Five Ways To Rev Up Online Course Discussions

education online

education online (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

By Lillian Williams

Um. Having difficulty encouraging—or participating in–healthy discussions within an online class?

As the literature notes, class discussions are key to a successful teaching and learning experience.

Space for these discussions must be built into the course design.  But, exactly how to encourage these robust discussions is the real question.

Taiwanese researcher Pao-Nan Chou has some ideas. She offers five methods to consider when trying to boost online discussions, based upon a pilot study.  The study examined the discussion tools utilized in a media literacy course at a Taiwan university.

Chou’s research findings were published in the June, 2012, edition of Higher Education Studies, a peer-reviewed journal of the Canadian Center of Science and Education.

According to the pilot study , students used the followings tools for discussions.  Here’s the researcher’s description, as outlined in the study:

  • Blogging. “The instructor asked students to reflect their online discussions by writing online journals (Google Blog). Each week, students should engage in a reflective learning regarding their performances in the online discussion board.” Strategy behind blogging: “Course instructors can encourage online learners to make weekly entry in their personalized blogs. A blog entry may contain their weekly reflection on course contents. Moreover, from a collaborative learning perspective, learners can give comments on reflection entries.”
  • Skype.  “The instructor used the Skype to set up an online office hour. Instead of text-communication, students could chat with the instructor to discuss course-related issues. Also, the instructor invited several students to express their “oral” opinions via the Skype.” Strategy behind Skype: “Skype allows more than 24 people to chat at the same time. Course instructors can schedule a time to engage in  a real-time discussion. Verbal discussions can avoid misunderstandings caused by the text-discussion.  Moreover, like office hour in the face-to-face environment, a weekly discussion created by course instructors can guide online learners into the right track.”
  • Facebook: “The instructor asked students to register the Facebook accounts. When logging into the Facebook platform, students could obtain classmates’ information about recent daily activities. The informal interaction in the Facebook might strengthen students’ familiarity with other peers.” Strategy behind Facebook: “Instructors can encourage online learners to engage in social networking. In the Facebook platform, each learner can understand much more about peers’ backgrounds.”
  • Wikis: “Traditionally, the online discussion is an individual task. In other words, the responsibility for students is to write postings. In order to enhance the concept of the team-work, the instructor segregated students into different groups. Each group used a wiki page (PB wiki website) to organize important ideas and then wrote postings (results) in the discussion board.” Strategy behind wikis: “Course instructors can set up a wiki platform so that students can contribute their efforts on team projects.”
  • Podcasting: “The instructor employed a podcasting website (podomatic) to record several instructional resources, such as course guidelines and requirements. Once students could not understand the rules of the online discussion, they might seek verbal instruction (podcasting contents) from the instructor.” Strategy behind podcasting: “In the text-based environment, course instructors need to develop some video and audio materials to support student learning. The function of multimedia could facilitate the learning effectiveness of the text-reading.”

Importantly, students were asked about their opinions of these instructional strategies.  “Overall, students were satisfied with the adoption of Web 2.0 technologies in online discussions,” the study report concluded.

Again, this pilot study centered on a media literacy class only. But, as Chou points out, it lays the groundwork for additional research to determine what works best in various types of courses.

Read Chou’s study report here.

It’s your turn.  In your experience, either as a teacher or student, what works best to encourage discussion in an online course?  Click on the comment button below.

For educators, among the previous studies that informed Chou’s research are:

  1. Baglione, S. L., & Nastanski, M. (2007). The Superiority of online discussion faculty perceptions. The Quarterly
  2. Review of Distance Education, 8(2), 139-150.
  3. Bradley M. E., Thom, L. R., Hayes, J., & Hay, C. (2008). Ask and you will receive: How question type influences quantity and quality of online discussions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 888-900.


4.  Brescia, W. F. et al. (2004). Peer Teaching in web based threaded discussions. Journal of Interactive Online Higher Education Studies Vol. 2, No. 2; June 2012 Published by Canadian Center of Science and Education 29 Learning, 3(2), Online Edition.

5.  Chou, P.-C. (2007). A literature review on instructional systems design, portfolio, and e-portfolio. Unpublished Master Paper. The Pennsylvania University, University Park.

6.  Flowers, J, & Cotton, S. E. (2007). Impacts of student categorization of their online discussion contributions. The American Journal of Distance Education, 21(2), 93-104.

7.  Fung, Y. H. (2004). Collaborative online learning: interaction patterns and limiting factors. Open Learning, 19(2),


8. Gall, M.D., Gall, J. P., & Borg, W. R. (2007). Educational Research: An introduction (8th edition). Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

9.  Gilbert, P., & Dabbagh, Y. (2005). How to structure online discussions for meaningful discourse: a case study. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(1), 5-12.

10. Hemphill, L. S., & Hemphill, H. H. (2007). Evaluating the impact of guest speaker postings in online discussions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38 (2), 287-293.

11. Johnson, H. (2007). Dialogue and the construction of knowledge in e –learning: Exploring students’ perceptions oftheir learning while using blackboard’s asynchronous discussion board. European Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 1, Online Edition.

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2 Responses to Five Ways To Rev Up Online Course Discussions

  1. christi parks says:

    I am not a programmer but I have this C language subject this session and have to prepare for it. What all topics should be covered in it?
    And has anyone studied from this course of C tutorial online?? or tell me any other guidance…
    would really appreciate help

  2. It’s an awesome article in support of all the online people; they will get advantage from it I am sure.

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