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Online Discussions: An introduction

The ability to hold class discussions and get student feedback is of critical importance to courses conducted either partially or totally online. Online discussion forums constitute the most important mechanism for communication between instructor and students, and student with student. Online discussion forums are essential to any web-based course management system. Desire2Learn provides a very flexible and easy-to-manage online discussion forum within each course offering.

How Does an Online Discussion Work?

In an online discussion forum, a participant (either the instructor or a student) poses a question within a discussion template on D2L. Other participants read the posting and respond with comments. Other participants can choose to respond to the original question or to comments that others have made. Thus, a "thread" of discussion postings pertaining to the same topic is created. These activities are all conducted online, within a D2L course, and can be done anytime --hence the term "asynchronous" discussion. A record of the discussion is readily available and accessible to all. It does not clutter up the participants' email in-boxes either.

Online discussions can also be conducted in small groups, if desired. A class can be divided into a number of groups according to the group projects they are in, or students can simply be assigned to groups for discussion purposes. Access to group discussions can be controlled by instructors.

Online discussions can be used as a regular class assignment where the posting content or the frequency of postings is graded by the instructor according to a pre-defined grading rubric. Online discussions can also be used for brainstorming, for questions to instructors or to the class for problem solving, as a place for FAQs so the instructor does not have to answer similar questions multiple times, or as a place for students to collaborate on group projects.

Some Pedagogical Benefits to Using Online Discussion Forums as a Class Activity

There are many more possibilities, depending on how the discussion forums are conducted.

Online discussions can even serve as a good assignment or activity for courses that are conducted in the classroom.

Some Practical Considerations

The success of using online discussions in your course depends on many factors. There is no single formula for success. The amount of online discussion and the nature of the discussions vary from discipline to discipline and according to the content of your course.

Consider your role as instructor in the discussion and make that clear to your students up front. Are you reading and commenting on all messages, just an occasional participant in the discussion, or how often? This helps manage students' expectations and reduces confusion. Take into consideration how you will manage your time if you have a large volume of postings to deal with. Be ready to jump in if a discussion heads off-course or stimulation is needed.

Clarify the student's role and what your expectations are, especially if you are grading the discussion postings. Give clear instructions on how you grade (content, grammar, spelling, etc.), how often students need to post, and the amount of interaction expected. Give clear deadlines, but deadlines should be based on reasonable timelines.

If you are conducting discussions among student groups, identify a group leader, or devise a method of communication that is clear to everyone. Allow students to let you know if the group dynamic is not working, and rectify the situation as soon as you can.

References on Managing Online Discussions

There are many references on conducting online discussions. Following is just a small list to get you started. Remember to attend the online discussion workshops offered by the LTC during the semester for further opportunities to explore the pedagogy of online discussions.

Online discussions (Dartmouth)

Moderating and Facilitating Online Discussions (Sonoma State)

Tips & Strategies for Facilitating Online Discussions

UW-Milwaukee Hybrid Course Design Information. Information inside a D2L course at UW-Milwaukee. Log in with username: uww.hybrid, and password: uww.hybrid.