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Podcast: Five Creative Ways to Enhance Forum Discussions

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenFaculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities

Discussions in online classes can sometimes get repetitive and stale. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen suggests five creative ways for online teachers to spice up discussion spaces to revitalize the discussion and get to know students better. Learn about role playing, technologies to create video responses and collaboration sites, and more.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Have you ever struggled to engage in the discussion of your online course? For some courses we teach, it might seem that over and over we’re discussing the same topics with the same students from the same approach.

Of course, it may be a new group of students, but it seems like we’re having that same dialogue over and over again. And sometimes there might be a feeling that it’s difficult to find new questions to ask, or new ideas to share. If this sounds familiar to you, it might be time to try some creative alternatives to the traditional discussion format. And when you take a totally new approach, it can revitalize your thinking about online discussion spaces and help you engage much more with your students too.

Today, we’ll review five alternative discussion forum ideas for your next online class. And by the end of today’s podcast, you’ll walk away with something new you can try this coming week.

Role Play Can Enhance Forum Discussions

Number one, role-play. The idea of role-play in online discussions involves creativity and imagination. To be able to engage in the dialogue, students must do a little research about an individual from the past, their context and culture, and their life’s achievements. There are forum prompts like this in music appreciation courses that I teach. So I’m going to share my own experience with you on role-plays.

In the first discussion we have that involves this role-play idea, students are asked to create five questions that a media interviewer might ask prominent musicians from the 1600s. Then students create replies as if that composer might provide them. And they format and post their discussions in some ways that are also creative.

I noticed some of my students take it further, so they even introduce the entire post in character as if they are the interviewer, complete with fictitious names for the magazine or newspaper they represent, and some additional fun details.

By doing this approach, students must weigh the facts on a historical musician and find those lesser-known details that can really pique your curiosity. They also have to think in present tense, first-person voice, as if they are speaking as that composer in their responses. It can help students start to think about people from hundreds of years ago much more humanely, and understand more than just some facts and some dates that they could write about. And it elicits their creativity, so they will spend a little more time putting it together.

In the other role-playing discussion we have, we have students who write imaginary conversations that take place between three composers, which they get to choose, from the romantic era. They bring in people like Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt, and they write the conversation as if these three people they selected really did meet at a party or a gathering. Sometimes students will write the conversation as if Beethoven has completely lost his hearing and keeps ignoring other people, asking loudly, repeatedly what they have said. And some of them portrayed Liszt as this dark emotional person, bringing in a mention of various elements from his life struggles.

We’ve been able to dive into the conversations about composers they select and explore musical issues, and the cultures the composers lived in as well. But more than that, some wider topics come in like musicians and mental health, relationships, and even challenges they face in life. And many of the students find that they understand these composers and the challenges and musicians as fellow humans, instead of just names and dates.

And some have even remarked that they contemplate the challenges that certain musicians have faced and overcome these, and they think about their own lives as well. So they liken perhaps the deafness of Beethoven and his composing symphonies anyway, to whatever life struggle they’re having. And a few students have even said they’ve been inspired to overcome their own challenges and keep moving forward because of these experiences, these stories.

Role plays can be powerful and useful if you want to help your students connect to their learning. To make discussions successful, clear and detailed instructions are needed. Step-by-step instructions can be important to help students know exactly what is expected and how the post should be written.

Create Video Discussion Forums Using Flipgrid

For this second idea you’re going to leave the learning management system completely. You’re going to get out of the LMS and go into a program called Flipgrid. Now, if you haven’t tried Flipgrid, it is definitely worth a shot. You leave, you use Flipgrid, and then you post it in the classroom.

This is a free video discussion forum tool. It builds your students’ perceptions of the connectedness in the online classrooms, so it takes discussions to a totally different place. You can use Flipgrid for video discussion forums. They’ll take the video and embed the video in the online course that students have created. And you can use it in a lot of different ways to connect yourself to your students and to connect students to each other.

Embedding a tool that brings voice, tone, and body language to the classroom really does build that sense of connection, and you can see who everybody is. You get a sense of the other students in the class and the instructor. And this raises the bar for everything happening in that discussion forum.

There’s a post on Edutopia about several different LMS strategies, and Flipgrid is one of those. They quote a high school English teacher named Kyleen Gray. And Kyleen said, “Flipgrid is a fantastic oral communication application that is easy to use.”

It’s a video-sharing platform, as I mentioned, and you can write the forum prompt to the discussion just as you always would. But instead of having students type the answer, you simply have them answer it in a short video. So this is a great tool that’s going to give you feedback in sort of an informal way. You can find out how students are doing in their learning, and you get to hear it in their own voice.

And of course, there’s been some research done on this, and it’s been found that Flipgrid actually boosts students’ feelings of being connected in the online classroom, which overcomes a lot of that sense of anonymity, and also that disconnection that is really common in online education. And it also helps them to bridge the gap between you and them, so they’re willing to ask you for help.

Of course, there are some additional fabulous ideas for using Flipgrid that you might also be interested in. Not only can your students just post videos of themselves talking and embed these in your forum discussions, but you can invite outside speakers. So there’s a guest mode in Flipgrid, and you can invite a guest speaker to participate in the online discussion asynchronously. Guests can watch the student videos and respond to them. This gives your expert a way to share knowledge from the field, and also allows them to share it at the convenient time for them.

If you’d like to have guest speakers in your online class, this is a really creative idea about how it can be done, and it can be done in a discussion, so that throughout the week everyone can engage with that guest and go back and forth.

