Creating Online Discussions that Build Community and Engage Students

Concurrent Session 8
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This session will present various tools, techniques, and novel approaches for integrating stellar online discussions in your courses.  Ditch the "read, write, respond" model, and leverage ed tech and a bit of creativity to fully engage students and stimulate critical thinking.  


Dr Sean Nufer is the Director of Teaching and Learning at TCS Education System, and an associate adjunct professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and Pacific Oaks College.

Extended Abstract

Discussions are a method for measuring seat time for online activity, but regularly fail to fully engage students or stimulate critical thinking.  They are often perceived as routine and obligatory.  This session will present various tools, techniques, and novel approaches for integrating stellar online discussions in your courses.

Online discussion boards in higher education have become a staple of teaching and learning.  However, they often become formulaic and lack innovation.  Unlike discussions in face-to-face classroom which can be lively and dynamic, online discussions sometimes fail to engage students.  Students frequently focus more on the frequency and word count of their discussion posts (the “post an initial thread and respond to two/three others” model) rather than the quality of reflection or the thoughtfulness of their responses.  The result are posts that are submitted shortly before deadlines a generally minimal effort from many students, all while overwhelming students with the sheer number of post activity in the class discussion.

Discussion improvement begins with design and pedagogy.  While maintaining proper curriculum alignment of learning outcomes through program outcomes, discussion assignments can shift the focus of the task from reflections of assignment readings to synthesis and application of critical thinking – mirroring more of a Socratic method common in face-to-face classroom discussion activities.  Although online discussion formats tend to be fixed and methodic in structure, the reality is that discussions should in fact be designed specifically to meet the needs of the learning objectives and reflect the content and outcomes of the course. 

In addition to assessment design and pedagogy, course creators and instructional designers should seek out innovation and technology to supplement the structure of the discussion assignment.  One should never incorporate technology simply to introduce novelty to an assignment.  However, there are a myriad of innovative tools and techniques that we will discuss in this session which can greatly enhance collaboration and foster a sense of community in online discussions.  When students are engaged through meaningfully interaction (i.e. social learning) and high level synthesis, the results are a connected community of learners that achieve outcome mastery.

In this session, we will present research conducted at Pacific Oaks College and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology which compared traditional models of online discussion boards with avant-garde approaches to improving student interaction as a means to effectively build an online community within the classroom, help to foster student engagement, and enhance teaching and learning.  We will discuss several examples of novel approaches to online discussions, review the analysis of the discussion format efficacy, and offer recommendations based on our findings.



Jaggers, S. S. & Xu, D. (2016).  How do online course design features influence student performance?  Computers & Education, 95, 270-284.

Rovai, A. (2002).  Building sense of community at a distance.  International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1), 1-16.

Zhou, H. (2015).  A systematic review of empirical studies on participants’ interactions in internet-mediated discussion boards as a course component in formal higher education settings. Online Learning. 19(3). Retrieved from