Asynchronous online learning 1: Managing forums

Asynchronous online learning

Writer, teacher and teacher trainer Damian Williams offers some top advice on how to effectively manage your classes and encourage students to participate in forums – a useful tool to facilitate asynchronous online learning.

As a result of the coronavirus crisis, many teachers like me are finding themselves unexpectedly working online. These classes often have a face-to-face component – a live video stream, for example, where the teacher can offer input, the students can interact and build a rapport. But there’s more to teaching online than just delivering a good live class. 

Online classes also have asynchronous learning elements – that’s where students do activities, communicate and learn in their own time using forums, collaborative online tools and games. This type of learning not only helps learners become more independent but also allows the teacher to pack more into the class and ensure their students are getting enough practice. 

Asynchronous learning has a number of other advantages. It’s especially important when:

  • students and teacher are located in different time zones,
  • there is poor internet connectivity where streaming video is impossible,
  • there are very large groups of students, or
  • when it’s hard or impossible to assemble a group at a particular time

Forums, in particular, provide a lifeline of sorts. They are a place where tutors and students can get together, share their questions and comments, and feel they’re part of a group – whether or not they can see each other live on camera.

At one place where I worked as an online Delta tutor, a survey was carried out, measuring candidate’s participation on the online forums and their final results. The results were clear: those who engaged frequently on the forums got better marks. 

So how can we encourage participants to become active users?

1. Create a comfortable environment

This is something that needs to be established from the beginning, making it clear that all contributions are useful. While forums are an essential lifeline when participants have questions or get stuck on something, they can also be a useful, safe space for them to let off steam, especially if they’re finding some aspects of the course difficult. A little humor can go a long way here, too.

2. Set a routine

Set a fixed time at the start of the day as ‘forum time’. Before you do anything else,  go on to the forums and answer questions, set questions, and generally see how everyone is doing. Of course it’s useful for you to check the forums once a day, but by fixing a routine (and letting participants know that you’ll be there at that time every day), participants will be reassured and know when they can expect an answer to questions.

3. Steer back to the forums

You may find that now and then a participant has a lot of questions about a particular aspect of the course, which they send you via email or private message. Unless it’s something personal (e.g. a personal problem or involving their grades) steer them back to the forum, as others are likely to benefit from your answers too. 

In the past, I’ve even responded with a message similar to this:

Thanks for your email. Could I ask you a favor though? Would you mind posting this to the forum, as I think others are likely to have similar doubts and would benefit from the answers. Thank you. 

Not only does this have the benefit of sharing answers, but it also helps to build a group dynamic in the online community you’re working with. Which leads me to my next point:

4. Encourage a group dynamic

While it’s easy to answer a participant’s question directly, you may also find that someone else, elsewhere on the forum, has already posted information that the participant with a question will find useful. 

Show students how to search the forum effectively and encourage them to read that person’s post. They can also add any other information they need as an afterword. This again will help them seek answers to their questions from others before asking you directly, and again help build the group dynamic.

5. Give your students a push

Some participants will be more active than others. There may be times when the forum seems quiet. It’s useful at these times to reach out, even if it’s just a simple case of asking how everyone is doing. Try to make these posts specific e.g. How are you finding the third assignment? What strategies did you come up with for Part B? etc. If they have specific points to address, they’re likely to be more active in responding and continuing the discussion.

6. Know who can help you

You’re unlikely to be able to answer all the participants’ questions all the time, so know who you can turn to for support if there’s something you need to check yourself.

7. Don’t forget to praise students

Remember forums aren’t just a place to answer questions and chase people up. Remember to give genuine praise for useful posts and if they’ve done particularly well on coursework.

Discover more resources for teaching and learning online. 

We hope you found these tips on managing online learning forums useful. Do you have any questions or doubts about asynchronous online learning? Let us know in the comments!

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