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Vol. 7, No. 3: November 15, 2000

Keys to Facilitating Successful Online Discussions

by Donna Raleigh, Coordinator of Technical Training and Instructional Technology,
Media Development Center, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire

"This is fun!"

Last week a student new to online discussions posted these words. Her class meets via distance education once a week and, for the remainder of the time, the students and faculty share ideas in a discussion area in WebCT. Of course, the purposes for online discussions extend far beyond "fun." Nevertheless, an online discussion that is purposefully planned and skillfully implemented will not only meet the instructorís objectives but will engage students in ways that make learning fun.

What is an online discussion?

First, letís establish a common understanding of what is meant by the term "online discussions." For the purposes of this article, online discussions are the asynchronous posting of electronic messages by members of a class in a continued conversation on topics designated by the instructor. By establishing this narrow definition of online discussions, we can better focus on how to plan and implement successful online discussions.

Uses for online discussions

Online discussions are particularly useful for instructors facilitating online courses and for faculty who teach to remote sites via interactive television. However, faculty who teach traditional courses that meet only once or twice a week also find them beneficial, as do faculty who need to be absent from class occasionally.

The actual application of online discussions can be divided into two lists. The first list details the conceptual bases for online discussions, and the second deals with the practical applications of online discussions that lead to the conceptual learning. Since both lists are incomplete, feel free to email me to add to the lists.

Some conceptual uses of online discussions

Application ideas for online discussions

Planning Considerations

Planning and implementing the online discussion is key to avoiding the common problems experienced with online discussions. For example, requiring students to post a minimum number of times can avoid having too little discussion. Assigning students the roles of discussion leader or moderator gives them ownership in the success of the discussion and helps to keep the discussion on topic. Answering the following questions during the planning and implementing stage will result in higher success rate.

How will students access the online discussion?

Once you have chosen your online discussion tool and become familiar with it, you are ready to structure your discussions.

Using Guidelines and Procedures to Establish a Safe Learning Environment

To ensure success of your online discussions, you will want to establish some guidelines and procedures to govern your studentsí use of the discussion area. Setting up expectations, how-toís, and guidelines aid in creating a learning environment that students will want to use and will enjoy using. Here are some questions to consider as you prepare the guidelines and procedures.

Successful Implementation

Once students have the access, how-toís, structure, and expectations, let the interaction begin! During the first week of class, be prepared to handle student frustration with technology and also to provide encouraging words. A get-acquainted topic for the first week helps students to become comfortable with each other and assures students that they can use the technology. This can take many forms. A childrenís literature course began its online discussions by having each student compare him- or herself with a character in a childrenís book. Students in another class were asked to describe themselves using eight nouns.

Whether online discussions provide exclusive student-to-student contact or supplement in-class contact, through careful planning and implementation, they can be used in a variety of creative ways to help students internalize knowledge and share ideas in enjoyable and enriching exchange environments.


Jonassen, David H. (1996). Computers in the Classroom: Mindtools for Critical Thinking. Merrill Publishing.

Palloff, Rena M. and Keith Pratt (1999). Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Note: Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt's Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace (mentioned above under "Resources") was reviewed in the May 2000 issue of Teaching with Technology Today. Read the review by M. Kayt Sunwood of UW-Superior and Jane Henderson of UW-Stout.

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