Discussion boards are common tools used to facilitate course-related conversation in classes that have an online component. However, the lack of face-to-face interaction can make it difficult to maintain a respectful learning environment and foster a sense of community among students. TFollowing are ten ways to overcome those challenges, build community, and encourage politeness in online forums:
- Begin by setting the right expectations.
Outline a set of rules for how students should participate in the forum. The rules should set a standard that includes the expectation that participants conduct themselves respectfully and stay on topic. The rules should also encourage students to use correct grammar and spelling.
- Break the ice with a round of introductions.
As one of your first discussion board activities, have students introduce themselves with a short biography. Set an example by writing an introduction of your own. It’s also helpful to provide discussion prompts that help students get to know one another through their responses.
- Stick with the basics to start.
After introductions are over, ease into the course material by starting with an easy discussion topic or assignment. This will make the forum seem less intimidating and encourage the participation of students who may be struggling or who may not be as extroverted as their peers. It will also give the class a chance to get comfortable with using the discussion forum to communicate their ideas.
- Promote discourse between peers.
Create discussion assignments or activities that require students to think critically, not only about the course materials, but also about the ideas and responses of their peers. This can be as simple as asking students to reply thoughtfully their classmates’ comments.
- Put students in the driver’s seat.
Empower your students, as a group, to choose discussion topics or establish goals for the class. Doing this will not only keep students engaged and invested in the material, it will also teach them how to work democratically to come to a consensus.
- Stay involved in the discussion.
Don’t leave the discussion board on autopilot. Students are more likely to stay engaged with the topic if you’re involved. Staying entrenched in the conversation also offers a great opportunity for you to share knowledge, provide guidance, answer questions, or prompt further discussion when the forum slows down.
- Set the right tone.
One of the most important aspects of building a sense of community within your discussion forums is ensuring that the tone of the conversation is inclusive, friendly, and helpful. As the instructor, your responses carry a lot of weight, so be careful to ensure that your comments are positive and constructive.
- Avoid competition.
Creating discussion assignments that force students to compete against one another, even if grouped into teams, will only fuel divisiveness and unravel all the hard work you’ve put into creating an online community that values the respectful exchange of ideas. Stay away from discussion assignments that support rivalry.
- Encourage collaboration.
Discussion board assignments that promote collaboration and teamwork can go a long way toward fostering a sense of community among your students. Not only do these assignments allow students to develop relationships with each other, they also enforce the values of shared learning and emphasize the importance of inclusivity and cooperation.
- Reaffirm a common purpose.
You may find it necessary at times to remind your students that each of them has a common purpose within the discussion, and part of that purpose is to share ideas constructively, to think critically, and to learn and grow together.
Try out some of these tips with your class, and don’t be afraid to get creative with your discussion topics and assignments. For more information about discussion boards, check out Edutopia’s Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation Resource Guide in “Resources and Downloads for Online Learning”.