A Real Conversation – Making Online Discussions Awesome

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Planning Your Online Course v2

   Image Courtesy of Giulia Forsythe Planning Your Online Course – from Flicker

Okay, so this blog is about one of my personal pet peeves about online learning. I started teaching online when WebCT was a free learning management system (they weren’t even called learning management systems then!). When we started developing courses for online, faculty and instructional designers were looking for a way to create the same discussion environment one finds in a typical face to face classroom – where students ask questions, share ideas, and well, quite frankly, apply what they are learning to their own life. The discussion board or forum was a place where students could think about what they were learning and share it with the rest of the class. Then, the instructor and the other students could share their thoughts on each other’s posts. Some of the typical questions asked of students would be “Think of a situation in your work place where you could apply this week’s materials” or perhaps “Solve this problem and explain your answer to your classmates. Why did you do it the way you did?” These questions required students to think about what they were learning and share their thoughts.

However, somewhere, somehow, discussion postings became a regurgitation of the course materials: bland, already stated in the course, the lecture, or the text. And these new postings don’t require the student to do more than copy from the text and cite, or paraphrase. I have never liked these types of questions and have always thought they make a discussion board into a public recitation of the course material – more like the really old “Stand up and say your times tables” mentality of teaching. What does the student learn? How can they use this information? Quite frankly, I am pretty sure they forget what they have written right after they post.

And what do the other students respond to these types of posts? Most of them write some sort of “that was a good post” but since such short statements don’t get them any points, they embellish it with a lot of rhetoric but no learning. It becomes a class full of copy and pasting ideas without any real discussion.

In most of the classes I teach online, the material is canned, so I can’t change the post too much, but I do usually add a sentence to the end “And apply the information to your own life or experiences” or something along those lines so students will think about what they are learning and write about the connection between themselves and the materials. I also demonstrate what I mean by sharing my own stories and experiences or asking a deeper question when they just recite the text. I think this tiny difference in my discussion posts makes all the difference to the students. I want my classes to be friendly and thought provoking, not just something the students have to do. My course ratings run about 4.8 out of a 5 with the overall institutional average being a 4.3, which leads me to believe I am on to something.

So how can you make your online discussions awesome? Ask those connecting questions of your students, provide some of your own experiences related to the material, build problems students can solve and ask them to share their process for solving them, and encourage your students to share. You will be amazed at how it changes the complexion of your online class! 

You may be interested in the Upcoming July OLC Workshop:

Fundamentals: Engaging Learners in Online Discussion

Well-designed online discussions address a number of research-based strategies critical to effective online learning and improved educational outcomes. Through online discussions, student-student and student-content interactions are increased, and both faculty and students can collaborate in the learning process as they explore new perspectives. In this workshop you will learn how to engage learners in effective discussions, explore different strategies and tools that can be utilized in designing effective discussions to improve educational outcomes.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify strategies and tools to improve online discussions.
  • Develop a plan for creating engaging and interesting online discussions in your course.


Renee Aitken
Renee Aitken

Dr. Aitken has extensive knowledge and experience in adult and higher education. She spent 24 years in technical training with AT&T/Lucent serving in a variety of functions including managing a global training initiative. She earned a PhD in Education with an emphasis on adult and higher education from Capella University, a Master of Science in Telecommunications Management and Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder, a Master of Arts in Organizational Communication, and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, both from The Ohio State University.

Dr. Aitken has been an adjunct for 15 years in both face to face and online courses with traditional and non-traditional students including teacher candidates and military personnel. She has served on both master’s thesis and dissertation committees and has held fulltime university positions as an Assessment Coordinator, the Director of Instructional Technology and eLearning, a Distance Learning Coordinator, Instructional Design Faculty, and as an Instructional Design Project Manager. She currently holds a fulltime position at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio where she is the Assistant Vice President of Educational Effectiveness and Institutional Accreditation. Dr. Aitken guides several of the Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan-C) workshops and works with Clemson University faculty as a course development leader. Dr. Aitken has administrator experience with learning and assessment management systems including eCollege, Blackboard, WebCT, Desire2Learn, ANGEL, SAKAI, Moodle, TaskStream, TK20, and Folitek.

Dr. Aitken is serving her third 5 year term on the editorial board for MERLOT and is a peer reviewer for JOLT, the Journal for Online Learning and Teaching. She is a reviewer for the OLC conference and has been a Master Chef in the OLC test kitchen where faculty share new technology. She lives in Xenia, Ohio and is a big Ohio State hockey fan.

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