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. That is because online discussions:

student with laptop
  • Accommodate individual spontaneity.
  • Present multiple topics simultaneously.
  • Offer more opportunity for in-depth, thoughtful reflection, and response.
  • Level the playing field for students who typically shy away from classroom discussion.
  • Can be tracked for participation and connected to an online gradebook.

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.


Where to Find Resources?

Types of Online Discussions

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

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 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.

  Want More?

The “Online Discussions” deep dive topic explores online discussion formats, in addition to key considerations, tips, and resources, to deal with a number of instructional and participation challenges.

Topics covered include:

  • Discussions Types
  • Instructor Roles in Online Discussion
  • Discussion Design and Facilitation Tips

Visit the Online Discussions deep dive topic

Note: This course is available for FREE to all UW-Madison faculty and staff. When you click the link you will be prompted to sign in with your UW-Madison NetID and password. Then you will be taken to the topic homepage where you can learn more and complete activities.