What is Online Discussion?
Online discussions provide a space for learners to connect with others around a theme, idea or concept. Discussion offers learners an opportunity to share their reflections, pose and respond to questions, open up dialogue and learn from the varied perspectives of the group. Learners are often motivated to participate in discussion when they are invited to:
- respond to a provocative question, theme or idea.
- summarize the theme or key takeaways from the week.
- lead a discussion on a theme of interest.
- pose questions to the group.
There are two types of discussion, synchronous and asynchronous. Asynchronous discussion does not require participants to be online at the same time. Participants can post at a time that suits them. Comments, discussion boards, social media tools (like Twitter) and discussion wiki pages are all examples of asynchronous discussion. Conversely, synchronous discussion requires participants to be online at the same time to participate together. Web conferencing and VOIP (voice over internet protocol) services like Skype is an example of synchronous discussion tools.
How Does It Support Learning?
Online discussion supports learning in the following ways:
- Broadening thinking. As learners are exposed to multiple perspectives, they begin to move from simplistic, black and white thinking to more complex ways of thinking. Student development theory proposes that as learners move beyond the quest for the "right" answer and begin to see multiple perspectives as valid, this paves the way for them confidently enter into dialogue with peers and instructors and begin to construct their own knowledge (Baxter-Magolda,1992; Ambrose,et-al,2010)
- Teaching each other. When students facilitate a discussion, respond to questions and present their ideas, they are engaging in forms of teaching that deepen their own learning (Doyle, 2008)..
- Practice and feedback. The ability to communicate effectively and listen attentively are two of the most important attributes that learners will take forward into their lives and careers. Online discussion helps students learn to articulate their ideas clearly and organize and support their views. Thoughtful responses to the posts of others takes effort and practice at deriving meaning and extracting key messages in order to provide meaningful feedback to peers. Through feedback provided by both instructors and peers, learners begin to "see points of view they may not have considered, to be respectful of views they do not share and to consider changing their views based on solid research and data presented by others." (Doyle, 2008)
- Social context for meaning-making. Discussions can help reinforce ideas and expose misconceptions. Experienced learners and faculty (through their comments and responses) can tackle misconceptions and work to guide students through a process if conceptual change so that a solid foundation for new learning can be laid. (Ambrose, et al, 2010).
- Baxter-Magolda (1992) Knowing and Reasoning in College: Gender related patterns in students intellectual development.
- Ambrose et al 2010: How Learning Works: 7 Research Based Principles for Smart Teaching
- Doyle, 2008: Helping Students Learn in a Learner Centered Environment
Why Would I Use Online Discussion?
- Encourages collaboration between students by allowing students to review and respond to other work. 
- Builds a community of learners by promoting discussions on formal and informal themes. 
- Deepens students' learning and motivation by propelling them to develop their own views and hear their own voices 
- Engages students in formulating and responding to open ended questions from instructors and peers.
- Students can respond to the discussion any time that is convenient for them.
- Faculty members will spend less time answering students' questions via email or office hours. 
Effective Practice for Facilitating Online Discussion
Regardless of the format, effective integration and facilitation of online discussions requires some planning. Consider:
- Highlighting for students why you have incorporated discussion and how you expect it will support learning in your class.
- Engaging learners in defining a few guidelines for productive discussions. Questions such as "what makes a discussion productive, interesting or exciting?" Conversely, "what makes a discussion unproductive, boring and uninteresting?" The answers generated can be documented as posted as community generated guidelines for your class.
- Determining the role you will play in discussions. Consider offering to summarize discussions at the end of each week or have students fill this role.
- Weaving student comments into weekly summaries as a way of highlighting varied perspectives or questions for further reflection.
- Assessment. How will you assess contributions to the discussion? In order for students to participate, they need to see value in the discussion (related to something they need to learn or accomplish) or it needs to be part of your overall assessment plan.
- Incorporating peer assessment into the evaluation of discussions. Questions like "What posts or comments made you re-examine your assumptions or think more deeply?" Students can rate posts or comments based on this challenge.
- Drawing clear connections between the in-class activity or lectures and the online discussions.
Blogs can be used to facilitate online discussion in multiple ways, which include:
One of the most social aspects of a blog is the opportunity for students to leave comments directly on specific pages or posts of a blog. For example, you could add a learning module or lesson as a post on a blog and ask students to directly comment or reflect on that material in the comments section. Using the comments, students could ask questions about the material and they could respond accordingly and engage in discussion with each other. Another method, would be to use a post to pose a specific question to your students have them start a discussion in the comments on possible solutions. This feature creates a dynamic interchange between you and your students, and between students themselves.
UBC Blogs as Discussion Form
has added functionality to encourage discussion. The options and appearance of PulsePress allow a twitter-like user interface and enable micro-discussion.
see more about Blogs
- Paul Cubbons