by Janice Florent
A discussion forum is an excellent tool for student engagement. However you don’t always have to use the question and answer format to engage students in a discussion forum. Chris Laney, professor of history and geography at Berkshire Community College, was having trouble engaging students in discussion forums in his online class and decided to rethink his use of this tool. Professor Laney thinks of the discussion forum as a place to foster interaction between the students through a variety of means rather than just asking them questions. He uses role-playing, debates, and WebQuest to foster interaction between his students.
One example of how Professor Laney used role-play is a discussion forum activity that asks students to do some research on a person living in an urban Roman city in the first century CE. Each student creates a character and writes a diary entry or letter recording what he or she did in the course of a day or a series of days. To do this well, students need to research a few things about the professions and classes that would have existed. The students end up talking back and forth in character and at no point does Professor Laney actually ask a question.
One example of how Professor Laney uses debates is he had students debate whether democracy in the Middle East would result in better or worse relations with nations in the region. It’s a pretty straightforward assignment; however, when having students debate it’s important to set clear ground rules to keep things cordial and to avoid simplistic arguments.
In weeks when a major assignment is due, Professor Laney gives students a less intense discussion forum assignment. Rather than carrying on a discussion over the usual two-week period, he has students do a simple WebQuest and post their findings without having to respond to each other. For example, he may ask students to post an image, video, or music clip from the Romantic Period of art in the 19th century and write a brief description about why it’s considered an example of Romanticism.
To keep the discussion forum assignments manageable, Professor Laney asks students to post their messages in a single thread. In a class of 25 people there may be 75 messages in a week, but having all the messages in a single thread makes it relatively easy to grade. When a discussion forum activity is over, Professor Laney can click on an individual student’s name and at a glance assign a grade.
For more information, read the Faculty Focus article “Discussion Board Assignments: Alternatives to the Question-and-Answer Format.”