Discussions in Online Courses

speech bubbleThe apparent convenience of online education is what attracts a lot of students in the first place. Imagine sitting on your couch with a bowl of cereal, still in your pjs and with uncombed hair, and working away on your assignments and readings where no one can see you.

The flip side of the coin, the absence of the physical presence is one aspect of online/distance education that makes students feel isolated so much more than in a brick and mortar college program. Isolation is one of the primary complaints. It is also an important factor to account for when designing activities for online students for success.

At SSW here at UNE, we often include group activities or at least group and whole class discussion forums, to both mitigate this increased isolation and to have students practice working with other individuals.

Some groups and some group activities work well, a frequent complaint is that students don’t always enjoy group projects. The asynchronous nature of the courses is often an impediment to student satisfaction because group interactions are challenging online where one has to wonder whether her comments are ever read and whether the other members of the group are working on their share of the assignment or are MIA – unless they get an unambiguous proof that other people are reading and participating.

It can be argued that lack of interstudent relationsips can account for this kind of challenges at least partially. We are typically more likely to resolve conflicts, be more conscientious and diligent, and get along with each other better if we have a connection to the other people we work with. This part is a no-brainer. How to help students form those relationships in online environments is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process.


One way to facilitate connections is through group and whole class discussions (Rovai, 2007).

Students have options, which should make them more comfortable: they can lurk and read, they can choose which thread to participate in, they can most of the time read other students’ posts (unless they are the first one to post) and gather ideas from them. Lurking is arguably a form of interaction (read more).

A helpful and explicit rubric allows to communicate expectations as well as provide the initial extrinsic motivation by making this activity gradable. When students are required to participate, this provides extrinsic motivation and evidence suggests increased classroom community (read more).

Obviously, if you get students talking because a topic or a question is controversial and/or relevant, the intrinsic motivation takes over. If good prompts are half the battle, the other half is effective facilitation (encouragement, clarifying questions, etc.).

A good example of a prompt that may be quite popular is “the muddiest point” discussion. Instead of asking students for the “right” answer, this kind of prompt not only invites students to share a point (or points) they need further explanation on, but also informs future instruction and course redesign to preempt a possible confusion, where applicable.

In addition to letting students “show what they have learned”, well-set up course discussions allow for and facilitate student-to-student interactions and build camaraderie.

To summarize, students need to know that their posts are read, that they don’t post into the void, “a message in the bottle” type of scenario; the instructor needs to provide feedback, to keep discussions on task, to encourage students to build on other students’ contributions (Rovai, 2007).

Discussions are not foolproof

At a most basic level, asynchronous discussion tools allow for easy communication among peers, which is readily archived for later reference. (Dennen and Wieland, 2007) Anecdotally, there are stories of students not reading most of the posts (let’s be honest!) and at the other end of the spectrum there are students who have to read all of the assigned readings and all of the published posts before they comment themselves – thus getting overwhelmed and behind due to the sheer volume of the readings.

Discussion forums are self-sufficient, right? Discussion boards can, at first glance, be deceptive by providing a false sense of actual conversation or dialogue. Students are likely to meet the number of posts requirements for discussions, and will publish an initial post (answering the prompt) and then interact with one or two students (once) with a reaction or a question. In each thread, has it been your experience that all the questions get answered or even acknowledged? I am afraid that a lot of these conversations lead to nowhere, and once a new week rolls in, the old week’s prompts and discussions are ancient history. Do you get a sense of a round robin sort of response rather than an organic coherent discussion with multiple participants constructing a meaning and fine-tuning their understanding of a concept? It doesn’t help either, that you can see a single student’s contributions all filtered, so the context is also missing (in Blackboard), although obviously there are some clues that help guess some of it.

Do discussion forums foster student-to-student interactions? Again, it appears that discussion boards commonly show evidence of students orienting toward the teacher rather than their peers as the primary audience for their contributions. The stakes are such that students are after the instructor’s approval, not a sense of community .

Instructional Implications

In online classrooms, the challenge remains to engage students and have them engage with each other organically, reaching the sort of understanding that may not be possible otherwise and having the discussions and other student interactions key to better performance and higher quality products (papers, presentations, etc.)

As much as setting up good discussions for the course is desirable, the instructor remains a major factor in the successful experience, as she facilitates better thought expression in discussions for the sake of the classmates so that they can form connections. Writing in an online forum is a skill, and is quite different from writing for the instructor and must be taught, with a specific goal of mastering the “rhetorical knowledge”.

Finally, having a bunch of discussion forums every week, with perfunctory comments that amount to something hardly more than a pool of somewhat related but fragmented ideas, can be replaced with a discussion that collectively builds and furthers understanding, assists students in completing their assignments, and “helps students develop a sense of intersubjectivity“. For this, maintaining the focus on the connections to the course content and readings and making them more explicit to the audience of peers, becomes a part of the design and facilitation of discussions and the assignments.


Dennen, V., and Wieland, K. (2007). From Interaction to Intersubjectivity: Facilitating Online Group Discourse Processes. Distance Education, 28(3), 281-297.
Rovai, A. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(1), 77-88.

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