Adding an online course forum to your site can be one of the most effective ways to enhance the learning experience of your students. We’ve written about some of the benefits of using a course forum to facilitate discussion with students in the past, and WordPress makes it very simple to set up and configure forums on your site.
When we created our first online training course in 2011, we launched the course with a forum that we’d built using the WP Mingle forum plugin (yes, this was before the rise of popularity of bbPress and other current options). Once our students logged into their member dashboard, we linked directly to the forum in addition to the course content.
We had several intentions behind adding a forum to our course:
1. We wanted to give students a way to discuss the course concepts to help reinforce them.
2. We wanted students to be able to share effective learning strategies with others.
3. We wanted students to be able to connect on a personal level by having a place to engage in off-topic discussions.
4. Most importantly, we wanted students to be able to help one another and find answers to their questions before submitting questions directly to us.
But while putting a course forum in place isn’t difficult, making it an effective resource for your students requires proper planning and an understanding of what elements you want the forum to bring to your training to enhance the learning experience.
After creating online forums for our own courses over the years and working with over 20,000 WP Courseware course creators, we’ve seen forums that work well and some that don’t work so well. In this article, we wanted to share a few tips and guidelines for helping you create a forum which truly becomes an effective resource for your students.
1. Take time to think through how your forum modules will be organized.
When setting up a course forum, the most critical element to think through is its structure. Think about the forums you’ve used in the past…
How were they organized? What made them useful? How did they help you find the information you were looking for or connect with the people you wanted to find?
Within an e-learning environment, forums can be broken down several different ways. In our experience, the most effective structure is to organize your course forum to align with the flow of your course content. This is especially helpful if you have a self-paced course and students are enrolling and starting the course at different times.
For example, if your course has eight different primary modules with each module representing a series of individual lessons around a single concept, create a forum module for each of the course modules. As students progress through the course, they’ll know exactly where to find answers or start new threads.
However, we’ve also seen online course forums organized in other effective ways. Some of our WP Courseware users create modules for each group of students, or cohort. For example, we have one user who opens his course up for enrollment once per quarter. When students enroll during a particular quarter they are assigned to that particular group of students within the forum. The process is actually automated through his forum plugin and students who are assigned to a particular cohort can only access the appropriate discussion module when they log in.
2. Ensure that you properly communicate expectations and rules for using the forum.
We’re all very accustomed to seeing sticky posts when we register for a new discussion forum which outline the rules of the forum. This includes things such as what topics are appropriate to discuss, how to search for answers to your question before posting, or the etiquette guidelines for the forum.
However, you can include more information in these types of posts such as any “resource” sections you have included or how frequently you expect students to engage in discussion. Or you may require students to introduce themselves in a dedicated “welcome” module.
But no matter how you organize your forum or what ground rules you put in place, it’s essential that you communicate those to your students at the beginning of their course enrollment. Forums can actually create a lot of confusion when students don’t know what’s expected of them and as a result, they may end up intentionally avoiding your online course forum altogether.
3. Communicate any discussion frequency and scheduling requirements.
I briefly alluded to this in the last tip, however, it’s worth discussing in more detail. If you plan to require active engagement and participation in your online course forum, please, please, please be sure to communicate this up front.
I recently worked with a WP Courseware user who actually required participation in a course forum as a component of a student’s final grade for the course. However, he had students enrolled in the course who weren’t aware of this requirement until it was too late to effectively participate in the discussions. Needless to say, he had to rectify this with students as a result of poor communication and toss out that requirement for their final cumulative course grades, but it caused confusion and a lack of trust.
All it takes is simple messaging at the beginning of your course to let students know:
*If you require them to participate in the course forum
*How often they are required to participate
*What types of discussion you require them to engage in
4. Consider creating small student discussion groups even if you organize your forum by course topics.
As mentioned previously, our strategy for creating effective online course forums has been to create a module for each of the primary topical focal points of our courses. However, this approach can still be combined with creating small student cohorts to facilitate peer-to-peer discussion.
Again, this is easily done when configuring forums with most WordPress forum plugins. You might automatically assign all newly registered forum users to all of the course content-focused modules of your forum while also assigning every batch of 20 new students, for example, to their own small discussion group. This is especially effective to entice students who are reserved and reluctant to share personal experiences or thoughts to actively participate since they know those threads won’t be viewed by all of your forum guests.
5. Place a recommended resources module within your forum.
When we create our own online courses, as I mentioned above we prefer to redirect student logins to a dashboard page where they can view course announcements, access course content, contact an instructor, access the course forum, and find links to resources we recommend for enhancing the course content.
However, by placing the recommended resources within a dedicated area of your course forum, you not only provide easy access to these for your students but you also create a platform for students to share their own resources with one another. In one of our online marketing courses we created several years ago, this turned out to be a great decision. The landscape related to the topics we were teaching changed so rapidly that it wasn’t always possible for us as instructors to stay up to date on every single item of interest. Allowing our students to participate was a great way to reduce that burden for us and to enhance the effectiveness of the course.
Do you have other tips or recommendations for setting up an online course forum? If so, we’ve love to have you share them in the comments section below!