Online Discussions

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1 Online Discussions

Claire Tobin, Memorial University of Newfoundland

2 Definitions and background

Online discussions are a collaborative tool to facilitate communication and knowledge construction (Johnson, 2007). An individual can view content and contribute to an online discussion any time or place on their computer with an internet connection (Sundararajan, 2010). Online discussions are also referred to as a type of computer mediated communication (Corich, Kinshuk, & Hunt, 2004). They have been popularized with the evolution of distance learning and the Internet but are also important in blended learning (a combination of face to face and online) (Ellis, Goodyear, O'Hara, & Prosser, 2007).

The online discussion is facilitated with software such as Blackboard or Weblog which provides a structure for individuals to share ideas (Wang & Woo, 2007). Course management systems such as Blackboard provide students with password secured any time availability to discussions (McInnish & Wright, 2005). Online discussions may be synchronous, asynchronous, facilitated or not facilitated (Levin, He, & Robbins, 2006). The most common online discussion is a threaded, asynchronous environment, although there are a variety of other formats and interfaces to support online discussions (Gao, Zhang, & Franklin, 2013). For example, online discussions may use visuals (tables, concept maps) or require prompts, statements or labels to begin a discussion (Gao et al.).

3 Affordances

Online discussions can enhance learning by facilitating comparing ideas, negotiating and interaction in ways that were previously not feasible in distance education (Gao et al., 2013). Guided thinking and questioning structures in online discussions can facilitate interaction and engagement (Sundararajan, 2010). Even in the traditional face-to-face classroom, where class time is limited, online discussions can provide “new opportunities for learning collaborations and partnerships, strengthening and extending learning communities, promoting new ways of communicating and investigating, and providing better access to an increasingly wide range of discipline-specific educational and research-based pedagogic resources” (Ellis et al., p. 83).

Online discussion may be deployed in a variety of formats and approaches to fit different pedagogical goals and approaches (Yeh, 2010). Kumar (2010) identified students’ task focus, learning and communication improved by using a structured, step by step five-stage model of e-moderating online discussions. Du, Havard and Lic (2005) found graduate students in a distance learning course experienced adaptive and adoptive learning when a framework of information, methods and cognition was applied to three types of discussions; flexible peer, structured topic and collaborative task.

The shared expressions in online discussion provide the learner, peers and the teacher permanent and flexible opportunities to observe evaluate and adapt learning processes (Du et al., 2005). Learner autonomy, an important element in motivation and learning, is supported in online discussions through self-assessment as well as peer responses and instructor feedback (Vonderwell, Xin, & Alderman, 2007). Noroozi et al. (2012) found even with ill-timed support information, graduate and undergraduate students were able to use each other for support in the online discussion to create effective knowledge construction.

Online discussions are easy to use and convenient yet do not compromise the quality of learning (Kayler & Weller, 2007). The online discussion format often allows for a higher quality of information to be exchanged as students have the time they need to prepare content (Du, Durrington, & Mathews, 2007). Students can experience increased focus on topic/task in online discussion as there is an absence of off-topic, distracting verbal interaction and visual cues (Chiu, Yang, Liang, & Chen, 2010). As well, many students find online discussions more comfortable and safe than face-to-face interactions and therefore are more willing to share ideas and participate (Cheng et al. & Joordens, 2011).

4 Constraints

Assessment and motivation are conflicting issues in online discussions (Du et al., 2007). In order to increase students’ motivation to participate, Hatzipanagos (2006) found extrinsic rewards in the form of external assessments were required to maintain and increase participation in online discussions. However, “conflict is often produced in a system which rewards individual effort when embedded within a collaborative learning context” (Du et al., 2007, p. 102). Johnson surmised a better balance was needed between workload required for online discussion and weighting of assessment to increase participation levels. Some students do not participate in online discussions (Johnson, 2007). Johnson found that only sixty-nine percent students in a third year university Music course participated in online discussions. Even for students who participate, assumptions should not be made that students will know how to participate effectively in online discussions (Ellis et al., 2007). Sundararajan (2010) argued there was a significant difference between active interaction and participation in online discussions, only the former of which leads to increased performance.

Virk (2004) found that time efficiency was a significant issue in online discussions in an online graduate course in history. Varying, unpredictable amounts of time is necessary for viewing posting, reflecting, typing, refining, and waiting for replies (Wang & Woo, 2007). Counting course hours is also difficult for administrative purposes because it is difficult to determine how much time students need and use in asynchronous online discussions (Green & Brown, 2009). Online discussion software could be more readable and organized to help with improving efficiency and time management (Virk).

Chiu et al. (2010) found learning was impacted because online discussions did not provide clear, immediate feedback through facial expressions and other perceptual clues. Students find online discussions can impede learning as online discussions do not facilitate the freedom and ease of speaking out an idea (Wang & Woo, 2007). As one example, McInnish and Wright (2005) found graduate students who were creating a complex external product such as a web site required levels and combinations of collaboration that were not provided in online discussion structure.

