Using forums to foster a sense of community in online and blended classes

Introduction

I teach on the MA History of Family at the University of Limerick, Ireland. In Semester 2 I teach an elective on migration.  In the academic year 19/20 this was attended by 20 students from the MA History of Family (blended and online formats), MA in Public History and Cultural Heritage (online only) and MA in History (classroom only). 

My challenge when teaching this module is to foster a sense of community, not just between students of different courses, but between online and classroom students, as online students can sometimes feel isolated.  After reading literature on how to create a sense of community in online classes, I decided to incorporate forums within my teaching planning.

Design

Image of the storyboard to show how the innovation was designed
Figure 1: Storyboard

Constructive alignment

The first step in the process was to ensure that the teaching innovation was designed in such as way that it aligned with my overall learning outcomes. This is referred to as constructive alignment (Biggs, 2003). Using a storyboard, I refined the existing course e-titivies to incorporate a number of activities that centred on the forums.

The activities were arranged in such a way that students were asked to perform easy tasks during the first week (such as creating a profile and posting an introduction) and gradually they were expected to engage more within the forums, for example by being in a reading group, or attending a virtual poster session. This scaffolded approach (Vygotsky, 1978) meant that even those who had never used a forum, or were reticent about doing so, could get used to them at a comfortable pace.

Figure 1 above shows my storyboard; creating a visual overview helped me to ensure constructive alignment between each element of the course. The benefit of using sticky notes was that I could easily move tasks around until I felt they were in the right order.

Assessment Design

Once I had decided on the order of the assignments, I spent some time working on the details, ensuring that each assignment fitted neatly to the topics we were discussing in class that particular week.

The forum tasks were:

  1. Create a profile (optional) – Week 1
  2. Introduce yourself on the forum – Week 1
  3. Post a migration story on the forum – Week 1
  4. Join a reading group – Week 2 (each group was assigned a reading a week, for a period of 4 weeks, which one group member had to present to the rest of the class)
  5. Prepare an academic poster to be presented on the forum (Week 8)

Tasks 1, 2 and 3 made up assignment 1 which was worth 5%. This may seem like a lot of marks for this, but my aim was to incentivise students to start posting on the boards, in the hope that they would continue. Marks were not assigned for task 4, but the related student presentation was allocated 20%. Task 5 was tied to the forums as each student had to create a poster and comment on at least two others.

Build

The next phase was to create the lessons pages, forums and assignments within the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). At the University of Limerick we use Sulis (based on the open source learning management system Sakai).

I created a basic lesson page for each week of the semester. Then I set up the relevant forums within the migration module forum homepage (introductions, migration stories etc.). I could not set up the reading groups in advance because I only know how many students are taking my module on day 1 of the class. This is something that I find hard when trying to organise activities prior to the start of the semester. Instead, I read up on how to create groups within Sulis (the Sakai help pages are very useful) and how to create forums that were accessible only by these groups. I also set up the online assignments at this stage.

Next I returned to the lessons pages and started to insert the content for each week. Since week 1 was included the first forums task I included information on how to set up a profile and how to post in a forum. I worked under the assumption that some students might not have used forums, and tried to make everything as straightforward as possible for them.

The video below shows how I set up the pages.

Figure 2: Teaching Innovation Video

Implementation

Week 1

There were 20 students on day 1 of the class (compared to 12 the previous year). I asked students to create a profile in Sulis and to introduce themselves to the rest of the group on the forums. While some students knew how to do this already, I knew that others had little or no experience of using forums, so the step-by-step guides to creating profiles and posting on forums were useful. I also stressed the importance of netiquette, and asked everyone to read the netiquette guidelines that I posted on the course homepage.

For their Week 1 e-tivity (worth 5%) students were asked to post a ‘migration story’ which might be about an ancestor, themselves, or a historical figure on the forum. This might seem like an easy assignment, but the aim was to ensure that everyone felt comfortable posting on the forums, encouraging them to engage with each other, and setting the tone for the rest of the semester.

Week 2

The theme of Week 2’s seminar was different types of migration. For their e-tivity students were asked to return to the migration stories forum and respond to one, describing which kinds of migration were illustrated in the story. After each story had received a response (in the form of a question or a comment) students were encouraged to continue the conversations as well as interacting with additional stories. The aim was for students to start engaging with each other voluntarily.

Weeks 3-6

In Week 3 when it was anticipated that students would be more at ease with the forums, I divided them into reading groups. As there were twenty students, I organised five reading groups of four students.  Each reading group was assigned one academic article a week to read, over a period of four weeks. Students were asked to discuss the article together, with one of the group being required to give a presentation on it each week (either in the classroom or via an online presentation).  All students were then invited to comment on the presentations in the forums. The intended outcome was that, by working closely together, students would feel a sense of belonging; in addition they would benefit from peer learning.

Results

In this next section I describe how the students engaged with the innovation and evaluate the innovation itself. Evaluation is a key element of the design process, helping the teacher to understand what has worked well, what did not work well, and where the innovation might need refinement. Evaluation for this innovation was sought from three areas:

  1. Learning analytics: this is information
  2. Student evaluations
  3. Teacher reflections

Triangulating all of this feedback will result in a comprehensive evaluation of the innovation, that can be used to improve and refine.

Teaching Innovation – Results and Evaluation

Learning Analytics

One of the benefits of using a Virtual Learning System is that teachers can analyse use of different tools by students, to help them understand which activities students find most and least engaging. Site statistics were analysed to understand the extent to which the students interacted in the forums. The results and findings for each activity are discussed below.

