Online Discussions

The online discussion is a familiar form of online writing for most students and instructors. Often, the instructor posts a question or prompt, and students respond either to the initial prompt, or to the posts of their classmates. These tools are useful for sustaining dialogue and collaboration over a period of time and providing people with resources and information that are instantly accessible, day or night. Asynchronous tools possess the advantage of being able to involve people from multiple time zones. In addition, asynchronous tools are helpful in capturing the history of the interactions of a group, allowing for collective knowledge to be more easily shared and distributed. The primary drawback of asynchronous technologies is that they require some discipline to use when used for ongoing communities of practice (e.g., people typically must take the initiative to “login” to participate) and they may feel “impersonal” to those who prefer higher-touch synchronous technologies.

Possible Instructional Uses: 

  • Whole class or small group discussion of class materials
  • Reading responses
  • Online debates
  • Brainstorming and prioritizing ideas
  • Online Q&A about class material and/or course logistics
  • Engaging in discussion with the wider community
  • Enabling students to collect, share and discuss relevant resources with each other

Centrally Supported Tools:

Additional Tools:

Tips for Using Online Discussion Tools


  • Define clear goals and objectives for the online discussion.
  • Organize the online conference clearly by category and topic ahead of time.
  • Provide detailed instructions for students, including student roles and responsibilities.
  • Establish rules for appropriate and inappropriate behaviors before starting discussions.
  • Require students to log in for a certain number of times each week.
  • Establish clear expectations and standards for assessing student performance in the online discussion.
  • Distinguish between two types of conferences: a) formal and b) informal ones.
  • Create an outline of different types of activities for the online conferencing/discussion.
  • Make online discussion/conferencing an integral part of the course. (Do not separate what is happening in the conference from what is happening in the face-to-face class meetings.)
  • Establish a clear starting and ending time for each discussion topic.
  • Direct students to technology training classes, online tutorials, and any other assistance when necessary.


Create a comfortable atmosphere for the online conferencing/discussion, for example:

  • Be an active participant.
  • Challenge the students without threatening them.
  • Use personal anecdotes when appropriate.
  • Bring your own experiences to the discussion.
  • Do not dominate a discussion or let a few students dominate it.
  • Ask questions at different levels (e.g., knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation).
  • Paraphrase a message if it is not clear.
  • Encourage active student participation.
  • Energize the online discussion if needed (e.g., using role-plays, simulations, pros and cons).
  • Bring closure to an online discussion (e.g., summarizing learning points).

Information adapted from:

Online Discussions. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan