How to provide an effective discussion forum

Discussion forums in the virtual classroom have the potential to replace face-to-face discussions found in a traditional learning site at a college campus or classroom (Brindley, Walti, & Blaschke, 2009). eLearning is more than a technology for learning – the nature of learning online is supported by learning theories that address these differences (Haythornwaite & Andrews, 2011). The theory of connectivism embraces characteristics of eLearning which include the type of interactions that are common in discussion forums (Siemens & Conole, 2011). These forums can be actively engaging and open to analysis, debate, and interaction (Brown, 2005). The theory of communal constructivism as discussed by Haythornwaite & Andrews (2011), explores the movement from socio-constructivism to a communal type, where learners and instructors contribute to a community of learning and become part of a network. While online learning is at a distance, and not in person, the importance of establishing a presence is considered of paramount importance (Palloff & Pratt, 2011). This is true for the instructor as well as the student. The theories of  connectivism and constructivism require this type of presence, where students connect with other students and the instructor, as if in a face-to-face classroom (Ravenscroft, 2011). Not all discussion forums address this need, but are simply a type of old-fashioned bulletin board, where a note is posted and left for another person to read at some other time. Learners are not engaged in this format. However, instructors, students and online schools are in a position to utilize these learning theories for effective eLearning discussion forums.

In analyzing the discussion forums at Northcentral University, the method of enrollment must be taken into consideration, as students enter courses in an ongoing manner, never essentially being in a classroom of students, but instead often being the only one in the course at a designated time. This learning method does not create much opportunity for discussion. As a student there, I have never found a discussion board utilized within a course. There is essentially no community of learning. Northcentral provides students with individual study, or the classic “independent study” course. 

The discussion board on the main page of Northcentral offers categories of topics, one being the “education” group.  This is more of a posting, where students ask for specific information from current and former students – looking for textbooks, comments about mentors, and concerns with assignments. Comments are threaded, so there is some feeling of community, but this type of connecting is minimal.  Original posters seldom get back to the discussion to comment.  

Participation in forums is often evaluated by the quantity of students participating as well as the quality (Watson, 2008). Northcentral’s main page discussion forums do not include the mentors, and while this may not be necessary, and in my example, was probably better, the absence of mentors in course discussions may increase the distance and feeling of enthusiasm, which students perceive as favorable (Watson, 2008). This may create a divide between learner and mentor, and not bring the community of learning together. Northcentral does not provide a means for building a community of learning and therefore does not fulfill the needs of a connectivism learning theory (Watson, 2008).

In another online course, at Canvas MOOC, I found the discussion forums to be much more engaging and active, meeting the needs of the students. The instructor initiated dialogue and became a presence in the community of learning. This presence is deemed necessary to build a social network of sharing and learning (Tschofen, & Mackness, 2012). The discussion platforms covered more than one framework and included:  Twitter with the course’s own hashtags to keep the community together, a dedicated Facebook for the course, as well as discussion forums within the Canvas platform. The instructor posed a question and asked the students to respond, a helpful method to encourage active learning (Palloff & Pratt, 2011). Dialogue developed as students posted answers and responded to other students. The instructor encouraged students to add 100 new Twitter followers that shared the same goals, interests and activities. She shared her success of connecting to a community while working on her dissertation. By tweeting her progress, she found others who had gone through the same process and who were anxious to offer valuable insights and references. She felt that this connectivism greatly enhanced her desire to get the work done and helped her accomplish the task, creating a network of followers and contributors. 

As a student of her course, I felt connected, because she responded to tweets, posts and discussions with enthusiasm and interest, in a timely manner. This type of connecting requires more organization than what is offered at Northcentral, and probably would not work there, since the Northcentral courses are delivered in an ongoing manner, where students filter in and out of courses throughout the year. The Canvas course was more interactive, community building, and easier to link comments to actual people (due to the picture icons for each member). Those contacts made through discussion forums continued, though the class had long been completed. Northcentral does not encourage this type of community building through discussion boards or other networking platforms. 

