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An Introduction to Online Discussions

This document introduces some of the theory and background behind online discussions and how they can be best used in learning and teaching.


An online discussion forum is a web-based communication tool (or activity) that enables participants to post messages and to reply to others' messages asynchronously. Unlike the real-time (synchronous) discussions of chat rooms and instant messaging the online discussion typically lasts longer and gives students time to think about what they are going to contribute. This activity is available in iLearn.
Online discussion forums provide an ideal activity for the facilitation of three types of interactions:

  1. learner-learner
  2. learner-teacher
  3. learner-content

You can use the online discussion forum to post important messages to the entire class, generate class discussions, facilitate peer review and evaluate students based on their responses to open-ended questions.
You can conduct online discussions with your students in iLearn.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The online discussion forum is a widely-used technological tool (or activity) in the contemporary higher education space. According to Berge & Muilenberg, (p. xx, 2000), 'one of the more important goals of education ... is thinking - to use the mind to arrive at a conclusion, make a decision, draw inferences, to reflect, to reason, to solve problems.' Despite their wide acceptance in tertiary education and perceived benefits, it is important to be mindful of both the advantages and disadvantages of using online discussions.

Advantages Disadvantages

Students can participate at a time and place that suits them.

Those with poor writing skills are disadvantaged.

The act of typing forces students to take time and contribute more developed ideas.

Lack of facial cues can lead to misunderstanding.

Can reduce the amount of time the teacher has to give to telephone and face-to-face meetings and time in the office.

Discussions can go off topic.

Shy students get more of a chance to have a say.

Some students tend to too readily agree with others or paraphrase others' contributions.

Encourages reflection and deeper thinking.

Students can tend to respond to topics in an overall fashion rather than in detailed specifics.

Foreign students have more time to compose their thoughts.

Students lose motivation to participate unless they perceive 'value' in the discussion.

Peer-peer learning encouraged.

Requires consistent input from teacher.

Answers are seen by all.

Lag between posts can make following a discussion difficult.

Forms a basis for creating FAQs.

Technical problems (server crashes, network down time, etc).

Expert thinking about a topic can be modeled and learnt.

Lack of access to computer or network handicaps some students.

Encourages big picture thinking.

Reading and thinking overload.

Effective and efficient means to make whole class communication.

Needs to be moderated and monitored for inappropriate postings.

Builds a learning community.


As with all things, planning is key.

Plan your unit

  • Map out the learning outcomes [PDF - 104k] for your unit.
  • Design activities that will enable students to achieve the learning outcomes. How could online discussions help you achieve these?
  • Devise an assessment strategy that helps students to achieve the learning outcomes. The reality is most students first and foremost look at the assessment requirements for a unit and plan their efforts accordingly. If your students know their efforts in online discussions will be assessed and go towards their final mark, you will get better discussions.

Set expectations before you begin

  • Be transparent and clear about what you expect from your students in terms of their contributions to discussions, such as:
    • The number of posts per week
    • The length of each post
  • Also be clear about what your students should expect from you. You are not expected to be available 24/7 but you are expected to participate in online discussions if you set them. Your students should know how often you will be adding your bit to a discussion.
  • Make sure everyone knows and agrees to the code of behaviour for discussions (Netiquette) and have in mind a strategy for reinforcing the desired behaviour.

Attach 'value' to what happens in discussions

  • Attach an assessment weighting to online discussions. You will be surprised how seriously your students will take online discussions, if you take them seriously.
  • Write criteria for how your student's participation in online discussions will be assessed. Students will be mindful of how they are to be assessed and be guided by those criteria and performance indicators.

Encourage peer-peer teaching

  • Think about designing some activities where students lead some of the online discussions. You could provide mentorship behind the scenes if needed.

Different Types of Discussions

The online discussion forum allows lecturers, tutors and students to exchange ideas about a topic in a public discussion forum by posting comments. Students can share information and benefit from each other’s opinions and input.

Type Description

Single simple discussion

A single simple discussion forum is for a single topic, all on one page. This is suitable for a short, focused discussion. Students are able to reply to the posted topic or another student’s response, but they are unable to start a new topic of discussion.

Standard forum for general use

The standard forum is probably most useful for large discussions that you intend to monitor/guide or for social forums that are student led. This may be suitable for a forum based around an assessment task or general questions about the unit. Students are able to start their own discussion thread and/or reply to other threads.

Standard forum displayed in a blog-like format

This forum is basically the same as above (an open forum where anyone can start a new discussion at any time) but displayed in a blog-like format. Use this for group projects. (e.g. in a course in which you want a group of students to research and present on a particular topic or issue).

