MET:Effective Use of Discussion Boards

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Discussion boards have become an integral tool with which to support and mediate asynchronous on-line learning. Used effectively, they can replace the benefits of face-to-face interaction afforded through classroom learning (Anderson and Kanuka 1997). Creating a collaborative and constructivist online learning environment does not simply happen by forming an asynchronous discussion group and providing the technology and a question or topic for discussion (Garrison, 1997; Guldberg and Pilkington, 2007). Rather, strategies and tactics for creating effective discussion forums must be developed and tested to understand those elements that represent best practice.

Types and Uses of Discussion Boards

The type of discussion board available depends on the Learning Management System (LMS) being used. Moodle, for example, includes news forums; question and answer forums; and simple, threaded discussion forums.

News Forums

A news forum is essentially a message board and is one-way communication only. Instructors can use it to post announcements to the class; messages remain inside the LMS but can also be set to automatically send the message to students' personal email addresses.

Threaded Discussions

The most common online forum, each student responds to a question or problem using a subject heading (a "thread"). Using threads, students can respond to each others original postings and keep track of their "conversations." In addition, the instructor can easily see which student has posted and when.

Question and Answer Forums

This type of forum allows students to respond to a question or problem presented by the instructor; at the same time, students cannot view other students' responses until they have responded themselves. This is useful to facilitate independent thinking and help students to respond without being influenced by other posting. Once they have responded, however, they can view and respond to their classmates' postings and the discussion reverts to a regular threaded discussion.

Effective Discussion Prompts for Online Discussion Boards video:

Elements of Best Practice

Community of Inquiry Model

Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) propose the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model for the creation of learning communities and the use of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in particular. This model has been widely accepted and heavily referenced and assumes that learning takes place within a community. Discussion boards are one way to create and sustain such a community.

File:Garrison Anderson community of inquiry.png

Cognitive Presence

Cognitive presence, according to Garrison et al., "is taken to mean the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication" (2000, p. 3). Discussion boards offer a useful means of creating and maintaining such communication and also enable the instructor to facilitate in-depth learning through the use Socratic questioning (Yang, 2005).

Some researchers now agree that cognitive presence is more important than teacher or social presence and that the latter two are actually used to enhance the former (Annand, 2011). The primary role of the on-line instructor is to understand the students' cognitive processes and to provide scaffolding in the form of structure, authentic activities and guidance. (Garrison, 1997). Fung (2004) found that when discussion questions or topics were specific and related to a concept or idea within the readings, the discussions were more successful in generating complex interactions between learners. Additional factors which positively affect the generation of complex discussions include the time learners have to reflect on readings, time to present ideas that relate to the topic or question to other learners and opportunity to defend and critique ideas presented by other learners (Dysthe, 2002).

Social Presence

The creation of social presence, the extent to which students project themselves into the learning community, is necessary for the development of a community of inquiry (Garrison, 1997; Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). Tactics to enhance the development of social presence include the use of online introductions at the beginning of the course, with discussion questions and topics on a social, personal and reflective level rather than with questions focused on a deeper cognitive level (Plez, 2004; Andresen, 2009). This strategy is used to initiate discussion between learners in order to develop online relationships.

While the need for social presence is widely accepted, recent research questions the effectiveness of emphasizing consistent collaboration with peers when seeking deep, meaningful learning (Rourke & Kanuka, 2009; Shea & Bidjerano, 2009; ). Similarly, in a study of the effectiveness of social presence Gorsky, Caspi and Smidt (2007) concluded that students were only able to assist each other through the use of discussions when the material was relatively straightforward, while difficult material was learned through student-content and student-instructor communication. Discussion boards, then, may play a secondary role in promoting critical thinking and in-depth learning.

Teacher Presence

On-line teaching requires instructors to change their approach to both the course curriculum and management (Coppola, 2002). Instructors are much more cognitively involved in the learning material and spend more time preparing discussion questions and topics related to the learning objectives (Andreson, 2009). The changing roles in class and course management include controlling the time and frequency of discussions in order to develop on-line relationships, moderate student interactions and meet learning objectives (Heckman & Annabbi, 2006; Plez, 2004).

The frequency and type of instructor participation in an asynchronous discussion are difficult to gauge (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2002). Mazzolini and Maddison (2007) found, for example, that increased instructor participation did not increase student participation and that instructors who attempted to increase student participation by initiating new discussions were often unsuccessful. Similarly, Mazzolini & Maddison (2002) found that the more instructors posted to a forum, the shorter the lengths of the student postings. Deciding when and how often to participate in a discussion forum depends on the instructor's learning objectives (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2002).

Cultivate Community of Practice

Heckman and Annabi (2006) offer the following conditions for nurturing an on-line community of practice through discussion boards.

