Moderating successful online forums

As with face-to-face teaching within a campus-based classroom, teaching online through Learning Management Systems is an active process that involves planning and skill to create a productive environment for learning. The tools available to teach online have been available for quite a few years, but in recent times have become far more intuitive, integrated, and understood within the learning and teaching process. Plus, the expertise developed by students to work online, complete tasks, act convivially and productively in groups, and communicate over distance is increasingly desirable as many more work environments become virtualised.

There are numerous tasks that instructors can perform to promote productivity in Learning Management Systems. However, the integrated suite of tools in which they are made up isn’t necessarily productive. There is much instructors can do to promote their effectiveness in addressing teaching and learning goals. This partly involves the ability to recognise in the first instance what may work better in a face-to-face setting and what may work better online. Then instructors must devise coherent, engaging, and friendly activities to sustain the group of students over time, both on and off-line, to work towards these goals.

What do you think works online?

A suggested way to integrate the Learner Management System into a course is first to do an audit of the curriculum. Tasks such as group writing tasks, discussions and debates, assessment tasks, and active and critical engagement with content” such as academic articles” can be done online or offline. It is up to the instructor to decide what mode works best for their particular content and the assessment tasks and learning outcomes. There are, of course, tasks that Learner Management Systems do exceptionally well, such as delivering core teaching materials such as unit outlines and pre-recorded lectures. However, other tasks, such as formative assessment (the informal assessment during studies) and learner Management Systems, also do well, and there is an array of communication tools available to communicate directly to students, individually or in a group, to aid this.

Pro-active interaction

Once a decision is made to integrate specific tools, such as forums or virtual classrooms, into the curriculum, it is essential to consider how they will be moderated to ensure that the desired learning outcomes are met.  The instructor must take a proactive role to ensure that the interaction with content, the interaction between groups of students, and the interaction with the instructor are constructive and meaningful (see Salmon, 2012). The tone and calibre of the conversations ensure students may contribute constructive critique confidently, without the fear of ridicule or personal reproach.

Instructors should intervene in forums to moderate and guide, reward good ideas and drive conversations. This is similar to what takes place in face-to-face tutorials. However, online platforms have new opportunities, such as summarising the debate, reinforcing common goals, placing links to content to strengthen or refute an argument and reiterating the benefits of contributing to the forum at intervals. Plus, forums are in written form, providing a reference point for pursuing ideas for subsequent written assessments.

But as with face-to-face teaching, it is also important to push, to a certain degree, the responsibility for finding course-related material and discovering new information” and thus the responsibility for learning” back onto the student. There is a danger that the instructor becomes little more than a search engineer offering quick answers to questions uncritical and comprehensively. Scaffolding, linking, and delivering information in an exciting and challenging way will promote information sharing between students, thus assisting in building knowledge through dialogue.

Building strong foundations

Online sessions may be framed as an online seminar or tutorial and may be synchronous or asynchronous, depending on the content and activities. As with face-to-face teaching, it is essential to make the topic of study exciting and to ground the objects of the survey in anecdotes, stories, and in real-life experiences. Also, couching the object of study in discursive dialogue between students will assist them in learning from each other. This may take the form of a group of students coming together in a forum to provide feedback on an article, summarise and critique it, and then develop a set of questions to bring to class to further explore in a face-to-face meeting.  

In general, ideas should be presented to students so that they make sense in the overall course and the substantive conversations directed towards the system’s goal. Activities may be collaborative or practice-based, but always with clear and coherent goals.  In summary, building a solid foundation from the start, planning activities, and introducing and explaining online tools in their context will sustain students in the longer term. Both instructor and student are working towards common goals with shared responsibilities.

For more discussion on moderating successful online forums, see Gilly Salmon, Moderation: The Key to Online Teaching and Learning, Taylor and Francis, 2012



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