Asynchronous online discussion

Version 1.0, May 2014

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Learning does not occur spontaneously among a group of students, whether the setting is face to face or online. Online discussion requires structure just as in a face-to-face setting to get the most out of the discussion.

Benefits and challenges

Reflection and even dialogue are greatly limited in most campus based classrooms … online learning may in fact have an advantage in supporting collaboration and creating a sense of community. An online learning environment reflects a "group-centred" interaction pattern versus an "authority-centred pattern" of a face-to-face environment. (Garrison 2006).

Student online discussion forums can promote greater engagement and levels of participation for an online student group.

To get the best out of discussion forums the facilitator needs to be very clear about structuring the discussion with some clear guidelines. As a rule students can be encouraged to think about their contributions being:

  • Relevant: Is the contribution responding to the relevant week's discussion?
  • Engaging: Is the contribution engaging to other students in the forum? Students should aim to go beyond posting a 'brain dump' of content they think is interesting
  • Timely: Students should aim to post throughout the week rather than leave their contribution to the end of the week

To encourage a coherent approach to forums each discussion should contain:

  • A 'spark' or trigger question to provoke discussion. These questions should be developed with the weeks ILOs in mind, as well as considering the desired outcome of the student discussion.
  • The forum moderator is responsible for weaving the discussion, pulling together the discussion topics and maintaining a coherency to the discussion
  • A summary at the end of the discussion which closes off the topic and creates an easy reference point for students that want to refer back to the resource (Adapted from Salmon's Etivity model (2004),

While discussion forums can produce fantastic learning outcomes for students it is not a method for reducing the workload of the facilitator. Students unfamiliar with online learning environments may need assistance in navigating this space until they are comfortable. Additionally, students from a non-English speaking background may have some anxiety with their writing being made public and may need assistance to help them engage fully in an online discussion.

Use the table below to identify strategies for online discussion to engage your students. These strategies range from teaching to learning-centred approaches.

Online discussion strategy

Mode of interaction

Teaching-centred, monologic

Facilitator posts announcements and updates


Facilitator posts topic question and requests response

Topic – response

Facilitator posts topic question and requests a
reflective response to the topic and to other posts

Moderated discussion topic

Facilitator posts topic question and a
short time for brainstorming

Free discussion topic

Facilitator asks 1-2 students to moderate a topic

Student moderation of topics

Facilitator assigns groups to project work,
debates or role play

Small workgroups

Students post assignment work and review their  peers

Peer review

Facilitator posts topic question and a
short time for brainstorming

Free discussion topic

Social, student managed social forum

Cafeteria, bulletin board forum

Learning-centred, dialogic

Applications & Technologies

The Moodle discussion forums are one way of facilitating online discussion along with alternatives outside Moodle that are free and easily adopted. 

Mighty Bell: very similar to Facebook in design and function but with the benefit of being protected and more adaptable to educational aims, as well as being advertising free.

Twitter: By creating a unique hashtag for your cohort or subject students can follow and contribute to discussions from mobile devices

Wikis: Wikis can enable students to develop projects within a subject and communicate asynchronously.


One way of encouraging student engagement in discussion forums is to build in assessment. Options for assessment in online discussion forums include reflections, role plays, small group reports and case studies. An online discussion forum can promote open and transparent assessment and encourages students to collaborate

UNSW has developed a fantastic resource for developing assessment in online discussion forums.

The Next Step

If you are interested in developing online discussion forums please contact LTLT College Partner:

Contact your LTLT College Partner

Additional Resources


This toolkit has been adapted from Designing Effective Online Forums, written by Dr John Hannon.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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