How to create engaging discussion forums for elearning courses

By  Vinny Stocker

Discussion plays an important role in education. It helps students embed their learning, challenges their assumptions, and furthers their knowledge. If you are using an LMS to deliver eLearning courses, you should give serious thought to adding discussion forums to facilitate further learning. It’s also a great opportunity to get feedback and gauge how well students are responding to your teaching. 

Here are 5 tips on how to create lively and effective forums that students will want to engage with. 

Post topics that resonate

It’s tempting simply to post ‘what do you think?’ type questions for your students. However open-ended questions sometimes disengage students. Much better to pose direct questions that challenge them to take different viewpoints. Another idea is to get them to imagine a future scenario or anticipate what might happen next. Students love to use their imagination and offer alternative ideas, so incorporate that into the discussion topic and you’re onto a winner.

To increase engagement and stimulate interest, try to incorporate real-world examples into your discussion topics. By relating the course material to practical applications or real-life situations, students will be more likely to see the value in what they are learning and feel motivated to participate in the discussion. This approach also encourages them to think critically about the topic and make connections between theory and practice.

Create a lively dialogue between students and teachers

It may seem like an easy ride to fire off a discussion and leave the students to it. This may work with highly motivated and intelligent students, but it’s better if the teacher helps guide the discussion and responds to their students’ ideas, just as you would in class. 

Sometimes, it helps to structure a discussion, so that as many students get a chance to respond as possible. For example, you could ask 3 or 4 students to present different aspects of a problem, and then the other students respond to those. Or divide the class into supporting two different viewpoints and then argue it out. You could even ask the students to create the topics themselves. 

The teacher should be available to jump in if the discussion gets too heated. However, if you set it up well with simple rules, these discussions will flow nicely without much input.  

Consider getting students to rate posts, ideas, and discussions, possibly by using Bloom’s taxonomy method.

Alternatively, instead of always being the one to initiate and drive the discussions, encourage students to engage with one another directly. This can help foster a sense of community and collaboration within the course, as well as promote independent thinking and problem-solving. One way to do this is by assigning group discussion topics or facilitating small-group breakout sessions where students can work together to explore a topic in more depth.

Use a variety of content in your eLearning discussion forums

These days, we don’t need to limit forum posts to text and images. Most students have a smartphone and can easily create a video of themselves articulating a point of view. They can also create presentations, PDFs and infographics, so make sure you encourage this kind of creativity. Students tend to enjoy variety too. 

The same goes for posting the discussion starter. To add variety and stimulate different learning styles, consider incorporating multimedia resources into your discussion topics. This could include sharing relevant articles, videos, podcasts, or infographics that help illustrate key concepts or provide additional perspectives on a topic. By offering diverse resources, you not only cater to the preferences of different learners but also create more opportunities for students to engage with the material and contribute to the conversation. You could also get students to respond to different media, depending on what is most appropriate.

Link discussion forums closely to classwork

Discussion forums for eLearning are most effective when the topics are linked directly to what students are learning in your courses. You can even provide links to the forum at various points in your materials to get students to respond and discuss their learning.

If you deliver virtual classes in your eLearning program, you can use a forum to continue discussions if you run out of time. You might also consider using the forum to assess students’ understanding of the topic.

Recognizing and acknowledging students’ contributions and achievements can go a long way in fostering a positive and engaging online learning environment. Take the time to highlight insightful comments, creative solutions, or thoughtful perspectives shared during discussions. By celebrating successes and accomplishments, you can motivate students to stay active in the discussions and continue to put forth their best efforts.

Share news, opinions and suggestions

Students are more likely to engage in discussion forums if you create a sense of community. Make your forum like the archetypal town square, where people can share news (related to their studies), exchange opinions, and offer suggestions for new topics or improvements.

To further enrich the learning experience and spark interest, consider inviting guest speakers or subject matter experts to participate in the discussions. Having industry professionals, academics, or other experts share their insights and experiences can provide students with valuable perspectives and inspire deeper conversations. This can also help students connect the course material to real-world applications and build their professional networks.

Bonus! Addressing common student questions about online discussion forums

As a teacher, it’s important to be prepared for the questions that students might have about online discussion forums. In this bonus section, we will address some of these common questions by providing advice to help you create a successful eLearning environment.

  1. Understanding the purpose of eLearning forums: Online discussion forums are often used in eLearning as a means for learners to communicate with each other, discuss questions related to the course content, and interact with the instructor. Including a forum in your online course can foster collaboration and support among your students.
  2. Conducting effective online discussions: To create engaging and meaningful online discussions, you should convey your expectations, adjust your approach to the discussion board, clarify your role, provide feedback and coaching, track participation, and create thought-provoking questions. Additionally, consider forming small discussion groups and selecting discussion leaders to help facilitate conversations.
  3. The role of LMS discussion forums: In a learning management system (LMS), discussion forums serve as online communication boards for asynchronous conversations. These forums enable users to post or read messages related to various topics, promoting social learning and information sharing.
  4. Benefits of discussion forums in education: Online forums can help students review material, engage in discussions of course content, and reflect on the information they’ve learned outside of class. These forums also promote collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills.
  5. Creating a successful discussion forum: Ensure that your discussion threads are substantial yet concise and that they convey only the most meaningful and accessible information. Encourage students to proofread their responses before posting to minimize errors in spelling and grammar.
  6. Advantages of online discussions: Online discussions offer convenience, focused conversations, in-depth discussions, increased participation from introverted students, diverse perspectives, and readily available resources.
  7. Encouraging online etiquette: Teach your students the importance of being respectful, using appropriate language, being careful with humour and sarcasm, maintaining proper grammar and spelling, citing sources, not sharing inappropriate material, and being forgiving of others’ mistakes.

By understanding and addressing these common student questions about online discussion forums, you can create a more effective and engaging eLearning environment. In turn, this will encourage active participation and help students make the most of their online learning experience.

There are plenty more ways to create forums that fizz with ideas and debate. If you need help setting up discussion forums for eLearning on your LMS, contact us today. 

Vinny Stocker

Vinny is an experienced educator and technologist with over 25 years of leadership experience in the field of information and communication technologies (ICT) in education. He is the Managing Director of Pukunui Sdn Bhd, a leading Learning Management Systems provider in Malaysia, where he has successfully implemented e-learning systems for some of the largest universities in the country. He is also a recognised expert in the field of Moodle, having trained hundreds of teachers on various versions of the software and regularly presenting at educational conferences in South East Asia. Vinny is known for his progressive and driven approach, as well as his ability to provide practical and effective solutions that promote student progress and learning. He is an accomplished entrepreneur, published author, and a down-to-earth and approachable individual dedicated to improving education through innovative integration of ICT.

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