Using discussion forums to create ‘Stretch and Challenge’ activities

I am currently working with various different clients, helping them to develop their use of the VLE system Moodle.

Discussion icon One of the techniques that I show people is how a discussion forum can be used to create an effective ‘stretch and challenge’ activity. Stretch and challenge, is a term that is used by Ofsted, and relates to ‘does the tutor provide an opportunity for the more able learners to be sufficiently challenged – beyond the core learning objectives that they expect everyone in the class to meet?’ A few years ago – this area of work seemed to be one of the key questions being asked by inspectors, and something that caused many tutors problems. Other factors in the Ofsted inspection regime are currently more important, but stretch and challenge is still observed and commented on.

When I was teaching, I used the VLE extensively to support my delivery. I would organise each course by topic, which was often (but not always) structured with 1 topic per week. Within each topic, I would provide certain common items – e.g. some notes related to the topic, relevant links, some form of activity and as the last item within each topic, I would pose a challenging question related to that topic. For this I used the discussion forum mechanism to pose the question. This was for me a convenient mechanism as easy to set up, and I was providing an opportunity for the learners to engage in discussion during or after the session. In reality – in most cases no actual discussion took place within the forum itself, however this didn’t matter – as I knew from observing the students behaviour and from verbal conversations that took place during the session or at the start of the following session that they had read the question, and some had thought about an answer to it. On some occasions discussion within the forum did take place – which was great as it gave the ‘quieter’ learners a chance to air their opinion, as well as giving learners access to other learners opinions (which then helped with their assignment writing where they had to present a balanced viewpoint on a topic – not just their own viewpoint).

Examples of some of the questions that I used in my teaching were:

  • There were discussions in the media about sexual inequality within sport, and it was highlighted that women tennis players at Wimbledon got paid significantly less than the men. Tim Henman then contributed to this debate, by stating that it was right that men get paid more as they play best of 5 sets, compared to women playing best of 3. I was able to use Tim Henman’s opinion as an opener for the discussion – which did evoke a huge response from both the males and females in the group – without me having to offer my opinion on the topic.
  • In biomechanics (science of sports movement) I carried out an experiment to estimate the force that the bicep has to exert to move the forearm. The reality is that the muscle itself has to exert a much greater force than the end movement (as this is a type 3 lever which gives mechanical disadvantage) – so the challenging question was ‘Why has the human biceps muscle evolved as it has which gives such huge mechanical disadvantage – which hasn’t evolution moved the muscles attachment to the forum further from elbow, which would allow greater forces to exerted by the forearm? (Please comment on this blog post if you want to offer an answer).

The hard part of this process was thinking of a good challenging question, here are a few tips:

  • When starting a discussion, making a statement and then ending it with the word “discuss” – often doesn’t open a discussion. Instead ask a more specific question to open the discussions.
  • If applicable – asking topical questions (e.g. relating to something currently in the news) will more likely evoke a discussion.
  • It is possible to ask a question from a viewpoint that isn’t your own – which allows you to ask more ‘risky’ questions (see the Tim Henman example above).
  • Asking a question from someone else’s viewpoint also allows you to ask a question that is more likely to create an emotional response – which in turn is more likely to attract an answer.
  • If students do post – you can contribute to the discussion to further develop it, explore other avenues/opinion, reference articles or webpages that are relevant.
  • If you do respond to posts – be careful not to ‘kill’ a discussion by giving the students the ‘correct answer’ straight away, instead try to lead them through further questions.
  • Questions don’t have to have a right and wrong answer (again, think about the Tim Henman question.
  • Think of a series of questions in one go – rather than one at a time. This is much quicker, and it is often possible to relate questions together. Most VLE systems will have the option to time release the dicsussions, or you can manually hide them, and make them visible as required.

If  you can think of other tips, then please add to the comments below.

Why a VLE is like a pizza

Earlier this week I was presenting at an event on behalf of the HE Academy, and one of the fellow presenters Santanu Vasant quoted that a VLE is a bit like a pizza, which I thought was an excellent analogy which I will build upon here:


Image of a pizza

Many educational establishments including schools, colleges and universities will have a VLE or Virtual Learning Environment (e.g. Moodle, Blakboard, Frog, Fronter etc) and these are used to a lesser or greater extent (sadly usually lesser) with a varying range of some just using it as a place to dump files others using it to its full potential.


  1. If we think of a blank course on the VLE itself as the pizza base – this is technically edible but not very tasty or useful on its own.
  2. To improve the pizza we will put some tomato puree and cheese on top and make this into a basic cheese and tomato pizza, a bit more tasty but not very exciting. The VLE analogy would be adding some basic content to the VLE – e.g. PowerPoint presentations, course notes, links to a few websites and assignment information. This is now edible and you could live on this, but not very exciting, challenging or demanding and not likely to make you lots of money if the only thing offered on the menu. This sadly is where most people get to.
  3. The next step is to add toppings to the pizza – and by having a different selection of toppings used in different quantities we can create an almost infinite combination of  pizza flavours, from hot and spicy, to meat feast, to cheese supreme or a seafood special. In VLE terms, all of the different activity types that are available (discussion forums, quizzes, wiki activities etc. each being a different topping).

So the skill of the tutor is to be more like a master pizza chef and knowing which toppings to use and how much of each to create the ‘perfect pizza’. Jalapeno peppers I think are a great pizza toping, but if that was the only topping on the pizza and there were lots of them it wouldn’t make for a pleasant meal – similarly with VLE use – activities like quizzes are great, but if that is the only activity used then students will start to disengage.

How to locate images on Wikimedia and embed into Moodle or Blackboard

There are lots of people that work in education that sadly think that Wikipedia is the work of the devil, and think that it will undermine academia as we know it, and should be banned at all costs. There are others that think Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information, and there is no point of looking elsewhere for facts.

