine how you will assess their contribution to discussion. Let them know if you will be assessing their comments. Share the assessment criteria with them: how often should they post, what is the length of their post; this will guide them in their critical thinking and writing skills.
  • Foster informal interaction by creating a discussion board for introductions and getting to know their peers (especially useful if you are training a group of people from different parts of the world).
  • Be clear about acceptable and appropriate online behaviour by sharing the Internet Code of Conduct policy.

Next time, we will review how we can design for assessment with discussion boards, how we manage assessment, and how the trainer can facilitate and moderate effective online discussions.

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