Your involvement in discussions as a teacher, especially in initial discussions, is vital for guiding the direction for learning – reading, commenting, encouraging, and sometimes redirecting the conversation – helps foster consistent and substantive dialogue between students and with you. As teachers, we need to adapt our roles to the needs of each cohort of learners as they progress through a course. Developing skills in online facilitation is a journey, not something that can be accomplished over one iteration of a course! You are encouraged to spend some time reading about online facilitation, open education practices and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), before facilitating online courses. We will start by examining what constitutes online discussions.

What are online discussions?

An online discussion is defined as communication between instructors and students using interactive communication tools. These tools can take many forms, from chat sessions to discussion forums, to video chat. The value of the online discussion is that even those students who are shy and timid can find the time to express their views, and more in-depth dialogue between students can occur. A well-designed online discussion engages students in an open-ended conversation that promotes deepened understanding of a topic. However, design is only part of the process. To be truly effective, an online discussion needs to be facilitated in a way that encourages conversation and promotes exploration. In an online discussion, you design and facilitate the discussion while the students learn from each other and craft their own understanding of the topic. The students are responsible for learning the material and teach each other, while you facilitate the process from the side.

Face-to-face vs Online discussions

Face to Face


Spontaneous and rapid

Detailed and slow paced

Addresses multiple topics

Addresses fewer topics


Heavily structured

Benefits of Online Discussions

There are many benefits to having online discussions even in a face-to-face course. From fully face-to-face to blended to fully online, the students can expand their learning outside the classroom through interactive dialogue with their peers and the instructor. The interactive image below illustrates some of the benefits of online discussions.

Instructor Presence

The presence of the instructor to support learning in the online delivery mode is essential to student satisfaction. Watch the video to gain insight into building instructor presence (Watchtime: 9 mins).

By Dr.Bonk (Indiana University)

You may recall that we have covered instructor presence in detail in Module 1 under the topic Teaching presence. Refer to Module1 to re-visit the role of instructor in online classes.

Directed Tactics

As an online facilitator, you need to employ certain tactics to become successful in managing online discussions. The following directed tactics can serve as guidelines:

Directed Tactic Description


The course designer can help regulate student interactions by creating and implementing clear rules and policies related to the discussion board posts and replies. This includes quantitative rules about how often to post, by when, and to whom. It also includes qualitative rules about the content and quality of the posts and replies.


The instructor makes it clear to the student how to contact them for help, guidance, questions, and support on the discussion topics. This can be a separate online forum for building discussions between the instructor and students, which is away from the course topic discussions in which the instructor hopes the students will teach each other. This is often called the ’Virtual Office.’


The instructor is integral in summarising the student discussions and going over main points and important conclusions. Putting in direct examples from the discussion is very useful and can give rise to high quality interactions. This helps the students in summarising their own learning, and makes it clear that their participation and contributions are being monitored throughout the process.


Formative assessments and feedback help students to improve their performance during the course. Offering feedback on the quality of the posts with examples of expectations helps students to meet the instructor’s expectations and to improve on the quality of their interactions with their peers.


The instructor should let the students know they are there to support them and be in frequent contact with the student through means other than just the discussion forums. They can send out updates by email and give students many ways to contact them, through a special instructor-student Virtual Office discussion forum in the course, by email, phone, chat, in person-to-person office hours, and any other means of communication the instructor is able to offer students.

Avoiding Burnout

In the face-to-face classroom, the instructor manages around 20+ students in a discussion at the same time, in one hour, and then is done. In the online discussions the conversations can go on longer, expand and break up into multiple conversation lines, and the instructor may begin to feel overwhelmed by the number of replies they need to manage. Here are some tips and tricks to managing online discussions that avoid work overload:

  • Save save save! If you write up a thoughtful, well supported and referenced reply on a given topic, chances are you will use it again the next time you teach that same topic and course. Save it in a file to be reused. Save anything you might reuse and save yourself time in the future.
  • Reply to multiple students at the same time. Do not reply to each student with the same information or weblink. Instead, try to get them onto the same thread and reply to them all there. If you wait a day or two and reply to a thread between 2-4 students, then you make one reply to four students at the same time.
  • Set work hours. Online discussions are always there. It can invade the rest of your life until you find you are logging into the course far too often. Set specific hours when you will login into your online course and check the discussions and stick to that schedule. Try to not login outside those set hours to avoid burnout.
  • Quality vs. Quantity: Replying to all students in the course with fluff and low-quality replies is far less advantageous to their learning than making a few directed, specific, and high-quality replies. Make it clear to students that a reply to one student is always open to discussion by the entire class.
  • Pick your battles. Don’t spend hours writing up a thoughtful, in-depth tutorial, post, or help guide unless you can reuse it with other students in the future; try to find the same thing online already written and give them that link instead.

Strategies for Quality

Maintaining acceptable standards on a discussion forum sets the benchmark for online learners to follow. Before we proceed, watch the video on creating and running a discussion forum (Watchtime: 5 mins).

By SUNY Online Teaching

Below is a list of strategies and methods that help improve the quality of online learning discussions.

