As we mentioned in a recent post, it’s often difficult to facilitate discussions within an online learning environment which replicate the face-to-face interactions of in-person training sessions.
Many of our WP Courseware customers are teaching content which is either completely new to their course enrollees or which includes material which may be too complex to simply digest and assimilate by watching a video.
The good news is that there are several ways to facilitate in-depth discussions in order to enhance your WP Courseware course content and better ensure learning retention and eventual success for your students.
Today we’ll take a look at five different types of discussion-related options for building stronger communication with your students. In this article, we’ll present what we feel are currently the best solutions for these five methods of interaction.
1. Social Network: BuddyPress
It’s now estimated that 1 out of every 5 minutes an internet user spends online is dedicated to viewing content on social media platforms. And this number tends to trend even higher for younger web users. So it’s no surprise that social network integrations have become a handy way for course instructors to facilitate discussion. Let’s face it…it’s familiar and easy for nearly a billion people around the world who already have Facebook accounts.
So how can you create your own social network for your WP Courseware course? Recently we were very proud to announce a premium integration between the leading WordPress social networking plugin, BuddyPress, and WP Courseware. This integration allows you to utilize BuddyPress’s powerful functionality by creating user groups around your WP Courseware courses.
Using BuddyPress and WP Courseware, you can allow course members to “friend” one another, send messages related to a specific course, display their course accomplishments publicly with other students, see recent events/announcements, and contact the course leader directly. This all creates a self-contained social ecosystem right on your site so that students are always up to date on current course evolutions, while also being able to easily reach out when they need help.
2. Live Chat: WP Live Chat Support
Live chat is another great option for communicating with your course enrollees. While it may not be feasible to respond immediately all hours of the day, think of live chat as “office hours” for your WP Courseware course. You might even post a schedule on your course outline page notifying students of what hours you’ll be available each week for live discussions so that they know there are several time slots each week when they can have their questions answered.
In this category, we would recommend a free plugin called WP Live Chat Support. Currently, this plugin boasts an impressive feature list and has over 20,000 active installs with a 4.5/5.0 star rating in the WordPress plugin repository. And to be honest, we absolutely love this one! They do offer a premium Pro version which will allow for extended functionality and add-ons, but for most users even the free version is robust enough to allow for a great course contact point.
Once you install and activate WP Live Chat Support, you can configure messaging, chat box layout, and many other features. The following screenshots will give you an idea of what a chat might look like for the instructor and the student when accessed from a course outline page. The admin UI has some great options which can be extended further with the Pro version.
3. Question and Answer: DW Question & Answer
Question and answer plugins have become very popular over the last couple of years as a visitor-curated resource often used to replace forums. Forums are great, but sometimes when a solution needs to be found it’s difficult to sift through dozens or hundreds of forum thread entries to find precisely the information you need. Question and answer modules are a great way to keep discussions relevant to a topic and they operate almost like a tiny search engine. Obviously Google works hard tweaking its search algorithm to ensure that the results they deliver to you are accurate and from authoritative sources.
Q&A plugins work in a somewhat similar fashion, allowing users to vote for certain answers thus ensuring that they are more relevant and useful and making the process of getting the right solution much easier.
In this space, we’ve tested a few of the Q&A plugins in the WordPress plugin repository and it’s pretty hard to beat DW Question & Answer. This plugin has over 10,000 active installs and a 4.4/5.0 star rating at the time of this article. If you’ve ever needed to find an answer to a technical or code-related issue, you’re probably already familiar with Stack Overflow. DW Question & Answer pretty much adds the same functionality to your course.
Again, this is a free plugin with premium extensions and some of them may be very useful depending on your needs. They include things like Captcha functionality, Leaderboards, Widgets, and most importantly, a paid embed plugin so that you can embed questions right within your course units. For the purpose of this article, however, we’ll assume you’re not using the premium embed extension and just want to have one single Q&A page with all of your students’ questions.
One of the most useful features of this plugin is that you can categorize and tag questions just as you would your WordPress posts, all through a very familiar editor. This allows you to keep all questions on a page outside of your course units if you choose, while also keeping questions related to specific content.
On the front end, students can view quite a bit of information right from the question and answer page. Again, with the premium embed extension you could do this right within your course unit but it gets a little cluttered so we’d probably recommend making this a separate page like a forum. You students can ask a new question or search and view older questions including who the question was submitted by, the subject, question status, question category, views, number of answers, and up or down votes.
4. Forums: bbPress
Forums are, of course, another great option for allowing your students to interact and help one another answer their own questions while also providing the instructor an opportunity to chime in. If you haven’t heard of bbPress, you may have been living in a cave for the last several years. With Matt Mullenweg, or Mr. Automattic, as a contributor this plugin has over 300,000 active installs.
Getting started with bbPress and creating forums is incredibly simple. In this case, we’ve created one forum for Course 1 and we’ve created “topics” for each of our course modules as a way to keep discussions relevantly grouped.
You could break this up even further and create topics for each course unit if you want more granularity in your discussions. Creating the forums and topics is similar to creating a post within the admin UI and by default each forum is given its own URL so that you can keep them separate from your course outline and unit pages.
5. Comments: Yoast Comment Hacks
Since we recently added native comment support for WP Courseware course units with version 3.8.4 (you can read more about the release here), you really don’t need to search much further than the built-in WordPress commenting system to add this functionality to your learning experience.
There are probably hundreds of comment enhancement plugins in the WordPress ecosystem and several really useful plugins, such as Disqus and IntenseDebate, which allow you to host comments through a third-party service (and to be honest we really like both of those even though they’re overkill for most course developers). But since WordPress already features its own commenting system, it’s much less complicated to deploy the already existing comment functionality within your units and enhance them as needed.
Comments are a great way to keep discussions related strictly to the content within a specific unit and focus conversation on those topics. However, in some cases you may need to make some tweaks to the WordPress comment functionality and the team at Yoast has put together a great plugin which includes some code snippets to keep you from having to manually hack the WP commenting functionality. It’s called Yoast Comment Hacks.
The plugin doesn’t knock it out of the park with functionality, but that’s not what it’s intended to do. It’s meant to be a lightweight plugin which adds a few nice features to your existing comment functionality to encourage thoughtful discussion and communicate with your commenters.
Once installed the Comment Hacks settings panel has a few options for you to configure:
- You can set a minimum comment length to encourage insightful responses
- It adds an email button to comments to allow you to send a message to all commenters as a “thank you” or update
- You can redirect first-time commenters to a specific page
While these may sound like minor tweaks, they’d be challenging to code in for the average WordPress user and provide some great opportunities for encouraging discussions or providing additional resources around a discussion topic.
Hopefully this list can provide you with some ideas on how to improve communication with your WP Courseware students.
Do you have other plugins you use to facilitate discussion for your course? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!