    • Focus on value and expect different levels of participation. Because people have different interests and values their participation in the inquiry will fluctuate.
    • Focus on the design of the community spaces. Develop both public and private discussion spaces. Develop spaces that become familiar meeting spaces, like a favorite café, but also create unique and novel spaces for participants to explore.
    • Welcome the unexpected. Allowing communities to grow organically means that you cannot control every aspect of the discussions. New students will bring different perspectives and change the community dynamic. As long the community is a safe place for participants, let the community evolve as its members direct.
    • Welcome outside perspectives. Invite visitors into the discussion space to add perspective, flavor and interest to the discussion. Inviting visitors will enrich the communities’ inquiry.
    • Create a rhythm for the community. The community rhythm will ebb and flow depending on the sequence and timing of events. When major assignments or exams are scheduled discussion participation will fall off. Punctuate these times with short novel discussions that don’t rely on reflections from readings.
    • Make expectations clear. Accepting that a community of practice grows organically doesn’t mean that there are not expectations regarding the quantity and quality of posts. Instructors should clearly and repeatedly articulate expectations and provide examples where necessary.
    • Model community behavior. Instructors need to integrate themselves into the community without assuming full control and direction. Instructors should be prepared to challenge assumptions, ask questions and introduce additional reading to enhance discussions. On the other hand, instructors need to get out of the way and let the learners do the community developmental work.
    • Reinforce desired behavior. Recognize and reinforce positive community behavior.
    • Publish all student work. Knowledge construction will come from the community of practice only to the extent that student work is open to the whole community. Sharing work allows ideas to be built upon, challenged, critique and recognized.

Further Reading

Successful Strategies for using Asynchronous Discussion Boards:

Tips for More Active Discussion Forums:

Online Discussion Forums:


Andresen, M. A. (2009). Asynchronous discussion forums: success factors, outcomes, assessments, and limitations. Educational Technology & Society, 12 (1), 249–257.

Anderson, T., & Elloumi, F. (2004). Theory and practice of online learning. Athabasca, Canada: Athabasca University. Retrieved August 16, 2007, from

Anderson, T. and Kanuka, H. (1997). On-Line Forums: New Platforms for Professional Development and Group Collaboration. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3: 0. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.1997.tb00078.xnGarrison, D. R. (1997). Computer conferencing: the post-industrial age of distance education Open learning, 12(2), 3-11.

Annand, D. (2011). Social presence within the community of inquiry framework. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12.5

Coppola, N.W., Hiltz, S.R. & Rotter, N.G. (2002). Becoming a virtual professor: pedagogical roles and asynchronous learning networks. Journal of Management Information Systems, 18(4), 169 – 189.

Dysthe, O. (2002). The learning potential of a web-mediated discussion in a university course. Studies in Higher Education, 27(3), 339 – 352.

Fahy, P. J., & Ally, M. (2005). Student learning style and asynchronous computer mediated conferencing (CMC) interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 19(1).

Fung, Y. H. (2004). Collaborative online learning: interaction patterns and limiting factors. Open Learning, Vol. 19, No. 2.

Garrison, D. R. (1997). Computer conferencing: the post-industrial age of distance education Open learning, 12(2), 3-11.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), 87-105.

Gorsky, P., Caspi, A., & Smidt, S. (2007). Use of instructional dialogue by university students in a difficult distance education physics course. Journal of Distance Education, 23(1), 1–22.

Guldberg, K. & Pilkington, R.M. (2007). Tutor roles in facilitating reflection on practice through online discussion. Educational Technology & Society, 10(1), 61 – 72.

Heckman, R., & Annabi, H. (2006). Cultivating voluntary online learning communities in blended environments [Electronic Version]. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(4), 51-66. Retrieved September 13, 2007 from http://www.sloan

Mazzolini, M. & Maddison, S. (2002). Sage, guide or ghost? The effect of instructor intervention on student participation in online discussion forums. Computers and Education, 40, 237-253.

Mazzolini, M. & Maddison, S. (2007). When to jump in: the role of the instructor in online discussion forums. Computers and Education, 49, 193-213.

Pelz, B. (2004). (My) Three principles of effective online pedagogy [Electronic Version]. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 8(3), 33-46. Retrieved September 13, 2007 from

Rourke, L., & Kanuka, H. (2009). Learning in communities of inquiry: A review of the literature. Journal of Distance Education, 23(1), 19–48.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2008). Measures of quality in online education: An investigation of the community of inquiry model and the net generation. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 39(4), 339–361.

Sims, R., & Bovard, B. (2004). Interacting with online learners: How new elaborations of online presence can foster critical thinking and reflection. Paper presented at ASCILITE 2004 Conference. Perth. Retrieved September 13, 2007 from

Yang, Y-T. C. (2005). Using Socratic questioning to promote critical thinking skill through asynchronous discussion forums in distance learning environments. The American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 163-181.