UNF Center for Instruction and Research Technology

Instructional Design



So you have decided that you want to create discussions for your online class. If your reason for creating online discussions is that you want to replicate those same style discussions you have in your face-to-face classes, you might be wasting your time. Online discussions are a great element to add to your bag of tricks for an online course; however, online discussions are very different than what you have in your face-to-face class. There is no one sitting in the front row waiting anxiously for you to ask a question they can pounce on. Likewise, there should be no one falling asleep in the back of the class that will miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to answer a defining question. Instead, you are writing a discussion prompt that will elicit a demonstration of knowledge and critical thinking from your students.

The dilemma that instructors often have is that they want to create those same engaging, spontaneous discussions they have in a face-to-face class in their new online space. The problem is they can’t – at least not exactly. Quite simply, the online course design is different, therefore the discussion will be different. However, different is not a bad thing. Identify the positive outcomes related to an online discussion forum and emphasize those, as opposed to trying to make an online discussion mimic a classroom discussion (which may only be minimally successful). The online discussion should focus on what it can do well and the results it can produce.

What does an online discussion offer? To begin with, it offers instructors the ability to prescribe expectations for students in terms of how they should participate, making it easier for instructors to grade participation and for students to understand what is required from them. This takes away the surprise element when students receive their participation grade. Online discussions leave room for the quiet thinkers in the class, who now have the ability to be involved in the discussion and possibly offer the point of view that the front row dweller never revealed. Now the discussions can require students do some research on their own to find a resource to quote or that helps defend their position in the discussion. They can think, discover, analyze and critique…all while forming their post. It’s likely that these higher-level learning skills are not part of the spontaneous responses instructors receive in the traditional classroom.

In Practice

Imagine you have worked your typing fingers to the bone for fifteen weeks designing a well-organized online course based on current best practices and you can’t wait for students to get involved in your first exciting discussion. You publish the discussion and anxiously await their replies. The seconds tick by…and turn into days…when students finally begin replying the day—or the night—the initial post is due. The initial posts are half-hearted and surface-level thinking, and the replies are your typical, “Great post!” What do you do?

Here are a few additional tips for promoting meaningful discussions.

Instructor Participation

As with any discussion, the role of the instructor is a vital one. Remember to be present in the discussions by replying to posts. Probe for more information when necessary and acknowledge meaningful posts while modeling what you expect from students in terms of responses. Instructor involvement in the discussion lets students know that their posts are worthwhile, and that their thoughtful participation is recognized.

Instructor participation also encourages students who are unmotivated due to a lack of physical or relational connectedness with the instructor and/or students. An icebreaker discussion at the beginning of the course tends to promote richer conversation later in the course.

Use VoiceThread

VoiceThread is a multimedia tool that can be embedded within Canvas. Instructors have the ability to upload a slideshow that holds images, documents, and/or videos and add voice, text, or video narrations throughout. Students then add comments (voice, text, or video) as they navigate through the slides. For example, an instructor may create a VoiceThread discussion which consists of voice narrated slides on the concept of universal health care, incorporating discussion questions throughout. Students are required to respond verbally to one of the discussion questions as well as reply to a classmate’s response. Enabling voice and video capabilities humanizes the discussion and typically increases motivation for engaged participation.

Acknowledgement in Weekly Announcements

In your weekly announcements, reference exemplary discussion posts and replies. For example “John made some excellent points about ‘xyz’ in this week’s discussion and Emily’s reply was evidence-based and very insightful. Kudos to you both!” If necessary, you can also include reminders about the discussion rubric (and a link to it) in the announcement.

Don’t forget to offer your personal assistance if you notice several students are struggling. Remind students about your open door policy and appropriate asynchronous and/or synchronous hours for communication and invite them to make an appointment.

What Else Can I Do?

If all else fails, check your rubric and discussion topics. Maybe they need a little work. Did you include initial post reply lengths in your rubric? How about referencing outside sources? Does your rubric address critical thinking, application, and/or reflection? Are you asking them questions that are insightful and — most importantly — involve them expressing their opinions? Even if the material cannot be made intensely personal, asking students to compare two topics and tell you how they feel about them — especially if controversial — will spark more student interest and engagement with the presented topics.

What to Avoid

What you want to avoid is sending “warning” announcements to students, stating what is NOT acceptable without providing an example of what is acceptable. Remember that not every student has taken an online course and understands what engaging discussions should look like online. If they are coming from a background of primarily traditional face-to-face courses, they may not have had the opportunity to use a discussion board in any capacity. Provide some scaffolding and support to account for varying levels of online learning experience.

Discussions are an essential component of effective online courses because they facilitate many different types of interactions: instructor-student, student-student, and student-content. The act of discussing something with another person in an online environment is not limited to the ‘Discussion’ tool although it is usually associated with it. In Canvas, discussions can also occur synchronously through Chats and Zoom. Regardless of the tool being used, the act of discussing something usually starts with a question or a statement about some topic, and continues forward as a series of responses to the initial topic and subsequent responses.


JOLT – Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. (n.d.). Jolt.merlot.org. Retrieved May 10, 2023, from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no4/linardopoulos_1211.htm

‌Jones, R. C. (2013, July 29). The Instructor’s Challenge: Moving Students beyond Opinions to Critical Thinking. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/the-instructors-challenge-moving-students-beyond-opinions-to-critical-thinking/

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