Regardless of your viewpoint on Wikipedia (which hopefully is somewhere between the 2 extremes above), one aspect of it that is very useful, is that there is lots of high quality media (mainly images, but also videos and audio) available on Wikimedia – that can be easily (and legally) embedded into a VLE like Moodle or Blackboard.

As organisations scramble to set up online courses, the reality is that most people won’t have the time or money to generate their own high quality media – and I don’t think we need to, seeing as there is so much media out there that we can easily and legally use – the key is the academic structuring of this information and the asking of challenging and stimulating questions around this available media and information. e.g. the image below identifying a muscle in the human body – I couldn’t draw this myself, and it would be a waste of my time trying to.
Musculi coli sternocleidomastoideus

The video below shows how easy it is to find an image on wikimedia and embed it into a VLE like Moodle or Blackboard

Using Creative Commons Search to find images on Flickr and embed into a VLE

I have blogged many times in the past (see bottom of post for links) about different ways to locate and use Creative Commons images (e.g. ones that can be used without breaking copyright). My favourite 2 sources of images are currently Xpert and Wikimedia but if I don’t find what I want there, then here is another useful technique.

The website is another very useful tool that will allow you to search different sources of media (including images, video, audio) with one of the search options being for the image sharing website Flickr.

In the past I have used a site called CompFight to achieve this, but with compfight the default settings are such that you have to tick to choose that you want creative commons, and if you want the commercial option, then you have to tick that as well, so there is a real possibility that someone could forget to tick these options, and end up with an image that isn’t Creative Commons. With the creative commons search tool, it ticks these 2 options as default, so when I am showing this technique to staff, I am now using this site for that reason.

Here is a video showing how we can use the tool to locate an image and then embed it into a VLE such as Moodle or Blackboard, or any other webspace that you can edit.

I regularly run training for organisations, in topics like this, including different ways of using the images once they have been located. For details of training please contact Dave Foord via

Links to other posts in this blog on this topic.

Why I don’t like ‘pet names’ for VLEs

Most educational organisations have a Virtual Learning Environment or VLE. If an FE college most likely Moodle, if a University probably either Blackboard or Moodle. If a school, it could one of many possibilities including Moodle, Frog, Fronter, and the list goes on.

Some organisations call their VLE by their proper name, e.g. they call it Moodle, or Blackboard of Frog etc., but other organisations decide to give their VLE what I call a ‘Pet name’ – things like LearnSpace, Myzone, LearningStuff, TheZone, Rex, Ginger, (OK maybe not the last 2), but basically an alternate name for the VLE. Now I don’t like this (in fact it is a pet hate of mine) for a couple of reasons.

Firstly when you do have an alternative name, invariably there will be confusion within the organisation as some people will call it one thing and others will at times call it the other, and if someone works at more than one organisation they will definitely get confused (and confuse other people) as they forget which name to use.

Secondly (and more importantly), when I work with staff I try to encourage people to try to find answers to problems themselves – e.g. ask Google the question and see what comes back. The problem with giving your VLE a pet name, is people will include that pet name in such a search (rather than the VLEs proper name) – and not suprisingly they don’t get much sense back. This is something that I have witnessed on many occassions, and frustratingly replacing the pet name with the real VLE name in the search criteria, has yielded the information they wanted. Another situation that I witnessed that saddened me, was a student was accessing the VLE and got stuck with something, so they used the inbuilt help tools within the VLE. However when they started reading the information because it used the VLE’s proper name rather than the pet one, they didn’t think it was referring to what they wanted so closed it down, even though the help function would have helped their query.

So if we want teaching staff and students to start taking responsibility for their own support, then can we please stop this obsession with calling our VLE by an irrelevant pet name, and call it what it is. Otherwise we are denying our users (both staff and students) the wonderful support mechanism that is the web and its many contributors.

Unless anyone can present a better argument for having these pet names….?

Using Word to create a ‘launch page’ within Blackboard

There have been various debates over the last few years about the use of VLE within education, and without going down that road at this point in time, there is one thing that I do find frustrating with VLEs – and that it the way that people getting sucked into ‘dumping’ resources and links into the VLE in a purely linear fashion. Moodle isn’t too bad if you learn to use the book, lesson or webpage tools but Blackboard isn’t as good at this, and once you have added more than about 7 items within a folder you are forcing the student to do lots of scrolling.

So if I am using Blackboard what I do instead is to create what I call a ‘launch page’ for each topic or week that I am teaching – where I provide links to the resources as before, but rather than them just appearing in a linear list – I provide a narration around the links, guiding the students through the resources in a more logical way, and in my opinion a more attractive away.

A launch page is just a simple web page (html) that you are upload into the VLE – if you have html skills and software you could use them, or if like me you don’t then you can use either PowerPoint or Word (or Excel). The next 2 video clips will take you through the process using Word, but the principles for PowerPoint are the same.

The first video shows how to create the launch page.

The second video shows how to upload this package to Blackboard 9.

At first this method may sound slower than the conventional method of upload files directly, but with practice it can become quicker – however if you need to change any of the content then you do need to edit the word document, resave it as a webpage, zip it up again and re-upload to Blackboard so doesn’t work well if the resources are regularly being changed or updated. A huge advantage of this though is that it is very easy to move the whole topics worth of resources from one system to another – so great if you teach at different organisations, or different courses within the same organisations, and if you need to work offline for any reason you can just easily copy the whole folder onto a memory stick and it will work from there.

Another thing to note is that you cannot track the access to individual files from this method, only access to the topic as a whole.

For me though, the additional pedagogical benefits that this method brings in terms of providing a sound narration around the resources, and the re-usability of the resources in different contexts is why I choose to use this method in my teaching.