Originally posted January 15, 2019 by Leeann Waddington

At first glance, asynchronous discussion-based learning seems simple and  obvious, pick a question to post in a forum and post it in the learning  management system. If only it was this simple. As a beginning online  instructor, I used the questions given to me by a colleague and found  myself frustrated with a class full of responses that all had the same  content. Accompanying my disappointment with the lack of depth in their reposes was frustration as I felt the need to try to respond and connect with  my students. The intensity of the volume of responses had me  overwhelmed and questioning the online learning format. I began to  wonder if discussion forums were useful at all! 

Turning to the literature and more experienced colleagues, the value of discussion-based learning was clear and I found others were struggling to facilitate it online as well. Some of the values of discussion-based learning include Reigeluth and Carr-Chellman (2009) and Laurillard (2012): 

  • Explore course concepts 
  • Consider other’s perspectives  
  • Work with new ideas to develop deeper understanding  
  • Create shared responsibility for learning 
  • Honour the voices and experiences of students 
  • Promotes participation 
  • Develops critical thinking and problem- solving skills  

Eventually, I found a way to structure and facilitate successful online discussion. I learned to:

  1. Ask the right kind of questions  
  2.  Organize small groups that report out to a larger forum or in a seminar   
  3.  Not to mandate number of responses to others 

The goal is to replicate a discussion that might emerge in the classroom.  This natural dialogue is prompted by stimulating questions that embed an  opportunity to share perspectives and support one’s ideas with evidence  – this should not be forced. The other important thing to note is that online learning environments need to build community and not all learners reach the same level of understanding at the same time, therefore some may be learning from you and their classmates and  have less input initially. Finally, being clear about the objective of  the forums so that the grading reflects your desired learning outcomes is key.  

Next week I will share some suggestions for “essential questions” which will  work well for discussion forums. I recommend using the group function in Moodle to set up discussion groups. If you would like support planning a discussion strategy and using the tools please contact the Teaching and Learning Commons. Upcoming TLC event Conversation about Technology and Learning discussion on building community in blended and online course formats. 


 Reigeluth, C. M., & Carr-Chellman,  A. A. (Eds.). (2009).  Instructional-design theory, Vol. III: Building a  common knowledge  base. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates.  

Laurillard, D. (2012). Teaching as a design science: Building pedagogical patterns for learning and technology. New York: Routledge.

Lowenthal, P., Dunlap, J., & Snelson, C. (2017). Live Synchronous Web Meetings in Asynchronous Online Courses: Reconceptualizing Virtual Office Hours. Online Learning Journal, 21(4). Retrieved from https://www.learntechlib.org/p/183778/