Photo by Flnz

Photo by Flnz

Ask an online tutor what they like most about their job, and be prepared for a lengthy answer. They will probably wax lyrical about things like having contact with people from all over the world. The chance to share and learn alongside a great range of individuals. The cut and thrust of considered online debate with interesting and informed peers. The level of support that an online group can generate for each other. The great vibe you get when an online group gels well. How you can see learning take place before your very eyes in forum discussions…. and so on.

Ask your online tutor what they like least about the job, and you invariably get the same two-word answer: forum summaries! As in, having to write them. Actually, marking assignments (another two-word answer) rates pretty high in dislikes as well…

We all know that providing summaries of often complex and lengthy forum discussions on an online academic course is a Good Thing. In case it’s not glaringly obvious why, here are some of the main reasons:

  •  a forum summary does just that — it summarises. It highlights the salient points made by individuals in the discussion, and presents them in a short and digestible form. It cuts out the rambling and the pontification.
  • a forum summary shows that the online tutor has actually read the posts. In fact, the good online tutor will be contributing to and developing the forum discussion as it unfolds. The not-so-good online tutor will only show up for the summary. The truly dreadful online tutor won’t bother with a summary at all.
  • a forum summary clearly tells students that a discussion has drawn to a close.
  • a good forum discussion summary is a resource in itself. As such, you might want to also produce a version of your forum summary as a PDF document, and store it in an easily accessible course folder. That way you can build up a bank of useful forum summaries for your students in one place. This makes the summaries easily accessible, and good for review or revision purposes.

Of course the downside of forum summaries is that they can be very time consuming to produce. The summary of a lively and wide-ranging debate may run to several pages. Summary writing is in itself a skill.

Here are a few tips to help you with forum summaries:

Tip 1: Do it!

Make sure you summarise all discussions. Include all the pertinent, insightful and incisive points made in the discussion, and ignore the dross (sorry, less useful info).

Tip 2: Use students’ names

If you’re going to name some contributors (e.g. Jane pointed out that xxx, while Joe felt that xxx, ), then try to name all of the contributors. Imagine yourself as a student reading a forum summary in which all of your course colleagues are mentioned except you!

Tip 3: Don’t use students’ names

Or rather, don’t always use students’ names in summaries. Although students report feeling a warm glow of pride when reading their own names in a forum summary, don’t labour the point. Write some summaries in which names are included, and some in which names are not included at all. A bullet point list of the main points made in a discussion may suffice (but see below for some tips on how to liven this up visually).

Tip 4: Be there

Respond as appropriate during the discussion. You may need to step in and redirect a discussion that is getting off the point. You may need to answer a query in a posting. You may want to provide a summary halfway through a discussion (this will make your final summarising job easier in the long run). It’s important to be present and visible during a forum discussion. Students need to know that you are reading, thinking about, expanding on, and responding to their comments. There is nothing worse than an absent online tutor.

Tip 5: Don’t skive

You can always get a student to produce a summary for you, but it needs to be a meaningful activity for the student, not a chance for you to skive. Students should receive credit for any summaries they produce, even if it is only lavish praise. Best to get students to volunteer to produce a summary, rather than forcing them to do so. Make sure your students have several different summary models to refer to. Summarising is a skill that students may not have, nor want or need to develop, so don’t count on the ‘students-do-the-summary’ option.

Tip 6: Make it look good

Finally, you can make the summary more interesting for you to produce (and for your students to read) by using a variety of summary types and layouts. A discussion forum summary does not always need to be purely discursive text or a series of bullet points. You can:

  • produce a mind map of key points
  • use tables, with and without images
  • use an adjective or a single keyword as a paragraph heading for each key point, or as the organising principle for the summary
  • use student names as the organising principle of the summary
  • create a wordle word cloud of key words/points (
  • include screenshots or visuals of processes or student products if relevant (especially if the task requires students to produce an image, or something you can take a screenshot of)

The 6 images in the slideshow below show some rather groovy-looking forum summaries from one of our online courses, the online Cert ICT. These summaries were produced by Valentina Dodge who tutors on the course (thanks Vale!). I hope they inspire you to try out some different styles for your own online forum summaries… And look forward to any tips you may have for producing ‘good’ forum summaries.

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
December 2009