New features of the Moodle Forum activity are covered in a recent Moodle 3.1 official update.
The World Wide Web was the utopia of human interaction, communication and connection, until it wasn’t. Today our ideas of forums and internet comment sections make anyone doubt if they were a good idea in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong. They were. They are. The levels of participation and knowledge acquisition online, including the ones that take place in forums, is unprecedented. Sure, cognitive biases and groupthink plague the conversations just like in a face-to-face arena. Every time I hear somebody saying how online chat makes them lose hope for humanity, I make sure I have my “Congress\Parliamentary Fights” playlist to remind myself that you don’t need the internet to be a deplorable human being.
But solving a learning problem is not about fighting, but collaboration. It is about back and forth. Listening, and being listened to. In online learning, knowledge comes from all participants. Teachers and instructors should not only act as moderators, we should embrace the role. Open discussion is a tenet of social constructionism, part of the philosophy that has guided Moodle and its features since its inception.
And when it comes to open discussion in Moodle, the Forum Activity is where it’s at.
In the latest update to Moodle 3.1, the Forum has received some changes and additions. This on the hopes to have better conversations where, as we mentioned, you can make sure students listen–er read, one another; and perhaps more importantly, where you can make sure they feel read.
All Forums include an Announcements (formerly News) thread where you can update on information valuable to everyone. Deadlines, grading and upcoming homework info benefits from being in a prominent place such as this. A good idea is to keep news quick, short and relevant. Skip formalities. Use announcements the way SEAL Team Six would.
“Pinning” allows you to stick forum threads on top. If your forum has many threads, students might feel their contributions will be harder to read by their peers. If they post at all, that is. Having too many choices can restrain their contributions altogether. A good idea is to pin one or two relevant threads pinned at a time, that involve current events, projects or topics in class. Centralized conversations help visibility.
Use pinned posts to set the rules of the game. You can use them as PSAs, or better yet, set rules for better responses and engaging activities. Here are two examples I’ve found interesting in practice:
- “100 rules to survive in the Middle Ages“, where students as a group enumerate facts and trivia related to a subject. As the most obvious facts are listed out, students will feel compelled go the extra mile and do further research and uncover fascinating gems. One time I was in a classroom where over about two months everyone was trying to complete the definite list of Romance Languages. Occitan? Dalmatian? What!! It led spontaneously to further discussions, like what makes a language distinct from one another; or if the definition of a language depends on who speaks it or where it’s spoken or on something else. Everyone had an informed opinion ready. It was as inspiring as it was unbelievable.
- “Never have I ever“, where students discuss challenges they have pending or completed. Say a student posts: “never have I ever taken the derivative of a logarithm“. This will prompt students to sympathize, or to reply explaining how they have done it. This way you encourage students asking questions, not always an easy thing to do, as well as contributions that actually help and build bridges between levels of proficiency.
At the end of the day, fun and simple rules and rewards are a way to channel the energy of the classroom into constructive interactions, away from barren or outright toxic ones.
Permalinks give participants a way to refer to previous comments made by everyone. Part of keeping a conversation going involves carrying on interesting issues that have come up, and give them continuity. A good idea is to make a weekly recaps of posts and answerswith their permalinks, where you highlight valuable or popular contributions. If you wrote or found interesting responses to questions that took place in smaller threads, you can also given them some visibility by listing them in your update. This by itself rewards participation and quality of contributions.
It is tempting to exert a more forceful role as a moderator. Moodle certainly allows you to remove comments or make contributions mandatory. In my experience, you should use them only as last resort, and never refuse another chance. Because everyone, no matter who they are, has something to say, and enjoys the appreciation that comes from creating value for everyone.