How can you make your online forum flourish?

You’ve got… a mail

I’m guessing that most of you teaching have some kind of online space, where you post materials like the coursework handbook, Powerpoints and the rest.

I’m also guessing you have a forum, quite possibly with a hopeful message from you from Week 1 encouraging students to share thoughts and ideas.

It might well be the only message.

I know it usually was in my modules, when I taught in-person.

Even now, working at a distance-learning institution, our modules are typically desolate wastelands, where maybe a couple of people post once, maybe twice, before shuffling off.

Students aren’t impressed, we’re not impressed, yet we press on.

What to do about it?

As you’ll know from the proliferation of social media platforms in the wake of Twitter’s enshittification, even products whose rasion d’etre is being a forum can suffer when people don’t use it.

Indeed, building authentic communities of exchange is super-difficult, relying on a critical mass of individuals being willing to spend significant amounts of time in this one space.

Put differently, perhaps we shouldn’t be expecting too much from a thing that services such a time-bound and specific purpose.

But at the same time, there are a couple of things that seem to help.

First up, ask for specific contributions.

If you tell students they can ask about anything or write about anything, then it’s often harder than asking for something very particular and tractable. Our module forums often kick off with sharing something relevant about yourself to the module, which simultaneously helps them learn about using the forum and makes a connection with other students.

Secondly, connect it to the rest of the learning.

Talk about the posts in class; ask students to reflect on classwork on the forum. Generally, it’s about building bridges, so students see a value in being active, especially if they know you read and engage with what they post.

Which makes the third point: engage with what they post.

This isn’t about extrinsic motivation in the form of grading, but intrinsic motivation in being interested in the students and their thoughts and reasoning. Perhaps it’s most useful to think about this in the same way that you handle getting student contributions in class: it’s tricky, but the more you show interest and engagement with ideas, the more you get.

Putting yourself out there is hard for a lot of people. Doing it online, where it can feel more exposed – who’s reading this? who’s judging me? will this come back to haunt in 10 years’ time when I apply for a job? – is even harder. So being there to help support your students, to reassure them of the value (to them, to you) of participating in this, is central.