Q and A forum

Students must first post their perspectives before they are able to view other students’ posts. The Q and A forum is best used when you have a particular question that you wish to have answered and you want to ensure that all students contribute. In a Q and A forum, lecturers/tutors post the question and students respond with their answers. By default a Q and A forum requires students to post once before viewing other students’ postings. After the initial posting, students can view and respond to others’ postings.

Each person posts one discussion

This forum is most useful when you want to achieve a happy medium between a large discussion and a short and focused discussion. A single discussion topic per person allows students a little more freedom than a single discussion forum, but not as much as a standard forum where each student can create as many topics as he or she wishes. Successful forums of this selection can be active, yet focused, as students are not limited in the number of times they can respond to others within threads.

Writing a Good Discussion Question

Types of Questions

Typically you start an online discussion forum by writing a good question. Here is a table of the types of questions that you will probably ask in the course of teaching your unit.

Description Example

Interest-getting and attention-getting

"If you awakened in the year 2399, what is the first thing you would notice?"

Diagnosing and checking

"Does anyone know Senge's five principles of a learning organisation?"

Recall of specific facts or information

"Who can name the main characters in Hamlet?"


"Did you request an extension on the assignment?"

Structure and redirecting learning

"Now that we have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of formative assessment, who can do the same for summative?"

Allowing expression of affect

"How did you feel about our online guest's list of ten things trainers do to shoot themselves in the foot?"

Encourage higher level thought processes

"Considering what you have read, and what was discussed in the posts this past week, can you summarise all the way there are to overcome obstacles of effective teamwork?"

The way you facilitate an online discussion is of great importance. An opening question that encourages higher order thinking will set the tone for the rest of the discussion. Another way of thinking about writing good discussion questions is to think of the function they serve. Hunkins (1972) identifies two different types of questions: centering (questions that promote convergent thought) or expanding (questions that promote divergent thought). The richest discussions are those that open up participants' minds to many possibilities rather then close them down to a right or wrong answer!

Bloom's taxonomy of learning can be useful in helping you to formulate expanding questions that encourage higher order thinking. Below is a slightly collapsed representation of the taxonomy. Higher order thinking is encouraged when learners are engaging in activities of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Level of Bloom's taxonomy Key question verbs

Knowledge and Comprehension

Define, describe, identify list, Discuss, explain, interpret, rewrite, summarise, translate, name, outline, recall, state.


Demonstrate, apply, construct, demonstrate, show, solve, predict.

Analysis and Synthesis

Analyse, break down, distinguish, compare, contrast, discriminate, test, design, formulate, deconstruct, Synthesise, integrate, unify, summarise, refine, hypothesise, conclude, deduce.


Judge, evaluate, appraise, measure, critique, review, criticise, refute,


  • Resist answering all the questions. If you behave like the sage on the stage, you will inhibit discussion as your students will be afraid of 'getting it wrong'.
  • Keep the discussion on track. Step in when a discussion meanders off into irrelevant areas. Remind your students what they are talking about and give them an indication of when the discussion will conclude - which may be time based or outcomes based.
  • Encourage peer-peer learning. If no one is stepping up to the plate and offering answers, you can ask someone directly if they can help.
  • Model the thinking you want from your students. Be enthusiastic and positive and open to views that you may not agree with. Your students will copy your way of thinking a topic through and will pick up on the language you use.
  • Acknowledge good thinking publicly. Praise works better than criticism. Name and praise to those who make an effort.
  • Deal with 'shirkers' and 'lurkers' privately. Some of your students may not log in at all to discussions while others may be quiet observers. Email them privately outside the discussion to find out what is happening and why they aren't putting in. There may be a perfectly legitimate reason for their behaviour. Your taking the time to contact them, reinforces for them that their presence is of value. They will have more incentive to join in.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Online Discussions

In addition to evaluating your students' participation in online discussions, you should step back and look at how effective your discussions were. Ask yourself:

  • Was enough time allowed for the topic to be fully explored?
  • Did you get the balance between being the 'sage on the stage' or the 'guide on the side' right?
  • Did any peer-peer learning take place?
  • Were the students engaged or even excited by the discussion?
  • Did your students feel supported enough to explore new ideas?
  • Did the discussion help to create a sense of a learning community?
  • Were the learning outcomes you set achieved?
  • How could I conduct the discussion better next time?

Better yet, ask your students what worked best for them in the online discussion. You could do this formally in a survey or informally in a discussion.

TIP! Create a Coffee Shop
If you give your students an informal space to chat to each other in, you will be providing a course space for informal posts and informal 'coffee shop' chat which is all part of the student experience. Also, you may be surprised how much informal learning can take place in a 'water cooler' environment.

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