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Daniel Kerr MA PGCE

Do Online Discussion Forums Help Your Learning?

Find out more on discussion forums in online learning: the advantages and useful tips when studying NEBOSH courses.

November 2016

It’s not Just about Passing an Exam

I know that you want to focus on getting through your NEBOSH course and passing the exam. But it's worth stopping to think about why you are doing this course. Is it enough for you to get the NEBOSH qualification that will help you get that longed for promotion?

Hopefully, you want to be a better Health and Safety Practitioner. Whether you are a new entrant to the industry or you have clocked up years of experience, everybody can get better over time and taking part in online training provides you with lots of ways you can do this flexibly to fit your life!

Vocational Identity

To be successful in any field you need to develop a vocational identity, by which I mean that you feel competent in your work and people working with you see that image of you as being competent. Emulating the behaviours of an established practitioner in your field will help you to become a confident practitioner yourself. A well-designed online course should give you the opportunity to do just this, with activities that get you to practice your skills, develop your understanding of key concepts, and interact with your peers.

Why Bother with the Discussion Forums?

Dr Michael Miller of the American Public University has suggested 4 purposes for discussion forums, in the context of online college courses:

  1. To assist in building a sense of community among students (for the NEBOSH Diploma you will spend over a year studying alongside fellow students.).
  2. Students can replicate the robust discussions that take place in the traditional classroom (such as questioning concepts that are not clear).
  3. They serve as an additional medium for collaboration and the exchange of ideas (for example on NEBOSH Diploma forums it's an opportunity to share tips on getting to grips with the Diploma Unit D assignment).
  4. A way to demonstrate the understanding or application of course material (for a vocational course this could mean explaining how an idea applies to your workplace).


These purposes relate to the idea of developing a vocational identity; when you take part in a vocational course, such as the NEBOSH Diploma, your fellow students are also fellow professionals. If you can talk to your peers using a shared vocabulary and present your ideas in an informed discussion then you are well on the way to becoming a competent professional.

The opportunity to engage in discussion in the classroom setting depends very much on the tutor creating the right environment and learners being prepared to participate. Many of you will also be familiar with the problems of an overbearing personality dominating the discussions while everyone else sits patiently listening with gritted teeth to the same point made over again.

Online discussion forums give everyone the chance to participate and many people feel more confident with the relative anonymity; it is a ‘safe’ place to try things out, initiate discussion and gain feedback.

Tips for Using Forums

When you start out you might find the following tips useful to bear in mind.

  • Respond to others' comments and they are more likely to respond to your comments (if you are positive!).
  • Don't ever make it personal. Nobody minds a robust discussion about the virtues of an approach, but the moment you make a personal comment you have lost the argument, by which I mean you are not going to change anybody's mind to your point of view.
  • Try not to repeat points others have made unless you are providing a context relevant to your own organisation.
  • Don't just add comments with general support for what others have said; be specific about why you agree and why it is relevant to you.
  • If there are multiple responses and you want to respond to one of them then use the person's name so that everyone knows which point you are responding to.

Everyone has Something Worth Saying

Are you unsure about sharing your point of view? Have a go! Your experience will resonate with some of your fellow peers who may well identify with your own work experiences.

Often just stating how things work in your job is interesting as long as it relates to the topic being discussed or the course in general if you are starting a new discussion topic. The fact that you are in a discussion forum about the specific topic for example passing your NEBOSH Diploma automatically means you have a shared interest.

In many cases, when you reply to a person they may not come back and comment again. But this does not mean your comment is wasted; there will be many more learners in the forum and they will all benefit from your contribution. You will be building your own vocational identity by 'putting it out there'.

So, make your resolution – next time you visit your course, you are going to join in the discussions. You will be taking an important step to becoming a better professional by listening and sharing with others with your common interest. Take advantage of it!

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