Thursday, February 14, 2013

Effective Online Discussion

Created by: Molly VanHeek, Graduate Teaching Associate at CTL & Jasmyn Hansen, TechFellow at CTL

With the increasing use of technology and exponential growth of online classes, it is inevitable that the majority of faculty members will need knowledge regarding online classes. Facilitating an online class can be simple at times, yet very challenging as well. One of the biggest challenges associated with online teaching is motivating students to engage in online discussions. Student discussion can aid learning in several ways, and it is important to include discussion in a class even if it is not face-to-face.

There are several different methods used to give students the ability to discuss with one another. Conversations can be held in the following mediums:
  • Discussion Boards
  • Video Discussion through Collaborate
  • Chat Session through Collaborate
  • Blogs 
Each of these methods provides a space for students to join in on conversations with each other. Depending on the size of the class, and the subject matter at hand, one or all of the methods could be used for an online course.
  • Smaller class sizes may benefit from video discussion where they are able to read facial expressions and better understand why somebody feels the way they do. 
    • In addition, it may be easier for the small number of students to correlate a time to meet. 
  • For a larger class size, it may be more beneficial to use the discussion board. 
    • With the discussion board, students are able to post on their own time and read other posts when it is most convenient for them. The large class may also be split into groups to make it easier for students to participate in the conversation. 
It is important to not only create a place for students to discuss, but also to aid students with beginning discussions. For a discussion to be meaningful and successful, students should participate in posts with an open mind. Furthermore, it is helpful if learners are willing to adjust their views with the support of evidence. It can be difficult to encourage students to discuss with classmates; however, the following ideas will help guide faculty members:
  • Web Field Trips - Direct students to a link or video on the Internet. Then, have them discuss what they saw or learned with other classmates.
  • Brainstorming - Give students a topic and have them come up with a specified number of thoughts or ideas surrounding that topic.
  • Problem-Solving - Provide a content related problem and direct students to come up with a unified solution, or possible solution.
  • Collaborative Writing - Have students work together to create a report, proposal, creative story, or essay.
  • Cooperative Debate - Place students into groups where they present perspectives regarding an issue.
Regardless of which technique faculty members decide to use to encourage discussion, instructions and questions should be worded in a way that will encourage students to provide a more than one word answer. For example, consider beginning questions with:
  • Imagine...
  • Predict...
  • Defend...
  • What is you opinion about...
  • What are some possible consequences...
By starting questions with those or other similar words, students will be required to provide a well-thought-out answer. 

From the Student's Perspective

Online discussions can be extremely helpful in learning about a particular topic or subject matter. It is advantageous to be able to hear someone else's perspective. By exploring topics through several different frames of mind, a more comprehensive learning process can take place. Online discussions also make online classes more relate-able to a face-to-face class. 
  • Deadlines for discussion posts or group meetings are very helpful. 
    • It is nice to have a deadline that ensures every student's post will be available for viewing by others. This way, comparisons and conversations can be conducted without wondering what other students may think. 
  • Variety in topics and instruction encourage a more creative and engaging discussion. 
    • Doing the same type or posts or topics from week to week can get monotonous and lead to lack of motivation for continuing the discussion. 
  • As a student, it is helpful to get feedback regarding the grading of the discussion posts. 
    • However, if faculty members are too critical, it may discourage students from elaborating on his or her opinion in future posts. Constructive criticism is more helpful.
Wrap Up
Ultimately, online discussions can be very beneficial to the student's learning in an online class. Faculty members should take the steps to ensure the appropriate form of discussion is being used. In addition, using a variety of ways to create discussions will ensure students will learn from and enjoy online discussions. 

  1. Online Learning Insights (2012). How to Facilitate Robust Online Discussions. Retrieved from:
  2. Stavredes, T. (2011). Effective online teaching: Foundations and strategies for student success.San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass Inc.  
  3. University of Oregon Teaching Effectiveness Program (n.d.). Generating and facilitating engaging and effective online discussions. Retrieved from

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