‘Discussion forum’: don’t let the name of the tool put you on the wrong learning design track

They’re usually called discussion forums or discussion boards and are the most commonly used tool for answering questions as well as for any conversations we have in an online learning space.
To keep with the name, discussion forums are generally used for a discussion activity.

The term discussion forum implies that the tool has to be used for discussions.
Yet, this isn’t a learning task.
It’s a means to complete a real task which needs to be designed.

Although discussion is the most common activity in asynchronous online learning, it is the least efficient when considering the effect on participation and completion rates. Universities make it compulsory to post in online course forums because, without the threat, people don’t do it. Often grading is the necessary extrinsic motivating factor for online discussions.

We work in a very different sector. We don’t have extrinsic motivating factors we can use to convince our participants that discussion is valuable. So instead, we aim at nurturing intrinsic motivation by respecting adult learning principles and applying Jonassen’s 4 attributes of learner-centred effective e-learning courses.

Most of the participants in our target groups are professionals with full time jobs. They don’t turn up for a mere ‘share your thoughts/reflections on…’ or to post an answer to a question from the e-facilitator. We have to work much harder to get their attention, their energy and their time. We have to design tough and engaging team tasks instead.

‘Discussion’ isn’t really a learning task. It’s a means to an end. It shouldn’t be an end in itself.

Why? Because ‘discussion for the sake of discussion’ is often uninspiring and boring. That’s one of the reasons drop-out rates in online courses are so high. Good prodding questions might help a little but this approach will never achieve the participation rates you could potentially realise with proper collaborative task design.

This infographic might seem like a great idea, but we shouldn’t be asking questions in the first place. Questions and reflections have a role in learning, I totally agree, but the timing is crucial: get the work done first (and I mean real work, not reading/watching content) and wrap up with discussion and reflection.

The term discussion forum causes much trouble in online workshops and courses. Use the term workspace instead as this will change the mindset of designers, facilitators and participants. Then turn discussion activities into real work. The impact on participation rates will be remarkable.

Why e-learning in the NGO sector should be different
Let’s put the brakes on tests in adult learning


3 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks Anouk for throwing more light on discussion forum in e-learning. Even in the face-to-face workshop, a mere discussion does not help participants, unless it is turn into a real work.


    • Thanks George. That’s right, in good participatory face-to-face workshops we don’t do this either – great point. Yet, for some reason it seems the preferred ‘activity’ in asynchronous online learning. Perhaps because it’s the easiest thing to do as it doesn’t require any learning design?

  • I think discussion on forum may be valuable only if the group is very open, very engaged and willing to discuss and I would say it’s rather a rarity than a standard. Moreover the trainer don’t know it unless he know the group. That’s way I agree that team tasks are more beneficial as they easily engage people.


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