Say what? Promoting discussion in online courses (#coltt2009)

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 12, 2009

Blogging from the Colorado Teaching and Learning with Technology (COLTT) conference.  This session, from Joni Dunlap, how to promote discussion in online courses.

How can we get learners to talk in online discussions, and how can we get the chatty students to shut up?  The results have been pretty disappointing so far.  Most instructors set up a discussion forum, and ask students to post an original post and to comment on two other posts.  But instructors complain that students are doing the minimum and the discussions aren’t exciting.  But what are they assessing?  They’re just counting how many posts each student gives.  The discussions, hence, are seen as tedious busywork.

So, there are three things to do to get good online discussion:

  1. Relevance (what’s the point? Why are we doing this?)
  2. Expectations (what are the rules?  How are we assessed?)
  3. Preparation (what is an online discussion?  How do we talk online?)

Getting started.

First, she says, you have to create online community.  She asks them to share something special about themselves (eg., “I was held up at gunpoint”) or “what are your superhero powers?” or “share two songs that represent your present, past, and future”)  She uses Voicethread (an online tool for discussing images and ideas, which can be integrated with Moodle) and students can either add their comment as text (which appears under their picture) or as a small video.  These help get their collective feet wet in a playful way where they’re not being judged.

Provoking discussion.

A lot of the unsucessful ways that people start discussions are to ask, for example, give three comments on the reading on page 5.  How boring!  Discussion needs to be sparked with something provocative.  For example, “give three reasons why the author is dead wrong” or “students just aren’t as motivated as they used to be.  Comment.”  Don’t just ask students if they agree with the author where they can answer yes or no.  Ask them why they think the author wrote what he wrote and what their own viewpoint is.  Ask real discussion questions!


The guidelines for how to create online discussions are important to set up in advance. Setting up roles and responsibilities with a protocol can be helpful in making it clear what you expect of students, and makes treatment of students equitable and make the participation meaningful.

  1. Group size. She suggests 10-15.  Though, I know that in small group work in class, the ideal size is 4-5, so I wonder if this holds online?
  2. Assigned roles (eg., assigned reader, see below).
  3. Limit number and length. This can keep a student to posting a certain number of words so that one student doesn’t come in an post an overwhelming amount of information, turning off other students from discussion.  She suggests 350 words per posted quotes and 250 word responses.  The originator can react to the comments ith up to 250 words.  This can be assessed by the instructor by eye rather than by actually counting words.  This helps students learn to share an idea in a short amount of text, as well.  Most students don’t have trouble writing enough words, but rather keeping it short enough!
  4. Wait to step in. This can be a challenge!  The discussion can get truncated if the instructor steps in with their point of view.  She tells the students that the discussion starts Monday, she’ll monitor it, but won’t contribute until Thursday.  Then she can respond to themes that have been established (which is also a timesaver.)  Earlier, she can ask questions to promote discussion.
  5. Allow learners to select topics. Not everything is interesting to every student.  Allowing students to choose which questions to respond to gives them some control.
  6. Asking extension questions
  7. Acknowledging contributions
  8. Designated reader. Each learner takes on the role of the designated reader who does not contribute to the discussion (but can ask clarifying questions), but is responsible for summarizing the online discussion.
  9. Rotating groups. You can also set up discussion forums with different issues to be discussed in each forum.  In groups of 4-5, students rotate to new forums each day.  Each group records their ideas about the issue, and students can then revisit the forums to see what other groups discussed.
  10. Point systems. 0 points for idea that is not original or clear.  1 point for succinct, interesting, original argument or idea, and 2 points for a contribution that is creative and original, compelllingly argues a clear point, supported with evidence.  She has fellow students assign these points to each other, not anonymously.

Their slides are available on

They also have an online handbook coming out from Lulu Press.  Not out yet, but it’s called the “CU Online Handbook” by the University of Colorado at Denver.  ID 7466014

{ 1 comment }

Sarah October 9, 2011 at 8:11 pm

For the most part, I like the convenience of taking online courses. The exception to this is that we are forced to take part in these inane online discussions.

First, is the time issue. I take online courses because I don’t have the time to go to class in person several days a week. I work full time and take care of a household on top of taking other classes. What makes these professors think that I have all this time to research and discuss a new topic every week? If we must do these discussions, at least consider requiring one discussion per month instead of one per week.

Second of all, we don’t get tested on the discussions. I am NOT suggesting that these inane discussions are included on any tests. I AM suggesting that either we should not be required to do these discussions since they have no bearing on what we ultimately need to know to pass the class, or that they should be on material that will be on the quizzes and exams.

Finally, please find a topic that I might actually care about, or allow me to choose which concept I want to discuss. Maybe I have ADD or something, but nothing makes me feel more like running around in circles and screaming than being forced to discuss something that I find uninteresting. It’s even possible that someone will post a topic that I originally didn’t find interesting, but they offer a different perspective on it that will make me take a second look.

This is just my 2 cents, of course. I just thought that some professors could use a student’s perspective on these discussions. I can’t be sure of other students, but I personally see no benefit to doing the discussions the way in which they are currently conducted.

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