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Tag: facilitating effective online discussions

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The LMS discussion forum was once the only real option for hosting discussion in an online course. But today there are a variety of options, from videoconferencing to social media to online post-it boards. The choices can leave faculty perplexed as to which to use. Here I examine different discussion formats so that you can choose the right one for your purposes.

LMS discussion forum

The LMS asynchronous discussion forum has numerous advantages over a live discussion. For one, the greater think-time afforded students in crafting their posts allows for deeper and more detailed thought than a live discussion. It also encourages students to reply directly to one another, whereas live discussion nearly always goes through the instructor. Plus, there are no time limits that require faculty to cut off discussion to move on.

These reasons make discussion forums ideal when faculty want to hear from every student. But more than that, the threaded nature of LMS discussion forums makes them useful for topic-based discussions where the goal is for the class to explore and develop ideas, especially to dig deeper into a topic. For instance, an art history instructor who wants students to explore the concept of creativity could ask students who was more creative, Michelangelo or da Vinci. This question requires students to think about what creativity is and how it is manifested in art. That takes time for reflection and so would not be good for a live discussion, but the additional think-time makes it suitable for an LMS discussion forum.


Live events are ideal for developing students’ oral communication skills. This makes videoconferencing advantageous for student presentations, which should include a question-and-answer time for students to develop their ability to think on their feet. Using live events also allows instructors to track discussion in a specific direction (in contrast to an LMS forum, where discussion spirals out in multiple directions at once). For instance, a math instructor might want to walk students through some problems, with students providing the suggestions for each step. If a student provides the wrong suggestion, the instructor might want to follow it out to show why it is a dead end and then start again.

Finally, live events are beneficial for class simulations. In my medical ethics class, I will sometimes host videoconferencing simulations of cases where I assign students to play the roles of patient, patient’s family, and medical team. I want students to consider the perspective of the various parties to better prepare them for the types of responses they will get as future practitioners.

Since it is nearly impossible to get everyone to speak in a class-wide live event, it is useful to include some polling questions to keep everyone engaged. Setting up a poll ahead of time with four or five questions using Kahoot! or Poll Everywhere is a reliable way to have the questions on hand to roll out where appropriate. While videoconferencing systems have a text chat function, it is not an effective way to measure student understanding; it’s unlikely that everyone will answer, and if they do, the system can’t tabulate the results like an audience response system. I would also suggest that faculty not have students use the live chat function because it splits attendees’ attention.

Social media

Social media is a discussion option that many faculty do not consider, but it offers many advantages over other forms of discussion. For one, students are experienced with using social media, whereas the LMS structure is fundamentally foreign to them. Plus, social media is far more convenient to use than the LMS. A student need only pull out their smartphone to type a text, take a photo, or record a video and post it with a single click of a button, whereas the LMS requires laborious steps for logging in and reaching the right place to post in a discussion forum.

For these reasons social media is ideal for generating discussion around students’ lived experiences. Students can use texts, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat to post examples of class concepts—architectural forms, social behaviors, and so on—that they run across in their daily lives. (I would not recommend Facebook as most students consider it passé).

Digital post-it boards

Digital post-it boards—such as Padlet, Flipgrid, and Wakelet—have rapidly gained popularity over the past few years. They differ from the LMS in that postings appear all at once on a single page rather than wrapped inside of threaded discussions in an LMS. This display format places all the postings on the same level, making them easy to scan, and is ideal for “show and tell” discussions where the goal is to get an independent contribution from each participant related to the topic of the discussion rather than a thread of replies that develop an idea. Plus, these boards are designed to host visual content, such as images and videos, whereas the LMS discussion forum is designed for text.

For these reasons, boards are great for icebreakers at the beginning of class. I used one to have students post a photo of their favorite place to visit, along with an account of what makes it special. Another option is to have students post examples of a concept, such as photos of various types of urban runoff controls. The visual appeal makes these boards excellent for students to post mini-projects, such as digital storytelling videos that describe an experience or explain a topic through the perspective of someone involved in it.

Wakelet is particularly good for hosting group projects due to its linear layout. Instead of having the postings appear in a tile pattern as in Padlet or Flipgrid, Wakelet runs the postings down the center of the page. This layout allows a group to create a project that walks the viewer through the topic step-by-step in an attractive format.

Whatever your purpose, there is a discussion format that suits your needs.