During a recent content development analysis session, an SME asked how to increase engagement on the learning programme we were developing. Given my recent research into Gamification, I spoke at lengths about the types of game mechanics and how and where they could be applied within the context of the learning programme we were developing, I then detailed the importance of narrative (we all love a good story!), course design concepts, course structure & objectives to name but a few concepts to make a course engaging.
In my experience, engaging learners goes beyond presenting interactive content, it is about designing truly motivating learning experiences.
This post is not about building content, but rather utilising an under used tool of any learning management system: Discussion Forums. Online learning can be isolating, especially for geographically dispersed employees. Introducing social learning opportunities into your online learning program by utilising online forums that allow learners to ask questions and discuss important topics can dramatically increase engagement. A supportive learning community enables learners to exchange information and work together to achieve common goals.
While many learning management systems, including Moodle and Totara, will allow an administrator to generate reports to try and quantify engagement within a learning programme such as number of logins to the learning environment, length of sessions, user clicks or other variables, this does not measure quality! Ultimately it is the quality of the interaction that matters, this is where forums can provide genuine evidence of engagement as well as to invite and scaffold participation. Enhanced critical thinking and knowledge construction are but two proven advantages of active involvement in discussion forms.
It’s important to build community in an online learning programme. Online learners will become disengaged if they feel isolated or if they don’t get to interact with their peers or have access to the course SME. In a tech centric world whereby Facebook has almost 2 billion monthly active users and Twitter averaging 328 million users per month, we cannot ignore the potential of virtual interaction by using online forums in our e-learning programmes.
I have outlined below some strategies to foster a community in your online learning programme using forums and overcome social barriers to learner engagement.
Have the course moderator make the first contact before the course begins. Sending an email of introduction and providing the learners with instructions on how to get started and make a good kick-off. A blank canvas can be very daunting!
Stay on topic
Assign a moderator/mentor who can occasionally pose a compelling question and guide online discussion in the right direction. This would typically be the programme owner or SME. It would be the responsibility of this individual to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak and that you foster a positive and supportive environment to help those who may be reluctant. The success of this form of collaboration depends mostly on the course moderator. The goal is to categorise the questions according to the course learning objectives.
Consider Separate Forums
Consider creating separate forums for different functions, for example one forum to deal with general admin requests and one for topic discussions, perhaps a forum topic for each learning objective. However, be careful not to overpopulate your learning programme with too many forums, as than can have a negative effect.
Developing Effective Discussion Questions
Consider creating a comprehensive list of questions types designed to jump start discussion. Align questioning strategies with Bloom’s Taxonomy. Creating discussion forums that support course goals and lesson objectives takes design and thinking.
Forums can be a positive way of developing a dialogue, creating a community and allowing learners to reflect and feedback. Furthermore, forums are a useful way of turning your e-learning learning programme from a passive to an active environment. Of course, you could also consider applying the gaming mechanics points and badges for participating in forums. Badges and points can be offered as a way of rewarding learner performance and encouraging continued engagement.