Online Discussions

The Discussion tool in D2L is a powerful tool to engage students with your course material and with each other. This mini-primer provides some suggestions for effective use of this tool.

Ways to Use the Discussion Tool

There are numerous ways that you can use a discussion tool to facilitate learning. However, allow the underlying purpose (your instructional goal) to guide your thinking about precisely how you might develop and facilitate an online discussion activity. That is, reflect on the desired outcome you want from the discussion and then design the activity accordingly. Some common purposes of online discussion activities are to:

  • Prime students for other online learning activities - Using a discussion forum for this purpose not only gets them thinking about the content but encourages (forces) them to complete preparatory work (especially if you give credit for the discussion or make the discussion a requirement for release of or progression to other content).
  • Continue or substitute for in-class discussions - Class time may be abbreviated so online discussions can expand students’ exposure to the curriculum. Even if in-class discussions do take place, it is difficult, if not impossible, to hear from all students during a class session, especially if the class is large. An online discussion can help remediate this challenge by allowing or requiring all students to participate.
  • Illuminate key concepts in the curriculum - An online discussion can provide an additional means for you to drill home important course concepts. This provides students with not only an additional opportunity to visit the content but can also encourage them to reflect on or contextualize key concepts in more meaningful ways.
  • Encourage collaboration and discourse - In online discussions, students can share ideas as well as hear from others; learning to better defend their position as well as develop an appreciation for differing viewpoints. This back and forth engagement encourages students to think critically about the content and elicits deeper reflection. 
  • Clarify difficult course concepts or misconceptions - Use an online discussion to correct misconceptions or clarify difficult or confusing content. Repeated exposure to these content topics can save you time in revisiting content during class time, can better engage students, and may enhance overall learning. 
  • Provide opportunities for student led interactions - Do not underestimate the power of social learning or placing students in the role of teacher. Asking students to serve as a facilitator or research and post facts about a course topic can increase their engagement and strengthen learning. This strategy shifts responsibility for learning to students and can reduce the administrative overhead of the instructor. 

Ideas for Discussion Tool Activities

  • Think beyond conversations: leverage the discussion tool for other learning activities
    • Set up debates
    • Brainstorm ideas

    • Analyze case studies

    • Create role play activities

    • Article reviews

    • Book reviews or annotations

    • Website analyses

    • Reports generated from "on-ground" learning activities (observations, interviews, photography assignments, etc.)

  • Shift responsibility for learning to students
    • ​​​​Consider having your students post the questions
    • Rotate discussion moderator/facilitator role among students
    • Create student groups and have them research content and then serve as content experts
    • Consider participating as a peer with students in online discussions
    • Balance faculty-to-student dialogue with student-to-student dialogue
    • Encourage critical thinking by creating problem or scenario based threads
    • Don’t be afraid to stir things up by suggesting "what if" prompts.
    • Within reason, let discussions evolve on their own. Allow students to explore or debate topics before stepping in.

Tips for Facilitating Online Discussions

  • Establish and communicate learning expectations 
    • Clearly communicate the goals and expectations of the online activity to students. Tell them:
      • Why you want them to use an online discussion (explore new ideas, review concepts, compare experiences)
      • What you want them to base their discussion or argument on (readings, in-class discussion, personal opinion)
      • How you expect them to learn from it (reflection, critical thinking, application, compare & contrast)
  • Prepare students for the mechanics of online discussions
    • Tell students:
      • How often they should post
      • By when they should post
      • How long the discussion will last
      • How they will be assessed on their posts
      • What constitutes an appropriate post (give examples or model expected discussion behavior)
      • To feel free to create critical discourse while remaining respectful and collegial
      • What to expect regarding your (the instructor's) role and participation in the activity

The material in this mini-primer was excerpted from the OIA mini-course Effective Online Discussions, authored by Sue Howell.