An Equation for Effective Online Discussions: Technology + Pedagogy + Innovation = Community + Engagement + Learning

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Discussions are a method for measuring seat time for online activity, but may 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.


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.
Dr. Veronica Estrada is a Core Faculty for the School of Human Development at Pacific Oaks College, where she has been a faculty member since 2015. Dr. Estrada is currently serving her second term as Faculty Council Chair at the College. Dr. Estrada is also an adjunct professor for the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department at Citrus College where she has been teaching Foundations of Leadership since 2014. Dr. Estrada has had over fourteen years of experience teaching in Higher Education at the community college, bachelor and master degree level. Additionally, Dr. Estrada has over twenty years of experience as a Student Affairs Professional at various institutions in California (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Cal State Long Beach, Glendale Community College, Citrus College, UCLA, California Institute of Technology, and Pacific Oaks). Dr. Estrada completed her Ed.D. in Higher Education Administration and Leadership at the University of Southern California, her M.S. in Counseling with a specialization in Student Development in Higher Education from California State University at Long Beach, and her B.S. in Developmental Psychology from California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo. Her research interests lie in the area of Educational Leadership, effective teaching styles to increase student retention, progressive student learning frameworks, elevating student classroom engagement using innovative technology, implementation of restorative practices in the classroom, and addressing the College completion gap among low-income students, specifically focusing on Latinx and DACA students. Dr. Estrada dissertation, “Evaluating the effects of diversity courses and student diversity experiences on undergraduate students’ democratic values at a private urban research institution”, examines the findings from previous research on the benefits of diversity courses and diversity experiences on student democratic outcomes. The purpose of this study was to evaluate to what extent diversity courses and student diversity experiences correlated with democratic values. Dr. Estrada has had the opportunity to travel various parts of the world for pleasure, business and academic conferences as well as sits on the Board of Directors and advisory board for two nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations. Dr. Estrada has presented at several international, national, and state-wide conferences and has published peered review articles.

Extended Abstract

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 may sometimes fail to engage student learning and peer interation.  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.

Where discussion can be improved begins with the design, discussion delivery, 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 socrative method common in face-to-face classroom discussion activities.  Although online discussion formats may 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 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.

The final portion of this session will include an opportunity for the audience to reflect on the various approaches, offer feedback and insight, and work in groups or partnership to construct new strategies and methodologies.  Audience participants will be enrolled (if they elect) into an open course within the Canvas LMS where we will consolidate our activity deliverables and continue the dialogue. 


Participants who attend this session will:

Discover novel approaches that the presenters piloted within their courses

Review student feedback and statistical data regarding the efficacy of the discussion boards, including the advantages and disadvantages of each format

Provide feedback and collaborate to create new potential innovations and strategies that they can implement at their own institutions.



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