Saturday, February 1, 2014

The fine art of the discussion forum

When our statewide system implemented the Canvas LMS, one of the most compelling offerings was the ability for students to join a discussion verbally -with a recording or video - rather than having to type their thoughts. Since many of our students are not native English speakers - and because writing is often the most difficult area to master - I felt this would be an incredible offering for community colleges. However, when I look at discussion forums in various classes, I can see why getting students to participate is still a challenge. Many instructors are still getting used to the video format themselves, and many view the form as a mini-quiz tool than as an actual discussion. I believe the discussion forum can often be the seed from which the course grows, and I also believe that creating successful discussion forums is akin to a fine art, like making a tea bowl.
There are many steps and for a seemingly simple bowl to be created; shaping, glazing, and firing before the cup of tea can be shared and enjoyed.

1. Shaping: Your forum can be about anything; it is a piece of clay with no shape until your hands form it. Take time to shape it carefully, the way a potter would; work with the clay and mold it carefully. You also have to let the bowl become the shape it is going to become; allowing your students to feel safe, to express doubts and confusion, to build on each others' ideas, is crucial to a meaningful discussion. As with clay, you have some control, but not absolute control.

2. Glazing: Allow your students to feel they are helping to add beauty to the discussion. Find ways to include visuals (such as we have done here) to allow students to express themselves beyond words, and add visual of the best features of teaching online. Watch as the plain piece of pottery you started with becomes glazed and imprinted with the singular thoughts and ideas of those students, that forum.

3. Firing: When you put a pot into the kiln, you don't know what will emerge. The circumstances of the heat changes everything -that is one of the unpredictable aspects that the potter both relishes and dreads. As soon as your discussion starts, the glaze you thought would be brown turns red; the shape changes slightly because of the heat. Interactions too evolve and shift in unexpected directions. It is what it is, and you can experience the uniqueness of each piece as they emerge from the kiln, even (or perhaps mostly) if they weren't what you were expecting.
(This is a tea bowl made by my friend Chika Oumi.)


First and foremost, do not confuse a discussion forum with a quiz! Pose questions that have more than one answer. Here is a link to some great ideas on active discussion forums that resulted from Stephanie Delaney's presentation at a recent NW eLearn Conference that I was lucky enough to attend: Beyond the Discussion Board: Ten Tips for Engaging Online Students

Below is an infographic I created as a reminder that at the heart of every great online course is....heart.