Boost your participation rates in your online course!

Are your forums barely used? Do some people post but no-one replies? Are your learners not interested in contributing to the tasks? Do they just read the resources and leave again? Are they hardly logging in at all?

Low participation is not inherent to your target group. Low participation rates are caused by the way the online course is designed and facilitated. You can turn around your course and create a vibrant buzz, with people keen to visit and contribute every day.

Here is how…

Participants should not answer questions – they should solve a problem instead

Many articles about online course facilitation offer advice on how to formulate better questions. They talk about the language used, asking open questions, asking for the rationale behind the responses, asking about the specifics instead of generics, asking direct questions, using the active voice, providing context, being provocative, etc.

Depending on the audience, this might work. Often it doesn’t. To make it worse, course organisers then add a minimum contribution requirement. If we need to use threats to make people participate, there is definitively something wrong with the course. It is also completely against adult learning principles.

I have written before about the ‘post once, reply twice’ uninspiring online discussion boards and what to do about them and how applying problem-based learning principles can make your learners very keen contributors instead, without any threats.

Make the problems interesting

Sounds obvious? It isn’t. In a past blog post I explained 5 ways to create tough and engaging online team tasks. The key here is to get inspiration from real life. Don’t polish the problem. Make it complex, controversial and smart. Add inspiring characters to the story – your learners need to be able to identify with them.

There is also heaps of practical advice on how to make team tasks work in 10 principles for designing engaging team tasks. One of the important elements is to come up with a task deliverable that seems to be taken out of the learners’ work places.

Get rid of the term ‘discussion forum’

The term ‘discussion forum’ causes course designers to use the tool for… discussions. That’s where the problem starts. Learners will more readily engage in discussions if it is a means to an end. Discussion just for the sake of it will only inspire the really chatty people. Without a purpose, you might have multiple threads started by multiple people, but most probably no real conversations.

So instead, rename the discussion forums and call them ‘work spaces’ – so the focus is clearly on solving problems. The change in perspective is not only important for participants. It keeps the designers on track and requires a different approach by the e-facilitator too.

Design for collaboration

Collaboration is the creation of a shared piece. It is a much deeper process than cooperation, which can be achieved if all participants do their assigned parts separately and bring their results to the table.

Collaboration requires negotiation and agreement and therefore the discussions are deeper than they are for cooperation. This leads to more intense participation.

Change your e-facilitation style

Has your course been redesigned according to problem-based learning principles? Are the tasks interesting and well designed? Have you turned your discussion forums into work spaces? And it’s still not working?

The influence of the e-facilitation style in online courses is often under-estimated. It’s not just the communication style – we all know warm, friendly and caring messages are more inviting than a cold, purely professional online voice. The difference goes much deeper.

Your online tone shows your training philosophy. Are you a true ‘guide on the side’ or still stuck in the ‘sage on stage’ way of thinking? Do you respect the adult learning principles? It will show and it will affect your participation rates.

Have a close look at the tone in your messages. Is there a ‘teachery’ tone? Are you instructing instead of facilitating? Are you tracking the learners and telling them you are? Are you watching or listening? Are you monitoring or caring?

Have a close look at when you’re responding. Do you know when to join a conversation and when to stay out of it? Are you present enough? Are you interrupting? Do you have a well-thought response strategy?

Facilitating online problem-based learning requires tailored skills – online ‘tutoring’ won’t do. If you would like to get some training, get in touch and join the next e-facilitation workshop.

Are you designing for cooperation or collaboration?
So e-learning can’t emulate (good) face-to-face training?


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