As the use of computer technology in education expands, participants, administrators and observers continually wonder what is effective and what is a distraction. Unfortunately, many applications of technology in the classroom serve only to dilute the learning experience as students misuse resources or engage in unproductive diversions.
As a learning aid, discussion forums, on the other hand, have shown to stimulate critical thinking, improve communication skills, foster a sense of community among students, and encourage collaborative problem solving. Further, online forums enable students to work together on projects and participate at-will in evocative dialogues centered on course content.
Students will, however, have different reactions to text based discussions. Some may be frustrated by having to type everything they want to say while those with superior writing skills will have the advantage. Ironically, strong writers may not be the same students who exhibit verbal superiority in the classroom. Consequently, those who are ignored or interrupted during class discussion will often avail themselves of the expressive opportunity and display stronger "voices" in discussion forums.
Forum characteristics that may benefit students are...
- Forums can be empowering for reserved students who prefer more "space" to formulate responses and opinions.
- Forums allow for different learning styles. Those students more focused and effective after school hours can engage at times more suitable to their learning aptitudes.
- Students can immerse themselves in alternative viewpoints and view how others develop their conclusions.
- Students can learn to communicate collaboratively and form relationships around academic goals.
- Active forum participation can improve students writing and communication skills.
- Participation in forum "discussions" demands that students actively engage course content.
- Individual knowledge and understanding is increased through shared student abilities and reasoning.
- Students can elect to receive (or not) email notifications of new posts or when threads they've posted in have responses.
- Students can brainstorm together, plan future projects, share research ideas and rough drafts, study as a group for future exams, and much more!
For instructors, the most convenient attribute of online forums is the asynchronous nature of the communication. As ongoing forum discussions are logged, administrators aren't "put upon" to immediately and cleverly facilitate engagement. Rather, they can take their time to consider effective ways to guide and intervene in student interactions. This applies to students as well, providing each with time to ponder and construct their responses.
Some of the benefits of forums as a learning aid are...
- Instructors can create unlimited forum discussions to support course or project efforts.
- Instructors can easily update/modify project goals by group or individual.
- Instructors can statistically monitor participation levels of students as well as review their individual contributions.
- Links to specific resources can be shared individually or with the group.
- Student interactions can be closely monitored, measured and assigned credit for their efforts.
- Quotes from students can be included easily in subsequent threads (recognition stimulates engagement).
- Knowing others will read their posts, students will typically reference course materials more thoroughly before submitting responses for scrutiny.
- In discussion forums, students often interact enthusiastically with little prompting from instructors.
- Learning power and responsibility is transferred to students as teachers take more passive roles as moderators.
- Students are often more willing to openly and vigorously debate instructors and each other in discussion forums.
To successfully incorporate discussion forums as a learning tool, teachers should be knowledgeable in their administration and committed to the necessary level of engagement. Once acclimated, when students are able to combine and coordinate lessons from the classroom and the discussion forum, a deeper, broader understanding of the subject matter will be the result. Further, once students are comfortable in the new forum environment, instructors will find themselves in more passive roles as students take greater interest and assume more responsibility for the discourse.
With proper management, discussion forums can dramatically enhance the student learning experience. To quote educational research scholars Harman and Koohang; "A discussion board as a learning object is a prime candidate for adopting the constructivism learning theory. Constructivism learning theory includes elements such as collaboration, cooperation, exploration, higher-order thinking skills, knowledge construction, learner driven goals and objectives, multiple perspectives, multiple representations of content/idea/concept, negotiation among learners, learners previous experience, real-world situations/problems, social disclosure, social negotiation, and the use of primary sources of data."