Rubrics are most often created for the purpose of meeting learning objectives and assigning grades.  Since the discussion forums at Northcentral are not part of the courses, they are not required, and hence there are no rubrics for this type of activity. The course on Canvas was a MOOC and while it had objectives, there were no rubrics for online discussions. While I understand the need for grades and encouraging students to become actively engaged in a discussion online, I think the rubric is often too confining and may defeat the purpose of replacing face-to-face learning. Classroom discussions happen as topics are introduced, questions answered, and students interact with each other and the instructor. From my experience these are free-flowing, as discussions should be, with no thought of meeting the criteria of a rubric. If online discussion forums are to become successful, students and instructors need to express ideas and share thoughts without having to look at a rubric for a satisfactory grade. There may be a need of structure and prompts to guide students through effective online forums and promote a feeling of connecting (Ravenscroft, 2011). Discussion forums must have rules, to avoid negativity, but the demands of a rubric seem out of place when trying to create a community of connectivism.  

In a high school online biology course delivered by K12, the students were required to post one comment on the results of their lab, and make two comments replying to two other student’s results.  This was the required rubric. While this should have opened more discussion, essentially the students only did the requirements stipulated in the rubric. An engaged and enthusiastic mentor should be able to stimulate conversation without referring students to a rubric. The purpose of the online discussion forums should be to connect, share, and learn (Brindley, Walti, &Blaschke, 2009). Learners should be active in conversation for the sake of learning instead of meeting the rubric. Yet, a rubric may be helpful in navigating the new territory of dialogue and communication within online forums, where learners need to think, reason, and analyze (Watson, 2008). The facilitator is responsible for setting the questions and guiding the dialogue, and thus ensuring that the theoretical works of connectivism are promoted and addressed when designing these forums (Ravenscroft, 2011).

Example of an Asynchronous Discussion Question:

Mentor:  Participate in this discussion activity by using your own blog -- either one you write or manage.  If you do not have a blog, you may look at one on the Internet and and surmise the answers to these questions. Please take a look at other class member’s discussions, including their blog and comments, and try to engage in a dialogue with other students.

Bullet Points I wish to stress as the facilitator:

1.  Discussion is respectful. The importance of feeling safe in a virtual environment, where ideas can be freely exchanged without ridicule is important and must be monitored by the facilitator (Palloff & Pratt, 2011). Proper netiquette must be followed.
2.  Students interact with each other by reading and responding to comments. This facilitates the communal connectivism needed to produce community (Palloff & Pratt, 2011).
3.  As the facilitator, I want to be sure to engage with each of the students and help encourage more dialogue with questions, confirming my presence in the discussion and community of learning (Ravenscroft, 2011).
4.  Students must analyze the purpose of their blog writing or determine a purpose if they do not have one yet. While reading the comments of fellow students, learners will see examples and be able to ask questions to help them refine their goals.
5. Learners form a strategy that will meet the goals and purpose of their writing, both professionally and personally. There may be different strategies to meet these goals, and this may need to be addressed.
6.  Encourage reflective thinking and sharing of ideas.
7.  As the facilitator I will give an example of answering these questions by sharing my blog, purposes and strategies, opening the discussion by sharing with the community my presence.

Example of a Rubric:

Examples of online discussion: 

The instructor activates the discussion with a prompt to visit a site, read other policies, and then poses a question for students to answer. 


Brindley, J., Walti, C., & Blaschke, L. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).  Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/675/1271

Haythornewaite, C. & Andrews, R. (2011). E-Learning Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Palloff, R., &Pratt, K., (2011). The Excellent Online Instructor:  Strategies for Professional Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Ravenscroft, A. (2011). Dialogue and connectivism: A new approach to understanding and promoting dialogue-rich networked learning. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 12(3), 139-160. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=59832458&site=eds-live

Siemens, G., & Conole, G. (2011). Special issue — connectivism: Design and delivery of social networked learning. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 12(3), I-IV. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofs&AN=508180290&site=eds-live

Tschofen, C., & Mackness, J. (2012). Connectivism and dimensions of individual experience. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 13(1), 124-143. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofs&AN=71275494&site=eds-live

Watson, A. (2008).  Developing teaching practice for more effective use of asynchronous discussion:  A preliminary investigation. Proceedings Ascilite Melbourne 2008.  Retrieved from http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/melbourne08/procs/watson.pdf.


