Discussions Reimagined: Creating Awesome Online Discussion Activities

Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Are your learners really learning anything from online discussions? Discussions that don’t help students learn from each other can increase feelings of isolation – the #1 reason online leaners drop out.  Let’s ask four key questions and brainstorm innovative approaches to discussions to open pathways for engaging, effective, and collaborative learning.

Sponsored By


Fred Wehling has over 20 years of experience in career-technical and higher education, including teaching, research, administration, and just about every other job except cutting the grass. Currently a Senior Instructional Designer at MKS2 Technologies, supporting the Naval Postgraduate School, Fred's career mission is to make online learning engaging, effective, and enjoyable. Fred believes all learning is active learning and his philosophy of teaching is 'If you're not having fun, they're not having fun.' ​Fred's experience includes teaching and research at the University of California San Diego, Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Sandia National Laboratories, and the United Nations University for Peace. He has developed training for students and professionals in business, healthcare, homeland security, energy, and other fields. Fred has written proposals winning grants from foundations, government agencies, and private donors and authored, edited, or contributed to 14 books and numerous articles and papers. ​ Fred's degrees include a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles, an M.S. in Instructional Design Technology (MSIDT) from California State University Fullerton, and a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California. He has sunk many ships (in simulations) and been kissed by a horse in Siberia (for real). He lives in the Monterey Bay, California area with his wife and at least one dog.

Extended Abstract


Overview: To encourage student engagement and build communities of learning, participants will collaborate to develop and apply innovative and alternative approaches to online discussions.


Learning Objectives: Participants in this interactive virtual session will build capabilities to:

  1.  Analyze how many online discussions fail to engage students or contribute substantially to meaningful learning.
  2. Ask four key questions essential for designing engaging online discussions.
  3. Write discussion prompts and reply guidelines that align with learning objectives.
  4. Develop alternatives to threaded discussions in online courses to enrich content and enhance student-to-student interaction.
  5. Integrate peer learning and collaborative learning into discussion activities.



Asynchronous threaded discussions are nearly ubiquitous in online courses (Schindler & Burkholder, 2014; Cole, Swartz, & Shelley, 2020), not least because Department of Education regulations require “regular and substantive interaction” between students (Online Learning Consortium, 2017). All too often, however, online discussions fail to live up to their potential to enhance learning and stimulate engagement, with both students and instructors considering them a waste of time. A major reason for this is that while the assumptions of andragogy emphasize adult’s past learning experience, practical reasons to learn, and intrinsic motivation (Merriam, 2001), threaded online discussions often fail to leverage these learner characteristics to enhance student engagement and facilitate peer learning (Badawy, 2012).

Creating engaging prompts and response guidelines for traditional threaded discussions is certainly possible (Herman and Nilson, 2018; Simon, 2018), and an increasing number of alternatives to threaded discussions are available (Liberman, 2019; Barkley & Major, 2020). Nevertheless, and particularly when learning objectives are focused on the recall and comprehension levels of learning, applying innovative approaches to online discussions can present formidable challenges. In this session, participants will collaboratively explore ways to overcome these challenges. 

Session Plan

The Exposition Foundry session will be conducted as an asynchrnous multimedia discussion. The facilitator will open the discussion by asking participants to share some of their experiences, positive and negative, with online discussions.  Next, in a video microlecture, the facilitator will introduce participants to four key questions to ask when designing discussions in any educational setting:

  • How can students give unique, original answers?
  • How can posts and replies contribute to other students’ learning?
  • What can students learn from each other?
  • What can the instructor learn from the students?

The microlecture will end with a call to action asking participants to share learning objectives that present difficult challenges for engaging and productive discussions. The facilitator will encourage participants to respond with short videos in which they volunteer examples of recall- or comprehension-level objectives from courses or training programs they have taught and/or designed. The facilitator will have several challenging alternatives, selected from actual practice, ready to choose from as backups.

Next, the facilitator will ask participants to select a specific objective or learning challenge - one they have shared or one contributed by another participant - on which they will share ideas for maximizing student engagement and peer learning through online discussions.  The goal will be for each participant to design two discussion activities, one involving a traditional threaded discussion and one alternative approach, and sketch out both to a point where participants can take the results back to their home institutions for full development in their specific educational or training settings. These designs should include participants' answers to the four key questions for discussion design. In a 360-degree learning environment, the facilitator will provide feedback and suggestions and encourage all participants to do the same. 

The virtual session will conclude with participants reflecting on what they have learned. These reflections, preferably via short videos, will showcase how participants plan to increase learner engagement and integrate peer learning and collaborative learning into discussion activities.



Badawy, A. A. (2012). Students’ perceptions of the effectiveness of discussion boards: What can we get from our students from a freebie point? International journal of advanced computer science and applications, 3, 136-144.

Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2020). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. Jossey-Bass.

Cole, M., Swartz, L., & Shelley, D. (2020). Threaded discussion: The role it plays in e-learning. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education (IJICTE), 16(1), 16–29. https://doi.org/10.4018/IJICTE.2020010102

Herman, J. B, & Nilson, L. B. (2018). Creating engaging discussions: Strategies for "avoiding crickets" in any size classroom and online. Stylus Publishing.