11 tips for saving your online discussion forum from tumbleweed syndrome

The humble tumbleweed has come to represent ‘locations that are desolate, dry, and often humourless, with few or no occupants.’ If that sounds like an online discussion forum near you, read on…

11 tips for saving your online discussion forum from tumbleweed syndrome

1. Initiate a discussion with a warm welcome message. This may also be a good time to articulate the goals of the discussion and how you will know if it has been a success, and to set out your expectations and any ground rules for participation.

2. Do some kind of an online ice-breaker, particularly if students have not met face-to-face.  ‘Are you a cat person or a dog person?’ is guaranteed to get students weighing in, or try one of these other ideas.

3. Manage expectations: make sure students are aware of your participation level in the discussion. Let students know how frequently you will (realistically) check the discussion and try to stick to this. If you are going to be away for any period of time be sure to convey this to students.

4. Don’t try to lecture online. Try to create postings that entice students to participate. Engage students using strategies such as presenting conflicting opinions, basing the discussion on controversial papers or opinions, using authentic learning contexts, using questioning and counterfactuals.

5. Refocus the discussion if it gets off topic.

6. When explanations are required, use examples, direct students to other resources and ask other students to help.

7. Don’t become the gatekeeper – aim for productive discussions that will require less input from you over time and more interaction amongst students.

8. Don’t over-contribute – let students answer questions from others.  Be prepared to sit back a little and let others respond.

9. Accept lurkers unless participation is a requirement, but try to gently entice them into the discussion.  This study on ‘wallflower’ students showed that even without a lot of visible activity, they may actually be engaged in the course.

10. Attach value to the discussion and encourage students to take it more seriously by making it an assessment task – if that fits within your learning design. Remember to include criteria for how your students’ participation in online discussions will be assessed.

11. It goes without saying, but do not tolerate bad behaviour or language, such as inappropriate postings of a sexual, cultural or gender nature. Be aware of the Student Netiquette Guide as well as the Acceptable Use Policy.

These tips were adapted from the iLearn resources An Introduction to Online Discussions and Netiquette for Educators.  Check them out for a wealth of valuable guidance about facilitating successful online discussions.