Profiles

As discussed, in Week 1 students were prompted to set up profiles.  Instructions were uploaded to the VLE which showed students how to upload a photograph and write a short piece about themselves.  Of the twenty students, only two did not set up a profile, while ten uploaded a picture and summary.  Three students created a description in their profile but did not upload a picture, while five students uploaded a picture to their profile but not a description.  Of the fifteen students who uploaded photos, eleven included images of their faces, and four uploaded other images; most frequently these were images of locations, representing places of personal significance.

Introductions

Students were also provided with instructions on how to post in a forum. They were asked to go an introductions forum that was set up and introduce themselves to the rest of the class.  It was suggested that possible subjects to include were where they were from, which MA course they were doing, and what aspect of migration interested them.  Every student in the class posted an introduction, and in all there were 52 posts in the forum or an average of 2.6 posts per student.  This ranged from 9 students only posting and introduction, to one who made 9 posts in total. All students had posted an introduction within five days of the lesson being posted online.

Migration Stories

As well as posting an introduction, students were asked to go to a specially-created ‘migration stories’ forum and post a paragraph describing the migration story of an individual (an ancestor, historical personality, or the student him/herself) who moved from their place of birth at least once and briefly explain the reason for each movement.  All students posted a story within 6 days of the lesson being posted. A 5% mark was allocated to posting a migration story, so this is not surprising; however the goal of this was to encourage students to start using the forums.

Comment on Migration Stories

The following week after a lecture on different kinds of migration, students were asked to revisit the stories on the message board, to select a post that no-one had commented on yet and provide feedback on it, discussing (i) which types of migration they thought were evident, based on the typologies referred to in the seminar, and (ii) the motivation for the migration. Once an initial comment had been made on a post, students were free to add comments to other discussions. 62 comments were made in total, or an average of 3.1 per student. Of the twenty students, only two made the compulsory single comment on another student’s story, everyone else made at least one further comment voluntarily. The median number of comments was 4, and two students commented on 7 stories.

Reading Groups

In Week 2 students were allocated a reading group. Five reading groups of four students were established.  An attempt was made to make the groups as balanced as possible between online and blended learning students, and between the genders. Group forums were set up so that each group of students could discuss their readings together. Students were asked to locate their  group forum and say make a comment to the rest of the group so I knew the forums were working correctly. In explaining the groups to students I informed them that ‘only students in your own group are able to see the posts in your forum, so feel free to chat among yourselves, in general and about this week’s reading assignment. As instructor I am able to view all five forums, and can post in them too, so I will look out for any questions.’

Each group was responsible for reading and discussing one article each week.  In addition, one team member was responsible for giving a presentation on that reading to the rest of the class (20%). 

The reading groups ran for 3 weeks with the following number of posts per group:

Group12345
Week 14518141715
Week 3279144
Week 3233020
Total posts9530152319
Summary of Reading Group Posts

As the table shows, the groups were relatively engaged in Week 1 but this tailed off over the three weeks.  There was a gap after the third week, for a planned field trip followed by a reading week, but the field trip was cancelled when the country going into lockdown due to the Coronavirus. Because of the impact this had on students they stopped engaging in the reading groups in Week 4, with presenters focusing on their own dissertations.

Student Evaluations

The second evaluation that will take place is student feedback. evaluate the effectiveness of a teaching innovation. Student feedback is another important consideration, and I planned to survey students for their views on the innovations, and then follow this up with a focus group to draw out further information. Ethical approval needs to be provided in order to survey students and I submitted an application to my faculty ethics committee at the beginning of the semester which received approval subject to some minor amendments. The initial aim was to survey students in Week 11 and follow this up with a focus group in Week 12, but due to the coronavirus lockdown most students needed an extension to their final module assessments, the cut-off date being 15 May. Because I wanted to get input from as many students as possible I decided to postpone the survey until after they had submitted, i.e. w/c 18 May. This means I do not have any survey results to share at the moment.

Teacher Reflections

Asking students to post a profile worked well. No-one was compelled to do so, but the majority did. Associating fellow students with a picture, whether of themselves or not made posts seem more personal. The introductions had a similar effect; several students found that they came from the same county which led to a discussion on where from etc. I will start all my online classes in this way in the future, though I might include some kind of ice-breaker task.

The migration story assignment was also very successful. In verbal course feedback two students said this was their favourite assignment as they had found it very engaging, so I would do this again in the future. Giving students a mark for this assignment was worthwhile as it encouraged students who may not have otherwise posted in the forums to do so.

The reading groups did not work as well. On reflection, I think they may have been more successful if students had been given a smaller number of readings, discussed these first in their groups, and then as a class. It is also possible that formats other than forums would work here; perhaps

Either I should have joined in the conversation in the student groups, or could have arranged a general discussion with the students afterwards. In retrospect there were too many readings assigned, and it would have been better to have lightened the load and required more detailed discussions.  Students may also have benefited from prompts.

Conclusions

The use of forums did engender a sense of community among the students and the initial migration assignment was very effective at helping them to engage. The reading groups did not work so well; this is thought to be due to quantity of readings and I think engagement with me as a teacher might have encouraged more discussion.

Bibliography

Biggs. J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University – What the Student Does 2nd Edition SRHE / Open University Press, Buckingham.

Vygotzky (1978) Add