“Let’s continue this discussion after class”

Every day teachers face the dilemma of maximizing learning in the context of limited resources and class time. An online forum, also known as a discussion board, offers a solution to this perennial issue by creating opportunities for students to collaborate outside the classroom. An online discussion goes beyond independent practice and turns homework into a true extension of class.

Why teach with a forum?

First and foremost, a forum works great for students. It provides the interactive experience of a discussion through an online medium, giving them the freedom to think and write in an environment of their choice and using their preferred tool (laptop, smart phone, etc). This medium also changes the nature of discussion by making all voices equal. Students who are normally shy, or who just need more time to think, find that an online discussion allows them to contribute in ways that traditional classroom activities do not.  Finally, students can respond to each other’s work, which encourages them to read critically and learn from their classmates. From simple writing errors to seriously flawed reasoning, students who make a mistake will often be corrected by their classmates.

From the teacher’s perspective, you do not need to be a technology whiz to set up and manage a forum. They are designed with the average user in mind and only require a willingness to experiment. A forum can help your class work around a scarcity of time and resources by extending discussion of important topics, bringing you that much closer to accomplishing your instructional goals. And of course, they are free to use and won’t strain the technology budget.

Getting started: The basics

In about 10 minutes you can set up your own forum with its own unique web address. These sites offer free service and a wide range of customizable features:




If you teach multiple subjects, you can create separate forums for each. However, multiple sections of the same subject can mix together. For example, your students in section A and section B who never have class together will be able to discuss the same concepts online.

Once the forum is ready, your students will have to register and become members. Having students choose usernames based on their real name will make them easy to identify and establish an environment of professionalism. Recommended: CPanna or ChristopherP. Not recommended: Wildman52684.

The key idea is that a forum is only a new medium for a familiar activity, thus it should work like a good class discussion. It begins with clear expectations, which you should review in class and post on the forum for reference. Values like respect, responsibility, and teamwork should guide everything that occurs on the forum. If you teach in a place with a school-wide code of conduct, you can incorporate that into your guidelines as well.

Students must also understand that their work can potentially reach audiences they did not intend. One way to prevent this is to set your forum as private (check the “administrator” or “settings” menu) and require a password to sign in. Still, online gossip does happen, and it’s possible that a student could copy something from the forum and paste it publicly. Therefore, just as we teach students to speak responsibly, they should write in the same way.

Just like in class, an online discussion should be student-centered. As they listen and respond to each other, you can occasionally step in to guide the discussion, but it is essential that they do most of the thinking and writing. However, if the rules of conduct are broken, you may warn or suspend members, which you’ll find in the “moderator” or “administrator” controls (that will be your title as the boss of the forum). Each of the services above offers slightly different options for this. It’s also good to follow up with a face-to-face discussion so students see that online offenses have real-world consequences.

Forum activities

A topic discussion is the most basic way to use a forum and a good way to introduce students to the medium of online interaction. You would begin simply by posting a prompt or open-ended question, and students would then write a post responding to the prompt. It gets interesting when they must make one or more additional posts in which they respond to their classmates. Even though it’s a simple assignment, you may want to review the instructions in class the first time your students will use the forum. Otherwise, the best thing you can do to keep them focused is give specific instructions and due dates. Here’s an example from my Modern World History class:

Post #1

In your opinion, where did revolution result in the greatest changes: the United States, France, or Latin America? Think about political, social, and economic transformations and give specific facts to explain your view. Your post must mention ALL THREE revolutions. Explain why you chose one revolution over the others.

Post #2

Comment on TWO classmates’ work. You may agree, disagree, clarify, praise, criticize, etc. Make sure to fully explain your comments and include your classmates’ names.

Post #1 due Thursday, October 15

Post #2 due Monday, October 19

In both posts, students have to flex their critical reading and thinking muscles. For example, a student that we’ll call Little Suzy must first understand the prompt and write something that meets all the criteria set forth. Then she must carefully read other posts and comment on her classmates’ responses. Meanwhile, someone else will probably comment on Suzy’s work, congratulating her on a job well done or maybe helping her see an angle she missed. Here’s an example of a student’s second post (commenting on classmates’ work) that did a great job:

I agree 110% with Carlos. He basically shares the same thoughts I had about the American Revolution being the inspiration for revolutions in other places. It was the first and then the others followed. Plus look at how many democratic governments we have today that are based on the US Constitution.

