How to Moderate Discussions on an Online Forum
An online discussion is a didactic method by means of which students learn to collect information, take a point of view, argue, give feedback to fellow students, and strengthen their communication skills. Discussion also increases student engagement in online education. You can organize discussions either asynchronously (forum), or synchronously (chat, video call).
The advantage of an online asynchronous discussion is that students do not have to be online all at the same time. It gives them time to look up things and think about the wording of their message. This increases the quality of their input.
An online synchronous discussion has the advantage that lecturers can quickly pick up on certain comments, and that the interaction runs a more natural course. The principles of a face-to-face discussion apply here. Use video conference tools (such as MS Teams) with integrated voting systems to moderate this online.
In the following Education Tip, we will take a closer look at the organization of an online asynchronous discussion through a forum.
When to Organize a Discussion on an Online Forum?
Online discussions can be used for knowledge acquisition and student collaboration. They enable you to create an interactive learning situation for your students, in which they communicate online, learn from each other, exchange ideas and thoughts, etc… . You give your students the opportunity to process the learning material and to express their own opinion in a structured way. Students, in turn, learn to justify their opinions, and if necessary, to adjust them.
This teaching method is often combined with another teaching method, such as a lecture. Lecturers can, for example, instruct their students to discuss a particular topic on the Ufora discussion forum. That discussion can then be the starting point for a follow-up lecture.
How to Use Online Discussions?
There are several options for using an online discussion group.
- low-maintenance: you activate the forum and leave it at that. Students can use the forum freely to discuss problems and questions, but participation is not mandatory. Keep in mind, though, that such low-maintenance treatment of the forum may lead to the dispersal of erroneous information. Be sure to warn the students of this.
- as a moderator: you supervise the discussion, and you intervene only when it is absolutely necessary, e.g. to steer the discussion back into the right direction, to clear up misunderstandings or to reinv but only when it is really necessary, for example: to push the discussion back into the right direction, clear up misconceptions or get the discussion going again.
- high-maintenance: you manage and control the discussion and minutely follow up on everything that happens on the forum. Putting in this much of an effort usually repays in higher-quality discussions.
Lecturers can either choose to supervise the discussion themselves, appoint an assistant or a student. The supervisor may then be assigned to comment on the students’ contributions, participate in the discussion themselves, steer the discussion into the right direction, to introduce new discussion points or to encourage students to take on those roles.
There are three ways to give students access to a discussion: the entire student group, individual students, or a limited student group making a group work. Think carefully for what purpose you will be starting a discussion. If the entire student group is involved, you want participation from everyone, you want them to read and possibly interact with each other’s input. In the case of individual students, participation rather takes on the form of e.g. keeping a logbook. In the case of group work, the discussion is used to differentiate, to have certain questions answered in a clustered manner, etc.
Tips & Tricks
A Good Starting Point
A good discussion starts with an interesting problem statement, an intriguing and well-structured assignment or question, a controversial statement, a position taken by the lecturer, etc… Engage with current affairs by highlighting a controversial case, e.g. one involving different contradictory views. Another possibility is to start from a social or political problem.
Set up a dummy forum and give students an introductory forum assignment. This both serves as an icebreaker and as an introduction to the ways of working with a forum. Be sure to draw up a clear set of rules for the students on how often to read the forum, how often to reply to a fellow student’s post, how often to post something themselves. Inform the students of how you will be participating in the forum, too.
Make Student Participation Mandatory
Clearly inform the students that you expect them to participate. Make sure that you monitor student participation closely, and that the students are aware of this. You can stimulate participation by, e.g. allocating marks. If you do, specify clearly how students can earn marks.
Consider linking the discussion to a score item in your gradebook. This way you assess the students’ input. It is recommended to add qualitative feedback as well. This can be done, for example, by adding a rubric to the forum. A rubric gives your students a clear picture of the criteria that they should pay attention to when composing their contribution. This way you provide the students with a transparent assessment method.
Limit Group Size
For the sake of group management, you would do well to limit the student groups to 10-15 participants. If the student group is too large, we advise dividing it into several smaller teams.
Take a Back Seat, but Remain Visible
The forum mainly serves to invite discussion among students. Take a back seat as much as possible and intervene only in order to steer the discussion back into the right direction, or when a student’s question remains unanswered. Providing feedback can reassure students.
Establish Ground Rules
Dissension may rise among students. Be sure to lay down some ground rules on proper forum behaviour, and on how to respond appropriately to others. Give examples of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour/responses.