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The discussion board is excellent tool to promote community building in online courses. Because learners have fewer chances to interact with each other, it's important for instructors to facilitate community building in their online courses whenever possible.
There are a number of activities that could promote community building in a discussion forum. The first, and most popular activity is an Introduction forum, where each learner writes a paragraph or two about him/herself. The instructor can leave it to the learners as to what information they wan to share, or they can ask for certain information, such as why they are taking the course, their reason for taking the course, what they hope to get out of the course, etc.
Learners can also share information with each other as a way of building a community. Instructors can create a 'resources' forum where learners can post links, documents, videos and other objects that may be helpful in completing assignments, or relevant to the course in general.
Another kind of community building forum I have seen is a 'cafe.' This was a forum that the teacher created for the learners to post anything not related to the course. Once the learners got to know each other, a kind of camaraderie began and learners posted job openings in the field, book reviews and even events.
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Discussion forums can also be used as a collaboration tool. Since it's logistically difficult to do group work in an online course, the discussion forum can help facilitate group work. It can be used as a space for brainstorming amongst the entire group, or break off groups could be assigned. For example, the instructor could use a discussion forum to conduct a problem-solving activity. The instructor posts a problem and each learner presents a possible solution. Learners could then evaluate each of the ideas and decide on the best solution.
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Discussion and Reflection
The most popular use of discussion boards is the simple question-answer format. The instructor posts a question and each learner posts a response. This is the most versatile in that an instructor can ask just about anything. Some instructors post open-ended questions about a reading to measure students understanding of concepts and ideas while others ask for opinions (supported by a linker reference). Some instructors require students to comment on what another learner has written by expanding on what they have said or presenting an opposing opinion; this kind of interaction promotes community building and peer learning.
One little used but highly effective use of the discussion forum is for reflection. Instructors can encourage learners to synthesize their learning throughout the course by noting their key learnings down after each module or assignment. By the end of the course, both learners and instructors can look back and see the progress.
If instructors chose to give grades for activities in the discussion forum, it is important to clearly state the expectations in the question. For example, learners should know approximately how long their response should be, how many references (with links) to provide and what the format should be. It's also important to create a rubric to ensure fair and consistent grades when marking discussion board entries.