I spend quite a lot of time using on-line discussion forums that are used as a part of a number of Open University modules I have a connection with. I also wear a number of different ‘hats’; as well as being an Open University tutor, I also spend time visiting forums that are run by other Open University tutors in my role as a staff tutor.
A couple of years ago, I was sent a copy of a book called e-moderating (book website) by Gilly Salmon, who used to work at the Open University business school. The e-moderating book is really useful in situations where the discussion forums constitute a very central part of the teaching and learning experience. Salmon offers a raft of useful tips and offers us a helpful five stage model (which can be used to understand the different types of interaction and activities that can take place within a forum).
Different modules use discussion forums in different ways. In some modules, such as H810 Accessible on-line learning they are absolutely central to the module experience. In other modules, say, M364 Interaction Design, they tend to adopt more of a ‘supporting’ rather than a ‘knowledge creation’ role.
Just before breaking for Christmas and the New Year, I started (quite randomly) to write a list of what I thought would be my own ‘killer tips’ to help tutors with forums. This is what I’ve come up with so far.
1. Be overly polite
One phrase that I really like is ‘emotional bandwidth’. In a discussion forum, we’re usually dealing with raw text (although we can pepper our posts with emoticons and pictures).
This means that we have quite a ‘narrow’ or ‘low’ emotional bandwidth; our words and phrases can be very easily misunderstood and misinterpreted by others, especially in situations when we’re asking questions with the objective of trying to learn some new concept or idea. Since our words are always ambiguous, it’s important to be overly polite.
Be more polite than you would be in real life!
2. Acknowledge every introduction
The start of a module is really important. The first days or weeks represent our chance to ‘set the tone’. If we set the right tone, it’s possible to create momentum, to allow our discussion forums to attract interaction and conversation.
A good idea at the start of a module is to begin an ‘introduction’ thread. Start this thread by posting your own introduction: set an example. When other introductions are posted, take the time to send a reply to (or acknowledge) each one.
3. Use pins
Some discussion forums have a feature that allows you to ‘pin’ a discussion thread to the top of a forum.
The act of ‘pinning’ a thread highlights it as something that is important. Pins can be really useful to highlight discussions that are current or important (such as an activity that needs to be completed to prepare for an assignment, for example). Subsequently, it’s important not to pin everything. If you do, students will be unclear about what is important and what is not and this risk hiding important discussions.
Use ‘pinned threads’ in a judicious way and regularly change what threads are pinned (as a module progresses) – this suggests that a forum is alive and active.
4. Tell your students to subscribe
There are a couple of ways to check the OU discussion forums. One way is to login regularly and see whether anyone has made any new posts. Another way is to receive email updates, either from individual threads or from whole discussion forums. At the start of a module presentation, it’s a good idea to tell your student group to subscribe to all the forums that are used within a module. One way to do this is by sending a group email. When a student has subscribed they are sent an email whenever anyone makes a post or sends a reply (the email also contains a copy of the message that was posted).
One of the really good things about using emails to keep track of forums is that it’s possible to set up ‘rules’ on an email client. For example, whenever a forum related email is received, it might be possible to transfer it to a folder based on the module code that is contained within the message subject. This way, you can keep on top of things without overloading your inbox.
5. Encourage and confirm
Busy forums are likely to be the best forums. One approach to try to create a busy forum is to do your best to offer continual encouragement; acknowledge a good post and emphasise key points that have been raised. (Salmon writes about weaving together and summarising a number of different discussions).
Another really great thing to do is to seek further confirmation or clarifications. You might respond to a message by writing something like, ‘does this answer your question?’ This keeps a discussion alive and offers participants an opportunity to present alternative or different perspectives.
6. Push information about TMAs
Tutor marked assignments (TMAs) are really important. As soon as a TMA is submitted, students will generally expect them back within 10 working days (which is the university guideline). Sometimes TMAs are returned earlier, and in some situations (with permission from the staff tutor), it can take a bit longer. A forum can be used to provide ‘push’ updates to students about how marking is progressing. Once a TMA cut-off date has been met, a tutor could start a forum thread entitled, ‘TMA x marking update’.
When you’re approximately half way through the marking, one idea is to make a post to this thread telling them. Also, if your students have subscribed, they’ll automatically receive the updates. This reduces pre-TMA result anxiety (for the students), since everyone is kept in the loop about what is happening. (The thread can also be used to post some general feedback, if this is something that is recommended by the module team).
7. Advertise tutorials
Open University tutorials can be either face to face (at a study centre, which might be at a local university or college), or can take place on line through a system called OU Live. A post to a discussion forum can be used to remind students about tutorials. They can also be used to offer some guidance to students to help them to prepare for the session. You could also ask whether students (in your group) have any particular subjects or topics that they would like to be discussed or explored.
After the tutorial, a forum can be used to share handouts that were used during either an on-line session or a day school. It also offers students an opportunity to have a discussion about any issues that (perhaps) were not fully understood. Also, during a tutorial, a tutor might set up or suggest a long running research task.
There are a number of advantages of connecting tutorials to forum discussions. Those people who could not attend can benefit from any resources that were used during an event. It also allows a wider set of opinions and views to be elicited from a greater number of students.
8. Provide links
A subject or topic doesn’t begin and end with the module materials. During the presentation of a module, you might inadvertently see a TV programme that addresses some of the themes that are connected to a particular topic of study. A forum is a great way to contextualise a module by connecting it to current stories in the media and one way you can do this is by either posting links to a news story (or series of stories), or perhaps by starting a discussion.
As well as sharing news stories, you can also use discussion forums to alert students to some of the study skills resources that have been developed by the Open University. There are also some library resources that might be useful too. Other resources might include OpenLearn resources, for example. A forum is a great way to direct students to a wide array of useful and helpful materials. You might also want to ask other tutors (using the tutors’ forum) about whether any other tutors have suggestions or ideas.
9. Visit other forums
Every tutor does things slightly different; no tutor is exactly the same, and this is a good thing. If you tutor on a module, there’s a possibility that you might be able to view another tutor’s discussion forum. If you have the time, do visit another tutor’s forum. Some good questions to ask are: ‘at a glance, do the students look engaged?’ or ‘how busy is this forum?’ Other questions might be, ‘what exactly is the tutor doing?’ and ‘ how are they asking questions?’ This allows you to get a view on how well a forum is being run. When you see a busy and well run forum, ask the question: ‘is the tutor doing something special here?’ If so, what is it? Sometimes, of course, certain cohorts can just be pretty quiet; some years are more busy than others.
After visiting a forum, the best questions to ask are, ‘what have I learnt?’ and ‘is there anything that I could or should be doing with my forum?’
10. Form forum habits
The more that you’re active on a forum, the more useful a forum can become for students. Find some time, every day, or every couple of days, to read through and respond to forum posts. This will keep your forums fresh and alive; they may even acquire a ‘stickiness’ of their own and become pages that students are drawn to time and time again.
This quick blog post summarises a number of ‘forum tips’ that I’ve discovered over the last couple of years of working with different modules. Some of these ideas have, of course, been shaped by the e-moderating book that I have mentioned earlier. E-moderating is a book that is useful for some modules and not others since different modules use forums in slightly different ways. Although a module team might use a forum in a particular way, it is always going to be up to you, a tutor, to take ownership of this important learning space.
Finally, if you would like to add to these tips (or even disagree with them), please don’t hesitate to let me know!