Starting an Online Community

Part 1 -- Develop a Welcome Letter

[I would prefer to use the video format for a welcome letter, so that my audience of learners will identify me with a real human being. But I also think a transcript of the video is helpful. A photograph is also important.]

This is a course to help you navigate the road in starting and maintaining a homeschool education. It is primarily for parents who have decided to forgo the public education system and want to bring their kids home to be educated. I began my homeschool adventure 15 years ago, and have successfully educated three of my kids. 
When I began, I was unsure of where this would lead, or if I could pull it off, and see my kids with college degrees. Now, I am confident, as all three have been admitted to college. Two have bachelor's degrees from prestigious colleges, and one of my kids has just started college. One will continue on with medical school. 
But it's not just a good education that you worry about when you pull your kids out of traditional school -- it's the social aspect as well. I have found out that kids are naturally sociable or they may tend to be shy.  
It really has nothing to do with how they were "schooled." In fact, I have noticed that homeschooled kids are more confident when they get to college, more motivated, and engage in classroom discussions. So, rest assured, your kids can still be socially adjusted citizens. There are outside activities such as sports, music, and religion that fulfill those needs. 
My kids have gone to foreign countries to teach english, volunteer, and experience other cultures. My 23 year old homeschooled son is majoring in Chinese, currently volunteering in an orphanage in China.  
Two of my sons competed in sports during their homeschool year. We were part of a club soccer program, and I found a way to include track and field at the nearby high school. All states have a different requirement when you decide to homeschool, and these rules are easily met. Today, there are more resources for parents who make the decision to homeschool. I am a believer that homeschool can work, and that there are numerous success stories.  
I have an educational background in the sciences, received a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, and graduate studies in pharmacology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. While I am not a credentialed teacher, I have learned how to learn through these studies. Currently I am completing my master's degree in Education with an emphasis in eLearning. I have raised five kids, love to write, and keep an ongoing blog for homeschool. 
I will be sharing the legal aspects of homeschooling with you, choosing curriculum, keeping your sanity, and anything else you may bring up. 
As we are all adults here, trying to make the best choices for our kids, I hope to instill that atmosphere of learning where we can share our concerns with each other and respect our opinions. No one should make anyone feel uncomfortable or wrong for making the best decisions for their own family. Please review the need to polite and observe proper internet conduct in discussion boards, email and all conversations. This is a good video to help you remember to be kind: 

Part 2 -- Reflection

Learning can occur in a number of ways, in various locations, in groups of two or more, or in a solitary atmosphere. But a mentor can facilitate learning when someone has a quest for knowledge. While traditional classroom settings have been the norm for relaying information and educating the people, they are not the only means. In fact, face-to-face classroom settings do not guarantee successful learning. 

Everyone has memories of great teachers, as well as very poor teachers. As eLearning becomes more accepted and accessible, this method will need to be examined for successful techniques. There will always be some that are more effective than others, just as it is for traditional classroom settings. There is no guarantee that teachers will be effective, even though they have several degrees and published papers. 

This is why students consult with websites, such as Rate My Professor. Some teachers convey information better, supporting an atmosphere of excitement in the learning process. I have learned in situations where I had little knowledge of the instructor, simply because I had a strong desire to learn, and the teacher had compiled the information in an engaging way, or had simply written words that were prompting me to continue.

Most students in online communities want an instructor to have a human presence, which includes self disclosure, individualized feedback, a feeling of relationship, and even humor (Reupert, Mayberry, Patrck, & Chittleborough, 2009). Surveys and focus studies determined that students prefer engaging, approachable, understanding, patient, passionate teachers that have that human side (Reupert, et. al, 2009). There were only 5 students out of 68 that preferred to study on their own, and had no preference for seeing the human side of their instructor (Reupert, et. al, 2009). 

