Online courses can be an isolating experience for teachers and students alike. The Internet wall makes it more difficult for students to get to know each other and their teachers, which can make it more troublesome to facilitate the same rapport among classmates that often exists in face-to-face classes.
Discussion boards are a part of online learning most students fear. This might be because these assignments require students to log in frequently and at specific times each week, or because they require forced interacting with other students. Either way, students typically dislike the discussion element of online classes.
Discussions are necessary to online classes; it’s the only way students can truly get a semblance of the classroom experience and work collaboratively. In order to get students to use discussion boards, online instructors should make sure assigned discussions are productive and purposeful. Here are some strategies online instructors can use to develop rapport and encourage participation in their courses.
Start the semester with a post that allows students to introduce themselves. One way to do this is to provide a “get to know you” prompt similar to what you would use in a face-to-face class.
In my online course, I have students provide a photo and write a six-word memoir that reveals something they’d like their classmates to know. The use of memoir and images allows students to associate each other’s names with something (the guy from Senegal or the girl who owns the Great Dane). After an icebreaker, students may feel a greater sense of knowing others on the discussion board.
Rather than being part of a larger discussion or participation grade, online teachers can make each discussion board session count for an individual grade. Knowing that each discussion carries a particular weight — and seeing how skipping assignments directly results in a zero — can motivate students to participate to maintain their grades.
Discussions should be relevant to coursework. While this designation seems obvious to teachers, it is often difficult for students to see how assigned discussions relate directly to larger assignments or course goals. In order to help students to see the relevancy of discussions, it is necessary to give them a sentence or two that indicates how the discussion will relate or help them with future assignments.
Students often desire more feedback than what they receive from their online instructors. Workshops provide a venue for students to receive additional feedback, or see how other students have approached assignments.
Teachers need to engage in online discussions and comment on student’s posts. This helps to ensure students understand content. In addition, moderated discussions can help maintain a civil and productive environment online.
To increase engagement, online instructors should create more than assignment-driven discussion forums. These non-graded forums might include a space for students to discuss non-coursework related ideas (or coursework related ideas without a grade attached) and a forum to ask the teacher questions about assignments.
Online instructors should encourage students who do well on the discussion forums. When commenting on the week’s discussion board, teachers can identify posts that went above and beyond expectations. In addition, recognizing exemplary student work can indicate the best way to approach assignments to other students.
Developing affinity through online mediums can be more difficult than face-to-face learning environments. When used to their greatest advantage, however, discussion boards provide an excellent venue to facilitate student participation.
Discussion boards necessitate that students log into the course frequently, usually at least twice a week. Since frequently logging into courses has been associated with greater student retention in online courses, discussion boards provide a great avenue to increase investment in their educations.
Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.