We can also take this a little further. Flipgrid is great for sharing language acquisition if you’re teaching a world language, and, of course, you can share and celebrate work. If you celebrate completed projects, essays, assignments, and things like that in the discussion area using Flipgrid, you can have students talk about their projects and show them off at the same time. And then post that video so that each person can go through and sort of see a showcase of work. What a great alternative in a forum discussion.

Using Padlet to Improve Collaboration and Sharing

Today’s third creative idea for discussions is to try Padlet. There are many lists out there on the internet available for you on creative ways to use Padlet in your online classroom. I’ll just highlight a few of these today.

First of all, if you’re wondering what Padlet is, it’s kind of like a Post-it board, so you can put notes on there and everyone else in the class can do that as well. You can use Padlet in your online classroom by installing the app on your device or opening the Padlet website. You make a board and then you have posts there that everyone can add.

There’s a lot of ways to do this. First, you can use Padlet to brainstorm topics. If students are going to be writing an essay, this might be a great way to use your discussions face for the week. They can brainstorm topics together, thesis statements, projects, ideas, and other things that they might turn in for the class. You can try this and have students just collaborate with each other, and together they just might come up with even better ideas.

You can use that same space to create a live question bank. And a live question bank would be where students ask questions about the lesson, during the lesson. You could take this further and have them design three or four questions that each of them would ask if they were the one creating the final exam. This is a wonderful way to create creative questions in a big list all at once. And it won’t take very long when you have each student contribute.

Another way to use Padlet in your discussion area is to create icebreaker activities. For example, if you really like that activity, Two Truths and One Lie, students can post something about themselves and we can all go through and guess which were true and which were not, and have fun getting to know each other the first week of class.

And of course, you can use that same space to share highlights from the semester, or things that they’d like to honor about each other. It can be a celebration space for reflection at the end of the semester in your discussions. You can also use it as a question board, so your students can go there and ask and answer questions for each other.

And the last tip I have on Padlet today is to use bubble maps, thinking maps, or brainstorming maps. Padlet is a great way to organize the ideas, move them around, and create them into various ordering systems to help students think through the way they might use the information they have learned.

And all of these ideas I’ve just shared with you here about using Padlet came from an article called “30 Creative Ways to Use Padlet For Teachers And Students,” posted by Lucie Renard in 2017. There’s a link in the podcast notes here, so be sure to check it out.

Using Jamboard for Live Collaboration

The fourth creative discussion idea is actually a synchronous one. If you teach hybrid or live synchronous online courses, or if you teach face-to-face you could even use this idea. Google has a product out there called Jamboard. It’s all one word if you’re going to search it.

It’s for sketching out ideas and using a whiteboard style collaborative space. When you use Jamboard, students can write on it at the same time and they can add their own sketches or calculations. You could use Jamboard for a lot of different things.

For example, if you have some kind of visual art class and you want students to literally sketch things, you can use Jamboard. If you’re teaching mathematics, especially if you have a real-time meeting where you’re going to collaborate and do problems together, this is a fabulous way to help students get involved. And they can also put images on there and notes and take different assets from the web or pull in documents or slides or different sheets from the Google platforms. And they can all collaborate at the same time, no matter where they are.

It’s totally free, unless you want the freestanding Jamboard to be in your physical classroom, in which case there is a cost to it. But it’s a wonderful collaborative tool for synchronous use online in your discussions.

Integrating Photography into Discussions

And we’re down to our number five example. This fifth example comes right back to the traditional discussion format. So we’re not using the external technologies, but we are using one kind of media, and that would be photography. This example is shared by Kristin Kowal in 2019. Kristin says that, “This is adding images of examples in students’ posts.”

So for this example, you’re going to have students post the image along with their written response in the discussion forum. One of the best things about this strategy is that it’s somewhat personalized. It helps students be motivated to use more than one modality in their discussion post, and it helps them connect more to each other and to the ideas.

There are a lot of visual learners. It’s something like 60% to 80% of all people are visual thinkers. So when you start adding the image to this discussion post, you have something really interesting coming out. It’s personal. It motivates students. It connects them.

Erin Ratelis, an online instructor says that, “It not only feels different for the students, but it’s also a different type of activity that will stand out for them. It leverages a different technology and photos are a great visual tool to solidify class insights. It requires students to explore class topics through a very personal lens, no pun intended.”

So in the course where Erin used this strategy, she had her students go to a retail environment in their community. So they were looking for 10 ways that a consumer marketer would influence the purchasing decisions. And she asked her students to post photos, but made it optional. Most of the students chose to include picture examples, like retail displays at Target or other stores. And students even commented directly in their posts about how much they enjoyed taking the pictures and including them.

You can draw attention to all kinds of real-life examples, no matter what course you’re teaching, by asking students to show an example in a photograph. It could be the bonus point on that forum discussion.

You can also use it if you’re asking students to take a field trip. So if you ever have an assignment where your online students need to go out of the classroom and prove that they’ve done something, such as attending a concert or going to a museum, it’s best if they also have a picture of themselves at that event.

Lastly, think about privacy concerns when you have students post photos. If they’re taking photos at work and sharing them, it might be a good idea to get permission from their employer. Think about which areas you might want to use this activity in, where it might pique the most ideas. And you might consider doing it again later in the course.

So these five creative forum discussion ideas are here to give you alternatives so you’re not just posting and writing and posting and writing and students are doing the same. That kind of repetitive approach to a forum discussion gets old. And even if you’re having a very stimulating discussion, students tend to repeat the approach that they’re using. As you stretch and try these alternative methods, I think you’ll really spice up your online class and have a lot of fun doing it. I wish you all the best this week in your online teaching. This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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