  • Make the discussion post directions clear and concise. For example, specify the minimum words or referencing required, and clearly state the due date.
  • Make the value clear. Explain at the start of the course the reason and value of the discussions and outline the discussion methods you will use.
  • Make it worth something. If it is not graded, students are not likely to give it enough attention. Discussion can be an important and integral part of student learning and writing practice. Allocate an adequate percentage of the total grade for initial posts and their participation and replies.
  • Clearly state participation requirements. Many instructors will specify the minimum number of replies each student should make, how many days a week posts and replies should be made on (to show attendance), and the level of quality the reply content should have (meaning replies of just ’I agree’ and nothing more are not counted as participation). Giving students a grading rubric that outlines what is expected and how they will be graded allows them to meet the instructor’s expectations.
  • Promote interactive feedback: The instructor should make it clear that substantive feedback is required for participation points (such as replies of ’I Agree’ and nothing more will not constitute a part of graded participation). Note that not all replies will be substantive, and sometimes all we need to say is “Great job, I agree.” Don’t discourage this kind of positive support, just inform students that they must also have a minimum number of substantive replies as well.
  • Create a permanent discussion schedule. A facilitator can schedule regular and consistent start and end dates of discussions to keep students on track. Setting early due dates on the posts allows students enough time to reply before the end of the discussions. Making the discussion schedule a permanent part of the syllabus allows students to plan their time effectively.
  • Lead by example. If you expect students to make posts and replies at least three days of the week, so should the facilitator as the model. The instructor’s posts should be high quality, referenced, and academic, thus becoming a guide of what is expected.Example: Always make the initial discussion post due on Tuesdays by midnight and the replies due on three days of the week, the final ones in by Sunday night. These permanent due dates week after week help to keep the students organised and able to meet the deadlines.
  • Alleviate isolation and distance. In blended or online learning, students may feel less socially connected to the instructor and course which can lead to higher dropout rates.
  • Encourage dialogues. Avoid dominating the conversation or telling students ’how it is’ and instead guide learning in appropriate directions through the ‘Advancing Discussion tactics’ covered in this topic. Manage dominant students so that timid ones feel they have the space to share.
  • Appropriate group size. Research shows that groups of less than eight people will probably stagnate from lack of interaction, but so too will groups over 15 people as students feel overwhelmed by the number of posts in the forum. If the course numbers allow it create smaller discussion groups of 10-15 people. A good tactic is to then employ the ’Cross-pollination’ method discussed in this module.
  • Mid and end of discussion summaries. Halfway through a discussion post a review of general conclusions being made by students, as well as to clarify any misconceptions and to keep students on track. Post an end-of-discussion summary to wrap up all the main points and to make important conclusions the students may not have yet realised.
  • Align discussions with learning outcomes. Design the discussion questions such that they relate directly back to the course learning outcomes. This way the students are spending their limited time on focused and useful discussions relevant to course learning goals.

Advancing the Discussions

Watch the video below on “Managing an Online Course – Discussion Forum”, by Dr. Bonk that specifically addresses the importance of discussion forums and managing them successfully. Points covered range from developing protocols and appropriate questions to building instructor presence (10 mins).

By Dr.Bonk (Indiana University)

The instructor must find a special balance between being too interactive and not being interactive enough. The following are some indirect ways of pushing and advancing student learning in the discussions without always appearing to be directing them.

  • Questioning strategies: Use a variety of questioning strategies.
  • Lead the horse to water: You will notice that a few students have not understood an important point that may be due to barriers to learning such as lack of prior knowledge. It is important to catch these discussion errors and moderate them early.
  • Create connections: Reply to student threads with useful resources, information, and relevant topics that help them connect their learning.
  • Advanced discussion methods to expand learning. This can be done by:
  1. Increasingly challenging questions: Scaffold the discussions in a way that also builds knowledge from the general to the specific or from lower to higher orders of learning.
  2. Role-play / conference: Assign roles or characters to students and then give them scenarios to act out in the online discussion forums.
  3. Discussions as a data source: Use the discussion forums as a research area for students. Students generate resources and information, the instructor can moderate it and comment on it, and then students can use that information to formulate essays, work, or assignments.
  4. Web 2.0: Many online Web 2.0 tools can be used to create fun and interactive online discussions. For example, Twitter is often used as a live synchronous ’Tweet Chat’ where a question is asked, and the participants respond to the hashtag with comments and thoughts.
  5. Leadership development.: An excellent tactic is to make students a leader in the discussions, which also attends to encouraging students to be in charge of their own learning. This tactic motivates them to learn at least one topic fully, and by teaching others they show their grasp of the subject as well as learn leadership skills.
  6. Cross-pollination: Cross-pollination is a discussion sharing tactic from The World Cafe. It is the idea that key concepts, ideas, and conclusions from small groups can integrate into others, all in the confines of more intimate discussions without the overwhelming feeling coming from larger group discussions.

Once you have established your presence as a facilitator and communicated your learning outcomes and course expectations to the learners in the online class, you must be prepared to deal with any unwarranted situations that may arise amongst the learners during the course, especially on discussion forums and collaborative activities.