Does Your Online Course Need a Forum?
Course forums can give learners a reason to come back and stay engaged, but they’re also a lot of work. Should you start one?
We’ve talked in the past about the importance of community in creating a thriving course. Community can help your learners feel connected to the course material, keep them accountable to their goals, and give them a reason to continue subscribing to your membership site.
However, growing a healthy, vibrant community is not as easy as it sounds. While you can build a community on various social platforms, including Discord, Facebook, or Slack, each of which offers various moderation tools and content sharing features, none of these platforms will be within your control. This is why, for many course creators, the preferred solution is a forum.
Forums come in all shapes and sizes. In general, you can classify the type of forum you run as one of the following:
- Open. Everyone can join. These are useful if you’re trying to build a community first, and then market to that community when you have courses ready.
- Membership-based. These are excellent if you want to restrict forum access to only paying customers, as part of the main value offerings of your course.
- Course-based. These are good if you want to keep discussions small and targeted.
Whether you chose to have a forum that’s open to the general public or one that is restricted to a specific course—or even a specific cohort with a course—is up to you. However, before you decide to create your forum, you should take a moment to weigh the pros and cons and decide if it’s the best option for you.
Downsides to launching a forum.
Before you launch a forum, it’s important to realize that they’re not for everyone—or every course. For instance, if you’re running training seminars for a business, it’s unlikely employees will be very active in a forum. However, even if your course is well-suited for a forum, it may not be a good idea based on your own circumstances. A few downsides include:
- They require a lot of engagement to keep going, which can be tiring unless other members are active. Unless you’re ready to be active yourself, it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
- They require moderation, which can be difficult if the forum becomes very active. Toxic members can damage the experience for the group, and resolving problems can lead to hurt feelings.
- Without a strong community, they can die off. Having a dead forum on your site can look bad for your brand.
5. Reasons to start a forum for your course.
While starting a forum can be a commitment, it’s still a worthwhile endeavor, and one that many course creators could use more effectively. Let’s take a look at some of the main benefits to building a forum for your community.
1. You want to add value to your membership site.
If you’re selling your courses as part of a membership package, your users are going to be looking for reasons to sign up—and to stay signed up. Maybe they are interested in one or two courses, but after that, where’s the value in continuing to pay a subscription fee? An online forum with a supportive group of fellow learners may be exactly the enticement your learners are looking for.
2. Community and networking are a significant part of your course.
Many learners sign up for courses specifically because they want to find a community of similar individuals to learn alongside. This is especially true for courses that emphasize creative work, for which feedback and critique is a key part of learning, for professional development courses where networking is a key benefit, and for subjects like languages, where students can practice with each other to learn.
3. Current events present plenty of fodder for new discussion.
Are you teaching a political science course? A journalism course? A foreign language course? There are any number of subjects that benefit from being able to easily share articles and discussion topics. A forum makes it easier to share ongoing content and continue a discussion, and for all members to take part.
4. You enjoy engaging with forum discussions.
Probably one of the simplest reasons for starting a forum is because they work well with your natural style of communication and leadership. It’s important not to discount this factor. If you feel comfortable leading a forum, and if it’s something you’ve enjoyed participating in in the past, it’s more likely that you’ll have success in starting a forum of your own.
5. You want to benefit from user-generated content.
Finally, while a forum can put pressure on you to get it started, once it gains momentum you may be able to step back and let others take the wheel. While maintaining the forum will still require moderation, active users will also feel a sense of ownership of it. Having users who are invested in your community will strengthen your brand, especially if your work in growing your forum gives it the reputation for being a welcoming and supportive place.
If long-term engagement and learner retention are your goal, a forum is a good place to start.
Building a forum isn’t an endeavor every online educator is equipped to tackle. It’s also not suited to every form of online education. But if your goal is to create a robust, dynamic home for your learners where they will continue to participate with each other and grow value for years to come, there’s no better solution.