Students with different learning styles can create poor social dynamics in asynchronous online discussions (Küçüka, Genç‐Kumtepeb and Taşcıa, 2010). Poor social dynamics can make a student’s feel unaccepted and unsafe which impedes learning (Küçüka et al.). Learners that do not take ownership of their own learning are not well-suited for online discussions (Corich et al., 2004). Similarly, Chiu et al. (2010), found that most students were less contributing students (age eleven and twelve) and were less successful and retained less knowledge in online discussions. Learning is also negatively impacted in online discussions when students have poor writing skills or foreign language students (Corich et al.).

5 Links

Keys to Facilitating Successful Online Discussions

Mastering online discussion board facilitation resource guide

Online Discussion Boards: Assessing what’s important

Conducting effective online discussions (Video)

Technology and Education Online Discussion Forums: It's in the Response

6 Works Cited

Brown, A., & Green, T. (2009). Time students spend reading threaded discussions in online graduate courses requiring asynchronous participation. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(6), 51-64. Retrieved from

Cheng, C. K., Paré, D. E., Collimore, L., & Joordens, S. (2011). Assessing the effectiveness of a voluntary online discussion forum on improving students' course performance. Computers & Education, 56(1), 253-261.

Chiu, C. H., Yang, H. Y., Liang, T. H., & Chen, H. P. (2010). Elementary students' participation style in synchronous online communication and collaboration. Behaviour & Information Technology, 29(6), 571-586. doi:10.1080/01449291003686195

Corich, S., Kinshuk, & Hunt, L. M. (2004). Assessing discussion forum participation: In search of quality. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, 1(12), 3-12. Retrieved from

Du, J. A., Durrington, V. A., & Mathews, J. G. (2007). Online collaborative discussion: Myth or valuable learning tool. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(2), 94-104. Retrieved from

Du, J., Havard, B., & Li, H. (2005). Dynamic online discussion: task‐oriented interaction for deep learning. Educational Media International, 42(3), 207-218, doi:10.1080/09523980500161221

Ellis, R. A., Goodyear, P., O'Hara, A., & Prosser, M. (2007). The university student experience of face-to-face and online discussions: Coherence, reflection and meaning. Association for Learning Technology Journal, 15(1), 83-97. doi:10.1080/09687760601130057

Farruggio, P. (2011). The effect of a virtual guest speaker in expanding the consciousness of bilingual education teachers preservice during an online discussion. International Journal of Instructional Media, 38(2), 169-175. Retrieved from

Gao, F., Zhang, T. & Franklin, T. (2013). Designing asynchronous online discussion environments: Recent progress and possible future directions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(3), 469-483. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01330.x

Hatzipanagos, S. (2006). Hot and flaming spirals: Learning and empathic interfaces in discussion forum text-based dialogues. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning. Retrieved from

Johnson, H. (2007). Dialogue and the construction of knowledge in e-learning: Exploring students’ perceptions of their learning while using blackboard’s asynchronous discussion board. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning. Retrieved from

Kayler, M., & Weller, K. (2007). Pedagogy, self-assessment, and online discussion groups. Educational Technology & Society, 10(1), 136-147. Retrieved from

Küçüka, M., Genç‐Kumtepeb, E., & Taşcıa, D. (2010). Support services and learning styles influencing interaction in asynchronous online discussions. Educational Media International, 47(1), 39-56. doi:10.1080/09523981003654969

Kumar, V. (2010). Cascade model for online discussion boards in an e-learning environment. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning, 5(1), 48-50. Retrieved from

Levin, B.B., He, Y. & Robbins, H.H. (2006). Comparative analysis of preservice teachers’ reflective thinking in synchronous versus asynchronous online case discussions. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 14(3), 439-460. Retrieved from

McInnish, W. T., & Wright, V. H. (2005). Learning visual literacy through on-line discussions. Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education, 4. Retrieved from

Noroozi, O., Busstra, M. C., Mulder, M., Biemans, H. J. A, Tobi, H., Geelen, . . . Chizari, M. (2012). Online discussion compensates for suboptimal timing of supportive information presentation in a digitally supported learning environment. Educational Technology Research and Development, 60(2), 193-221. doi:10.1007/s11423-011-9217-2

Sundararajan, B. (2010). Emergence of the most knowledgeable other (mko): Social network analysis of chat and bulletin board conversations in a CSCL system. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 8(2), 191-207. doi: 10.1108/S2044-9968(2013)000006E010

Virk, B. (2004). A Balancing Act: Improving Student Online Discussion Participation. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, 1(6). Retrieved from:

Vonderwell, S., Xin, L., & Alderman, K. (2007). Asynchronous discussions and assessment in online learning. Journal of Research on Technology In Education, 39(3), 309-328. Retrieved from

Wang, Q., & Woo, H. L. (2007). Comparing asynchronous online discussions and face-to-face discussions in a classroom setting. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38,272-286. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2006.00621.x

Yeh, Y.-C. (2010). Analyzing online behaviors, roles, and learning communities via online discussions. Educational Technology & Society, 13(1), 140–151. Retrieved from