Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel
There are better forums for discussion than online discussion forums. The discussion forum is a ubiquitous component of every learning management system and online learning platform from Blackboard to Moodle to Coursera. Forums have become, in many ways, synonymous with discussion in the online class, as though one relatively standardized interface can stand in for the many and varied modes of interaction we might have in a physical classroom.
The rhetoric of a physical classroom — its pedagogical topography — can certainly dictate how we teach within it: where the seats are, which direction they face, whether they’re bolted down, what kind of writing surfaces are on the walls, how many walls have writing surfaces, whether there are windows, doors that lock, etc. The same is true of the virtual classroom: is it password protected, what kind of landing page do we arrive on when we enter the course, how many pages allow interaction, can students easily upload and share content. Each of these predetermined variables allows (and sometimes demands) a certain pedagogy. The physical classroom, though, can usually be rearranged (to some extent) on the fly. Most online learning platforms make customization slow or difficult enough to deter responsiveness or impulsivity. The pedagogies of most online classes, then, are fixed in advance.
However, as teachers concerned with critical pedagogy, it is our task to always reconsider that which may seem fixed, unmoveable. Henry Giroux writes in “Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom: Paulo Freire and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy,” “Critical pedagogy forges both an expanded notion of literacy and agency through a language of skepticism, possibility and a culture of openness, debate and engagement.” Our aim here, then, is to engage discussion forums in a discussion, to develop new ideas about how they may be used, how they should not be used, who they’re for, and what alternatives are available.
We argue in “Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It,” that building community is at the heart of learning, whether on-ground, online, or hybrid. Some tools allow for more flexibility in this than others. Any digital tool can be used well or misused, depending on its application. With rare exception, software applications are neutral parties to their use. Even the ugliest of educational technology can be hacked to good ends, and most of it has been created with the best intentions. Every tool, though, demands imagination and critical investigation.
Discussion forums are the sort of ed tech you hope creative teachers will hack mercilessly, creating in their place a means through which students and teachers can interact in substantive, relevant ways. The forum itself does not automatically promote meaningful conversation — or conversation at all, unless conversation can be reduced to monotone interjections by its participants — but that does not mean good things can’t happen there. In truth, discussion forums have the same potential all digital pedagogy tools have. In the right hands, wonders occur.
However, even as we hope teachers will recast and remix the tools they’re asked to use, this is not generally the case with discussion forums. Instead of providing fertile ground for brilliant and lively conversation, discussion forums are allowed to go to seed. They become over-cultivated factory farms, in which nothing unexpected or original is permitted to flourish. Students post because they have to, not because they enjoy doing so. And teachers respond (if they respond at all) because they too have become complacent to the bizarre rules that govern the forum.
With the right teacher and engaged students, discussion in the classroom includes carefully cultivated spontaneity, more akin to an organic garden. Online discussion forums require the same careful attention and engagement, the same understanding of when to train and prune and when to allow things to take their own course, flourish in their own way, on their own time. And in order for that to happen, the technology must make room for that spontaneity.
Having worked several years within learning management systems that employ discussion forums as their only measure of class participation, we’ve both seen how draconian regulations for the quantity and quality of posts have overtaken any creativity, inspiration, or engagement that would, in the best on-ground classroom, motivate participation. And most learning management systems prompt teachers to grade each discussion (and sometimes assign points to individual interactions), which would never seem reasonable in our on-ground pedagogy. The most terrifying thing about all of this is that, more and more, learning management systems offer pre-set rubrics and auto-grading to assess these sterilized interactions. The discussion forum becomes a shackle, an assessed, graded component of a student’s performance. It defeats its own purpose.
It might seem laughable, but these are the kinds of instructions offered frequently to students to “encourage” participation in discussion forums:
You must post three times each week. Your first post should be an original thought with at least one secondary source. Your second and third posts should respond to two other students. Be sure to write your first post (of 500 words) by Wednesday, and at least one of your responses (of 250 words) by Friday. You will lose 5% off your participation score for this discussion for every 24-hour period that you are late.
The resulting posts do not constitute participation; they constitute attendance. What’s being measured is a student’s willingness and ability to check into the course twice each week. And while the required length of a post can force students to do more “talking” than they might otherwise do, this does not necessarily qualify as real engagement.
Thomas P. Kasulis writes in “Questioning”:
A discussion is not only the process of collectively examining a set of issues; it is also the persons involved in that task . . . To prepare for a class discussion without taking into consideration the personalities, strengths, and needs of the people in the course is to depersonalize teaching. It is to teach the course and not the students.
In the room with our students, we can know if they’re engaged and participating, even as each of them participates in his or her own unique fashion. In an online discussion forum, it’s difficult to observe such nuance, and impossible to quantitatively evaluate it. Still, teachers working inside the pedantic confines of an LMS and its discussion forum usually acquiesce to its obsolescence. Rather than hacking the system to fit our pedagogy, we can easily become the teachers the LMS wants us to be, which quickly feels less like teaching and a lot more like data entry.
