Online Discussion Forums: Benefits, Challenges and Strategies for Instructors

This article aims to identify the benefits & difficulties of using online discussion forums from an instructor's perspective & provide strategies & improvements that can lead to a more participatory forum.

Online Discussion Forums: Benefits, Challenges and Strategies for Instructors

Online discussion forums are a great way to facilitate communication and collaboration between students and instructors. They are asynchronous communication tools that are widely used in learning management systems, and can be used for many purposes such as helping students review material before an assignment or exam, having students discuss course material before coming to class, and reflecting on material they have read or worked with outside of class. However, instructors and students face a variety of challenges when using online discussion forums, and instructors lack guidance on strategies they can use to achieve a more participatory forum environment. This article aims to identify the benefits and difficulties of using online discussion forums from the perspective of instructors, and to provide a list of strategies and improvements that can mitigate challenges and lead to a more participatory forum. Discussion forums are the heart and soul of your online classroom.

They are also the most interactive part of the classroom, where students can interact with each other and the online teacher has the greatest opportunity to create bonds with their students and create a sense of community in the online classroom. Creating a community is important in online teaching so that the online teacher can create a safe learning space for students to thrive and learn online. This is especially important for online teaching, since taking an online class can be quite isolated and lonely compared to a face-to-face classroom where you can see your classmates and your teacher in real time. Having engaging forums reduces that loneliness, making the online experience a more engaging experience. Visible tasks are another great way to get students to contribute and view more formal writing or thinking tasks.

Having students post their assignments on a discussion board allows other students to view and interact with other students' writing tasks. Teachers can also use the format to leave sample comments for students to view. The authors developed a pedagogical support tool to allow early identification of students with learning difficulties, as well as students who have made relevant contributions on the topic of discussion. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 12 instructors who teach distance learning classes that use discussion forums. In addition, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, PhD Vilas professor and professor Sir Frederic Bartlett of UW-Madison, has compiled five tips for improving online discussion forums.

In addition, according to experienced instructors, when designing a distance learning discipline, it is crucial for the instructor to plan and structure the virtual room before starting the course, as well as to keep in mind that it is essential to include the forum in all units of the course to encourage the student to interact with each other and discuss the content taught. An empirical study of online discussion forums conducted by graduate students in library science and information sciences using the technology acceptance model 3.D1 found that difficulties in following the forum refer to the difficulties faced by instructors and students in following the discussion due to the large number of publications that are produced in the tool. The influence of group size on asynchronous online discussions on the development of critical thinking skills and on improving student performance in the online discussion forum was also studied. The following suggestions and examples of a well-structured discussion forum activity can help you design a better learning experience for your students:

  • Plan ahead: Before starting your course, plan out how you will structure your virtual room.
  • Include forums in all units: Make sure you include forums in all units of your course so that students have an opportunity to interact with each other.
  • Monitor activity: Constantly monitor your forum environment so you can calculate discussion data and determine if it is going well.
  • Provide visible tasks: Have students post their assignments on a discussion board so other students can view them.
  • Leave sample comments: Use the format to leave sample comments for students to view.
These tips are relevant to the distance learning community and can inform instructors, developers and researchers on how they can improve their use of forums. If well structured, online discussions can be an effective way to boost student learning outside of class; however, GSIs often find that student inputs do not reflect strong participation. By following these tips, instructors can create an engaging forum environment that encourages student participation.

Allen Craiger
Allen Craiger

Incurable food advocate. Devoted web guru. Freelance analyst. Avid twitter expert. Hardcore internet ninja. Typical webaholic.