In any face-to-face class, students will naturally connect with and help one another. They will chat before and after class, create study groups, and run into each other on campus. Besides strengthening their social connectedness in these interactions, they will ask and answer small questions with each other: “What was the grade weight for the final? How do I log into the textbook publisher’s website? What did the instructor mean in their last announcement?”
This kind of interaction can also happen in an online class, and students expect it.1 As an instructor, you create a place for it to happen by making a Question and Answer (Q&A) discussion board inside of your course. This will benefit both the instructor and the students, by giving students the chance to ask “silly” or small questions to one another that they might hesitate to ask their instructor, especially at 1 am.
Chances are good that they are not the only one with this specific concern. The natural helpers in the group will likely respond with assistance, and often the question will be answered within a few days. In the case that no answer emerges, you—the instructor—can choose to answer it or point students in the right direction.
In either case, you are reducing the amount of emails you receive from students who, perhaps in a panic, email you as a last resort, or email more casually than would be preferable. In this way, the Q&A discussion forum serves as the saucer that cools the tea – often a student may answer their own question soon after posting.
In addition to the management efficiencies that this kind of forum may bring, it can also help students understand who their classmates are, who is available to ask for help on certain topics, and that they are not alone in their learning experience. It is one sturdy step leading to the loftier goal of creating a strong community of learners.
The implementation of this kind of forum can be idiosyncratic and done in your own way. Have fun with the naming of the forum: Student Idea Swap, Problem Corner, Student Help Lounge, or Watercooler.
You may even choose to implement two separate discussion boards, one for course-related topics, and one for more casual interaction.2 The important thing is to make sure students know it is a resource that becomes more useful with their active use.
If you are implementing the discussion board in a Blackboard course, give careful thought to the forum settings. Students might want to delete their own posts, but should their questions not be preserved for others? In an active forum, allowing for anonymous “rating” of posts could help the cream rise to the top. You could even make the forum a graded item and offer extra credit for students who participate.
1 Paechter, M., Maier, B. and Macher, D. Students’ expectations of, and experiences in e-learning: Their relation to learning achievements and course satisfaction. Computers & education 54.1 (2010): 222-229.
2 Las Positas College. (n.d). Best Practices in Designing Online Courses. [web page]. Retrieved July 27, 2016.