What’s interesting about the increasingly digital nature of our students is that they can be found actively participating almost everywhere else on the web (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Youtube, Tumblr) outside the LMS. We’ve heard online teachers talk about how difficult it is to get their students to join in, usually citing their lack of preparation for online work; but the truth is most students, no matter how diverse, are already online, using the tools familiar and relevant to them, tools connecting them to communities that compel them to engage. It is not, in other words, the tool that confuses the student, but the student that confuses the tool. Discussion forums, as they’re often used, do not encourage, or in some cases do not allow, students to meet, greet, challenge, question, and collaborate in the dynamic ways they do elsewhere on the web.
The illusion offered by discussion forums is that they build community. And while certain kinds of communities can be built through regular posts and responses to those posts, these are communities of commentary, and not the kinds of communities that further online and hybrid learning. In a classroom, we work diligently to unify our students, to foster a supportive environment, and to encourage cooperation and collaboration. At their worst, discussion forums are less like classrooms and more like bus stops — each participant stopping by, saying a few words, and then going on their way. Whereas discussion forums are isolated, digital communities are dispersed, uncontained, and this allows them to be as rampant as we hope our online classes will be.
Rampant online discussion requires flexible technology and requires that we choose our tools carefully. As Giroux suggests, “Education is not neutral. It is always directive in its attempt to teach students to inhabit a particular mode of agency; enable them to understand the larger world and one’s role in it in a specific way…” The best forums for online discussion actively open the world to the student, without dashing her upon its rocks, rather than box her in (technologically, pedagogically).
Here are a few tools that can be used in concert with or in place of the discussion forum in an LMS, and which can allow for delightful, persistent, meaningful conversation:
Disqus: The Disqus platform allows forum-like threaded discussions to be embedded in a blog post or any other web page. Think an open-access forum distributed across the web in habitats where discussion arises organically. Disqus uses a single sign-on that allows teachers and learners to create profiles that include an archive of comments from anywhere they use Disqus. Individual comments can be easily linked to and shared.
Twitter: Twitter can be used both synchronously (in hashtag chats) and asynchronously to engage learners, instructors, and others outside the classroom. It can be used creatively to analyze literature, build community, and even do collaborative work. Twitter encourages sharing of links and dynamic exchanges of ideas. While some might argue that the character limit doesn’t allow for deep inquiry, we disagree. Twitter can be a tool for a collective inquiry, creating depth through the metonymic relationship between tweets and between tweets and what they link to.
Note: Since we are compiling the pieces in this collection, sometimes more than 5 years after they were written, not all the tools we point to have proven equally effective (or ethical) over time. For example, we have increasingly moved away from Twitter as a pedagogical tool, because of concerns for privacy and safety, particularly for marginalized persons. What’s most important is turning a critical and thoughtful eye toward any tool, what it affords, and whom it might exclude.
Vanilla Forums: Vanilla forums is an open source forum tool that strips away much of the more elaborate functionality of traditional discussion forums and keeps the focus on the interactions as opposed to the interface. The system relies on robust search for navigation rather than an excessive flurry of nested folders or drop-down menus. Vanilla Forums can be embedded inside other sites and plays nice with social media. We have recently begun experimenting with the tools Discourse and Slack, as well.
Facebook: The closed nature of the Facebook network makes it less ideal for class-related conversation. It’s not really a good idea (and a privacy issue) to require students to friend everyone else in a class. A Facebook Page or Group, though, can be used relatively effectively to link to posts created elsewhere and to assemble discussions about them in a single place.
Google Hangouts: Google Hangouts, and similar tools, offers opportunities for synchronous engagement. The drawback of Hangouts being limited to 25 simultaneous video feeds can be addressed by having groups of learners (with or without a teacher) act as a roundtable with a backchannel on Twitter or in the chat box inside the Hangout.
Other options for building virtual learning communities include Google Groups, Buddypress (if you’re using Wordpress as an alternative to the LMS), the not quite extinct e-mail list, and even World of Warcraft.
What almost all of these tools have in common is their openness on the web, in stark contrast to the password-protected forums inside an LMS. The best LMSs leverage these existing networks and are increasingly making the capacity for openness part of their design. When learning environments are opened (or left open) to a wider community of voices, the benefits resound throughout a student’s learning process.
Participants’ personal learning networks can, in an open forum, be that much more diverse and expansive. Students are no longer only speaking with other students in the same class, but now can speak with other students in their discipline, students at other universities, professionals in their field, other instructors, and people outside of academia who nonetheless share an interest in the subject matter and who may have radically different perspectives. Students become part of the wider conversation distributed across the Internet. Their thoughts and works reside adjacent to the top names in their field, and can be collected, curated, and archived along with all other nodes of the discourse.
The vast majority of students are already living their lives in the open, and so an open platform for discussion amplifies the presence of learning in their day-to-day lives. And helps them develop critical skills and literacies for working in these spaces.