A welcome letter or video from the teacher sets the mood of the course. Students want to know the instructor’s background, knowledge, and experience in the subject matter. You don’t go to a novice to learn, but instead you chose someone who has traversed the road already – with success. Learners want to feel a strong sense of presence from the learning community, which includes the instructor (Sung & Mayer, 2012). 

This is true in all areas of learning. This is why peer editing does not convey much confidence in courses. You can’t teach or guide what you don’t know. The purpose of my welcome letter is to instill confidence that I know what I am talking about, so that my students will feel that they can succeed as well.

The welcome letter should include information about the course, learning objectives, methods of assessment, instructional materials, learner support, and learner interaction (Maryland Online, 2011). After reviewing some welcome letters and videos, I found that there are a couple of formats. Most of the videos are informal, using first person dialogue, which reveals your human side (Reupert, et. al, 2009). The written welcome can be in either first person, or third person (more formal). Sometimes there was a transcript of the video (in first person) and an "about" page that provided information about the instructor (in third person).


An example of a welcome letter:  Louis A. Bloomfield, Professor of Physics, University of Virginia. In the video presentation, the professor presents the course with enthusiasm. Also on this page, is the class syllabus, course format, recommended background, and suggested readings. It is an effective introduction, in the Coursera.org format.

Another example of a welcome letter, on the Canvas platform: Maria H. Anderson, Director of Learning and Research. Her online video welcome: 


Chittleborough, P., Maybery, D., Patrick, K., & Reupert, A. (2009). The importance of being human:     instructors' personal presence in distance programs.  International Journal of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 21(1), 47-56.

Maryland Online. (2011).  Quality Matters Rubric Standards 2011-2013 Edition.  Retrieved from http://www.qmprogram.org/files/QM_Standards_2011-2013.pdf

Sung, E. and Mayer, R.E., 2012. Five facets of social presence in online distance education. Computers in Human Behavior, 8(5), 1738-1747.


How and Why to Start a Classroom Blog

Teachers and students can benefit from a classroom blog. Through the use of the Internet and a blogging platform, teachers have found that their students find an enthusiasm for writing when reaching a broader audience (Wang & Hsua, 2012). Most students already know how to use the internet, download music and photos and post comments.

Teachers can learn how to use a blog to channel the creative abilities of their students and increase constructivism learning opportunities. Students will need direction in topic matters and proper Internet etiquette, and depending on grade level, approval from parents (McGrail & Davis, 2011). Students learn how to engage in a good discussion through comments and then extending ideas into other blog posts (Jerles, 2012).  Initially, it is a good idea for the teacher to become familiar with blogging and post the first writing.

Students can then be added as authors, with their own username and login. The teacher should have them write on an assigned topic and date, and then save it as a draft. In this way, the teacher will have time to review the post for content and whether it adheres to the rubrics of writing online. Another area of creativity is in the choice of images for each post (Dyck, 2012).

All writers should learn how to post a photo that compliments the subject of the post. Students could have the choice of taking their own photos and avoid copyright conflict or choose those with Creative Commons Licenses. This gives the teacher another area of instruction -- the need to observe intellectual property rights. Students should also be informed that their writing is automatically copyrighted when it is published and that they have rights. The blogging in a classroom is the new class paper, now with a global reach and instantly published.


Dyck, B. (2012). Log on to a blog. Education World [online magazine]. Retrieved from: http://www.

Jerles, J.  (2012). Blogging in Elementary School: Why, How, and What Teachers Can Do To Encourage Writing. National Teacher Education Journal, 5(3), pp. 85-88.

McGrail, E. & Davis, A. (2011). The influence of classroom blogging on elementary student writing. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 25, 415-437. doi:10.1080/02568543.20|1.605205

Wang, S. &  Hsua, H. (2008). Reflections on Using Blogs to Expand In-class Discussion. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 52(3), pp. 81-85.

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