Three Ideas for Enhancing Your Online Discussions

Online courses and degree programs continue to be popular with both students and instructors. Many online instructors use discussion forums in their online courses with varying levels of success. This article shares three ideas instructors can use to enhance their online course discussions.

Idea 1: Less may be more

One frequent complaint I hear from students about online discussions is that they can quickly become overwhelming. For students, sifting through and reading dozens and dozens of posts every time they access an online course can actually decrease their interest and engagement with their peers and instructors. High numbers of posts can be stressful for instructors as well.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of new online instructors over the years, and I often see instructors default to using one discussion forum for every week of class. Often, instructors even require two or more discussions per week! For a 15-week class, that usually means that students participate in at least 15 forums, sometimes more. 

After teaching a class for the first time, instructors often reduce the number of forums they require their students to complete. Perhaps, instead of fifteen forums they will require only seven or eight, and instead of each forum spanning a week of class, it spans two. That can take pressure off both student and instructor. Another idea is to suspend discussions during heavy workload weeks for students—for example, when they have to take a midterm or when a large research paper or project is due.

Idea 2: Create more interesting prompts

Creating interesting and engaging prompts for discussion forums is one strategy instructors can use to increase student participation and enhance overall quality. I started teaching online in 2005 with no training or help from instructional designers or instructional technologists, and I admit that my discussion prompts were less than stimulating.

Some online faculty will simply use questions they find from the back of a textbook chapter for their discussion forum prompts. This can sometimes be acceptable, but if the questions are not open-ended or thought-provoking, or only have one or two potential answers, students might get bored or feel that they are simply doing busywork.

Consider using current events that relate directly to the class or to students’ lives to create discussion prompts. Another idea might be to go beyond asking a question, have students do some research or complete an activity, and share the results with other students in a discussion. For example, a criminal justice instructor I know requires online students to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and then builds a discussion forum activity based on that experience.

Idea 3: Invite guest experts

Inviting guest experts is common in face-to-face courses but less common in online courses. Using guest experts in online courses is a nice way to provide some variety to students, allows students to hear about course content in a different light, and, potentially, to interact with professionals working in their field of study. You might know the author of the class textbook, the president of your state or national association, or successful alumni of your institution who could provide insight and advice to students: these individuals could be good possible guest experts for a discussion forum.

Some online instructors struggle to figure out how to incorporate a guest expert into their courses. A variety of options are available: for example, an instructor could invite a guest to participate in a discussion forum for a specified number of days or have students submit questions to a guest expert and have that individual provide answers in a forum, which could then lead to some rich discussions. Another idea is to invite a guest to participate in a one- or two-hour synchronous session in which they have the opportunity to interact with students.

With a little effort and creativity, instructors can usually enhance their courses’ online discussions. Reducing the number of forums required in a class, creating more interesting prompts, and inviting guest experts to participate in discussions are three ways to make that happen.

Brian Udermann is the director of online education at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse.


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