I disagree with Paulina and Jason who say that the French revolution was the most important of the three. I think this is wrong because it only affected France itself, like a civil war.  Even though they wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man, I still think that the American Revolution was the most important since it was the one that made people in France and Latin America realize they should fight for their freedom.

The large majority of students we teach are capable of this kind of critical thinking, and setting clear expectations is the key to making it happen. Watch out for students wandering off topic, not fully addressing the topic, or even posting late (every post is time stamped). Because forum work requires a good deal of thinking that students must accomplish on their own time, it’s good to give them several days to a week to complete an assignment.

This particular example involved a final evaluation of a topic, but that’s certainly not the only way students can interact online. You could use a forum to check their prior knowledge, share study techniques, etc.

A poll or survey is another interesting way to get kids thinking and discussing. With the forum services listed above, you can easily create a survey question and the results will be tallied automatically. You can customize your poll by the number of options offered and how many options students may choose. Students would make their vote and write a post explaining the rationale behind the vote. In successive posts they can say why they agree or disagree with certain classmates.

In my Comparative Government class, after learning about political parties in the United Kingdom, we held a mock election. The final results looked like this (click the image for a larger view). To make sure everyone voted, I could click “view poll voters.”

Finally, a forum can also serve as a gateway to other resources. For this option, the teacher’s opening post can include a link to an article, video, etc. Students click the link and read/watch/use the resource, then respond with their thoughts. Alternatively, teachers can attach a document to the forum (as simple as attaching to an email) for students to download. Again, it’s good to offer specific questions or expectations to guide their responses. In this example, my students played an online simulation and answered questions based on their experience.

As we discussed, the soldiers who marched to war in 1914 believed they would bring glory to their country and soon return home. Unfortunately, they found that the reality of war did not fit their expectations, as the conflict lasted four years and cost 10 million lives.

In this simulation, you’ll experience the life of a British soldier on the “Western Front,” the battlefield near the border of France and Germany. Click the link to begin: The Western Front – Would you have made a good officer?

Once you complete the simulation, post a reply in which you respond to these questions:

  1. Describe two weapons or technologies that made the battlefields so dangerous. In your opinion, which was the most deadly and why?
  2. Describe two difficult dilemmas that you faced in the simulation. For each dilemma, explain what you decided and the outcome of your choice.
  3. What role did morale and leadership play on the battlefield? Give an example from the simulation.

Fun stuff

Whatever the format of a forum discussion, the results will speak for themselves — students will be thinking critically, checking their classmates’ work, and learning from each other, all outside the time and space bounds of the classroom. But forums also offer plenty of features to make the experience fun for them.

Students can personalize their account by choosing an avatar (no, not the sci-fi movie). An avatar is a little picture that appears next to a member’s name each time he or she posts to the forum. They can also include smileys, emoticons, and other graphics to help express the tone of a message. Used with discretion, these can convey some of the nonverbal cues that help people understand each other in a face-to-face discussion.

To add a competitive element, forums count everyone’s posts and allow you to set up a ranking system in which members are promoted for writing a given number of posts. This encourages students to write more than is required and continue the discussion indefinitely, but of course the extra posts must be relevant and reflect critical thinking. If someone posts meaningless remarks to earn a quick promotion, you can manually demote him or her as you choose. Unfortunately, some students learn the hard way not to mess with the moderator.

To really have fun with the rankings, you can customize the ranks and amount of posts required to attain each. As a social studies teacher, my rankings are based on medieval society: peon, apprentice, journeyman, artisan, and so on. This immediately motivates the students to post because no one wants to be a peon! Rankings can be made to fit any course’s content; they could be geometric shapes in math, literary characters in English, or periodic table elements in science. You can even offer in-class rewards for advancing in rank to build the connection between the real and virtual worlds.

So open an online forum and let the discussion extend beyond the classroom. A forum will open the door to a world of resources and a new channel for collaboration among your students. As they take their critical thinking skills home, they will see that meaningful interaction doesn’t have to end when the bell rings. And they might just have fun doing it.




Related stuff

Instructifeature: Sharing time in a blended learning space

Instructifeature: Communication in your online course

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