Online discussions serve the same purpose as those that occur in-class, or anywhere else for that matter. Ideas are brought up and kicked around, students share and examine individual insights and perspectives; theoretically, everyone gains a greater understanding of the subject-at-hand.
What's the difference? Physicality: Place and time. Online, a discussion does not require the physical presence of a group gathered together at a pre-arranged time. Online, real-time contraints become malleable. This is especially helpful to students involved in collaborative assignments who may find it difficult to coordinate schedules: they can exchange ideas without having to meet face-to-face.
With online discussion capabilities, teacher-to-student and student-to-student communications reach beyond the classroom expanding and reframing available teaching and learning moments. In addition, online discussions foster a sense of community—a sense of participation in a shared enterprise—when distance and other factors inhibit classmates from gathering on a regular basis.
How Online Discussions Work
Online discussions depend upon participants entering their contributions into a Web form on a Web page and then submitting those forms to a common Web server.
Once received, the server will process the form, be it by adding the contents to a database, emailing them to listserv subscribers, or attaching them to an accessible user group Web page.
Confirmation of the submission is often instantaneous, in the form of an autorespond email delivered back to the submitter's email inbox by the host Web server.
Small group discussions are ideal for workshops and group projects. If you're asking students to collaborate on research or writing, group discussions provide an electronic space where group members can meet.
Gather student-generated ideas on topics or reading assignments that will be addressed later in class.
Build a sense of community by creating virtual venues—Rants, Rambles and Responses—for instance, or whatever you'd like to call it, in which classmates may raise questions and informally exchange thoughts and ideas throughout the semester.
Engage students by having them follow and post responses in ongoing discussions to which fellow classmates post and respond as well. Everyone participates, everyone receives feedback.
May generate ideas which may not arise during real-time classroom discussions.
Elicits responses from quieter students who shy away from speaking up in class by providing a more comfortable discussion venue in which to contribute.
Provides individual points, as well as whole online discussion threads, that can be referenced in class, enriching the discussion and acknowledging thoughtful ideas.
Student comments can be read and validated fairly quickly, showing that you are invested in their ideas.
Students expand their personal knowledge-base through the back-and-forth engagement and interaction with other classmates sharing insights, perspectives, points-of-view, as well as their personally held information and knowledge.
Do all students have access to an outside computer? Are there any special needs, such as hearing or visual impairments, that must be accomodated?
Chat room logistics: Reasonable login times need to be arranged and agreed upon in advance. A variety of student-schedules may need to be accomodated.
Chat room dynamics: How many students fit in the "room" before a discussion disintegrates? How much chaos is manageable? How many students do you have? Should you divide them into smaller groups?
Should students use pseudonyms to protect their privacy when they're online? Will anonymity encourage students to be more open; contribute more significantly?
Point and grade incentives significantly increase participation and the quality of contributions. Should online discussions be evlauated as in-class participation or homework?
Know that some students may lose sight of the "academic context" and make inappropriate comments. For example, students may express concerns and/or criticism online that should be addressed directly to the instructor.
Be sure to inform students, in advance, of any online course requirements. Your class syllabus should include appropriate guidelines and expectations for online discussions.
Discussion forums provide an electronic venue in which students may, with or without their instructor, exchange and explore ideas, continue in-class conversations—after the bell has rung so to speak—or instigate and carry on new ones outside of class. As a pedagogical tool, in other words, it extends the classroom.
Unlike chat rooms, which require scheduled time-slots in which all participants are expected to be in the room, discussion forum conversations are not time-sensitive. Students may contribute at a time of their own choosing.
Chat rooms have earned their pedagogical stripes as well. Like a discussion forum, they provide an online venue in which students can meet, again, with or without an instructor, to carry on a conversation outside of class. The difference is in real-time participation.
Unlike discussion forums, immediacy is the name of the game. You must be present—you must be in the room—in order to participate. To be effective, a time-slot must be scheduled in which all intended participants may find it reasonably convenient to attend; to login, follow along, and contribute to the ongoing thread.
Colorado State University faculty members may learn how to create Canvas accessible discussion forums using the training materials posted on Canvas Guides.
To access most University operated computer services, however, you must have a valid electronic identity. Also known as your eID, it has two components: both your eName and your ePassword.
If you are new to the University and have not already created your eID, you may create and register your eName and ePassword by entering your last name, date of birth, and pre-assigned 9-digit CSUID number in the fields provided on CSU's eIdentity page.
This guide is adapted from the Writing@CSU teaching guide, Conducting Online Discussions, written by Kerri Eglin. It was adapted for presentation on the TILT Web site and revised to address a wider range of classes by Peter Connor.