Engaging Students in an Online Environment

If you are considering integrating educational technology into the classroom to facilitate discussion or for scaling, visit the Academic & Collaborative Technologies EdTech Catalogue to get started. Some Faculties have their own educational technology offices, so check there for support or contact the central office through the CTSI via the Academic Technology Information & Quercus Help webpage or email q.help@utoronto.ca to book a consultation with our educational technology specialists. These Quercus Divisional Contacts list ways to reach educational technology specialists across the University of Toronto’s three campuses.

Discussion boards are one of the most commonly used online components of classes. The class Quercus page is the ideal place to use, set up and manage an online discussion board because there are staff available to help with any problems you may encounter. Below we will discuss a few components of online discussion forums including: 1) benefits, 2) how to effectively use them, and 3) potential challenges.

What are the key benefits of online discussion forums? Online discussion forums have many benefits. For students, they build a sense of belonging and class community, facilitate collaboration, and facilitate peer learning by allowing students to see and respond to each other’s work. Since students can participate in online forums on their own timeline, students have a chance for in-depth reflection while they research and compose their contributions. For teachers, online discussion forums allow opportunities to engage marginalized students and to gain insight into how our students are thinking about course materials. These forums also allow guests to participate in the class by posting and responding to questions.

How can you effectively integrate online discussion into your class? The first step in effectively using online discussion forums is to intentionally think about your rationale for using them. Remember that the discussion forums ought to be connected to your course learning outcomes. Online classes are growing, but some students may still be unfamiliar with using online class components, so talk to them as much as possible about how and why you want them to use the online discussion board. If the class meets in person, consider taking one class or part of a class to describe how the online components work in the class; and then directly link the online parts to the rest of the course. Finally, be a model of good online forum usage. The way that you initiate and maintain an online discussion will be seen by your students as a good way to engage in this environment.

What are some potential challenges with online discussion forums? One potential challenge for teachers is getting to know the technical side of setting up and managing discussion forums. The Academic Technology Information and Quercus Help group provide tips to help you set up and manage the technical requirements of online discussion board through Quercus. You also cannot assume that your students are technically savvy. You will need to tell them how to use the discussion board. And just as you set up ground rules for engaging in class discussions, we also recommend that you set up ground rules for communicating with each other online. When setting up the discussion boards, it is a good practice to disallow anonymous posts. Making students comment with their name keeps them accountable to mutually instituted guidelines. Finally, be ready for passive students and have a plan for non-participators. You may want to have students talk in small groups in class and then post their findings online as a way to bridge between the in-class and online environment and to keep posting regular. Above all, set up expectations for how students should participate in the online forums.