Discussion forums are not being consistently used to effectively contribute to learning. Part of the problem lay with students while other parts of the problem lay with professors but it is the forum itself that can adjust and make a difference in the connectivity of the elements and an improvement in the overall learning process. Developing strong forums is part of the learning battle and when done well can impact the quality of learning throughout a university.
According to Rose and Smith (2007) there are a few best practices with online forums which include giving clear instructions, useful feedback, improve motivation, set appropriate expectations, organizing the forums, social presence, determine questions to be asked. Such forums should not be seen from a static and singular perspective. They are living, breathing, and moving entities that require an environmental approach from different angles.
Salmon’s five stage model is a solid reflection tool that helps to lower things that inhibit student learning. The model provides a framework for student learning by drawing students into higher levels of motivation. The different categories can be seen as follows (Salmon, 2004):
Access and Motivation: Students should be motivated to engage in the learning process and will need access to the discussions.
Online Socialization: Online socialization offers an opportunity engage with fellow classmates.
Information Exchange: Forums should provide the ability to share and transfer information.
Knowledge Construction: Through this information students begin to develop constructs and knowledge.
Development: Students use their learned knowledge to provide personal development.
Mokoena (2013) conducted an interactivity study of online students over a period of three months to assess the quality of online forums. The researcher found that basic and substantive posts were impacted by technical problems, unclear expectations and feedback quality. When there are unclear expectations and a lack of motivation, un-substantive posts increased while substantive posts declined.
The expectations help students visualize how much they should engage the forums and at what level. Even though high performing students may exceed these expectations lower performing students will need this guidance to at least complete the minimum. Both high and low performing students like to know whether or not they are meeting these expectations in order to gauge their performance and effort.
It was also found that technical support is necessary in forums. When technical problems exist students may not engage the forums in a clear manner or may end up skipping certain aspects of their work. Having technical support in a clear and easy to find place will help students find the technological solutions they need quickly.
Instructors can also foster motivation and performance by offering accurate feedback and a summation of the student's work. This depth encourages students to recognize that the instructor actually cares for the student and is taking note of their performance. It also allows the student to recap on their conclusions and have feedback about that synthesis.
The development of strong interaction online requires multiple approaches which includes access, information, expectations, and feedback. When professors can engage with their students well they create a level of expectation and motivation to perform well. Without this level of interactivity it is doubtful that students will maximize the use of such forums and may soon lose motivation. As with all classes there will be students who perform below, at, and above the expectation. Yet what professors do can enhance this motivation to create a stronger learning environment.
Mokeoena, S. (2013). Engagement with and participation in online discussion forums. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 12 (2).
Rose, R. & Smith, A. (2007). Chapter 9 online discussions. In Cavanaugh, C. and R. Blomeyer (Eds.), What works in k-12 online learning (pp. 143—160). Washington, DC: International Society for Technology in Education.