Online discussions

Getting started with online instruction

This document is part of a larger collection of documents on online instruction from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring's Instructional Resources KnowledgeBase. See more online instruction documents from that collection.

About online courses
Designing online courses
Teaching online courses

Facilitating online discussions

Online discussions are one of the most popular communication tools for written dialogue in an online course. Spanning multiple formats and purposes, online discussions are typically categorized into forums, initiated with an initial message post, and categorized along a message “thread.” Just as in the face-to-face classroom, online discussions can occur between any number of participants who either contribute as part of a grade or informally, based on their own interest. However, the key distinction of online discussions is that participation is most often entirely virtual (anyplace) and usually occurs asynchronously (anytime).

Why Is It Important?

Online discussions are popular for many pedagogical reasons that center on their anyplace, anytime format. Online discussions:

In addition, online discussions are where the majority of community building takes place in an online course, so it is critical that instructors integrate sufficient opportunities for such interaction and collaboration. Online discussions are where individuals can connect on a personal level or discuss topics within teams. Creating instructor-to-learner and learner-to-learner interactions are important strategies to ensure the learner feels connected and is not just traveling through content and interacting with a computer.

How to Put Into Practice

Beyond their anyplace, anytime format, discussions in the online environment are quite similar to those in a face-to-face classroom as far as putting them into practice. Instructors still must choose the format that best suits the overall course or specific learning objectives; they need to integrate multiple types of discussion to cover a range of content; and they need to moderate each discussion in order to encourage learner contribution and maximize understanding of the topic.

Additionally, instructors may choose to use the learning management system discussion tools, or they may incorporate other discussion tools such as Google Docs, Piazza, Google Groups, or others depending on the format and type of discussion.

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Discussion formats

There are a number of discussion formats available for instructors to implement. Each format has its own purpose and pedagogical benefit.

Instructor-Guided:

  • To increase the understanding of a specific topic, concept, or reading
  • To pose questions that stimulate critical thinking
  • To create instructor social presence or to model interaction

Small Group:

  • To discuss a reading or topic
  • To analyze a problem or issue
  • To synthesize and present results

Role Play:

  • To enhance understanding of the views of various stakeholders who may be affected by a particular event or situation
  • To allow students to rigorously consider an alternative viewpoint
  • To sanction and encourage dissension without the risk of conflict

Debate:

  • To stimulate interaction and allow for the expression of personally held beliefs
  • To encourage critical thinking and the free exchange of ideas
  • To explain and evaluate different viewpoints

Tips for successful discussions

Successful online discussions involve a number of considerations or features not unlike those for discussions in a face-to-face setting. However, online discussions also have some unique features that require different strategies, such as the following:

  • Provide simple yet easily accessible instructions so that all learners understand the expectations held of them regarding each discussion.
  • Define several mini-deadlines that structure the conversation. For example, a few days after an initial post, require students to respond to at least two or three other students.
  • Consider assembling smaller group discussions to encourage depth of conversation and relationship building, while minimizing the overall number of posts to read.
  • Model interaction in online discussions and provide clear expectations about message content and frequency.
  • Develop questions that provide room for students to personalize their posts in a way that encourages responses from peers.
  • Award credit. Discussion posts will not get a student’s best effort if points are not awarded in alignment with the time and energy invested.
  • Pose questions and scenarios that invite learners to draw on their own experiences.
  • Use open-ended questions or issues to stimulate divergent viewpoints and multiple perspectives.

Where to Find Resources?

Types of Online Discussions

There are also a number of types of online discussions, each differing based on its intended content and composition. Instructors are encouraged to use a number of these types in order to best promote community within the online course.

Discussion Types
Online Discussion Type Content
Administrative Questions and answers regarding technical issues, grading policy, assignments, etc.
Building Group Knowledge Collectively contributed information from materials related to the subject matter. For example, students might collaboratively build a study guide.
Collaborative Writing Integrated writing among members of groups selected specifically for this task. For example, students in groups might create a group presentation or research paper.
Discussing Course Readings Dialogue around materials that have been assigned for reading in the course.
Hot Topic Various issues that may be controversial in nature; may or may not be directly related to the course; however, such issues generally surface due to a conversation in the forum that triggers input on the hot topic.
Peer Feedback Constructive comments are provided to peers as they produce, edit, and polish work for submission or after work has been graded.
General Discussion Any topic that is not yet covered in another discussion type.

See Also: