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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Capra

Break the Isolation: Remote Discussions that Work!

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

Discussion platforms, or boards, are widely used to generate student interactions and reduce isolation in online and remote courses. However, simply having a discussion board is not sufficient--how they are designed is critical to achieve those objectives. Here are some important considerations for effective design. #remotelearning#onlinelearning#distancelearning#technology#theresacapra#teachingtips#Covid19

Educators are faced with the reality that instruction will be conducted in online and remote formats as colleges and school districts release their Fall reopening plans. Although education delivered via the Internet is nothing new, finding ways to achieve meaningful engagement and build rapport still eludes the most seasoned instructors.

Discussion forums, or boards, are generally used to kindle student-to-student interactions and build camaraderie within a course. Whether you’re using Google Classroom or Blackboard, discussion postings can achieve those objectives while simultaneously serving as an assessment.

The caveat is that it’s very easy to overuse and abuse this go-to tool resulting in superficial outcomes. However, a few considerations, or adjustments if they’re already part of your repertoire, can ensure discussions enhance the learning experience.

What’s the point?

It's a common sense question, but one that is frequently overlooked. Ask yourself, why a discussion forum? If the goal is to simply have an assignment due, or enforce attendance, there are better methods.

For attendance, create an activity or fun quiz during a specific timeframe--something easy and light, even comical, to record presence. If the goal is to ascertain whether or not a student read a textbook chapter, watched a recorded lecture, completed his or her homework, a discussion board is the wrong tool. Instead, individual assignments or timed quizzes are better choices.

Closed-ended questions that typically generate similar, if not identical, fact-based responses are ill-fitted for discussion boards. Moreover, most platforms or Learning Management Systems have settings that allow responses to be private, or hidden until all posts are made.

Opt for that setting when using closed-ended questions, or mathematics problems with multiple steps, which benefit from discussion and feedback after the facts.

What's the difference?

Almost all online and remote courses need discussion boards to facilitate student-to-student interactions, but they‘re not created equal.

Forums that require students to track down sources, analyze and offer different perspectives, and apply concepts to scenarios should be the objective. This requires a shift in pedagogy.

In traditional classrooms, instructors tell, students memorize, and finally they demonstrate their knowledge acquisition in some manner (test, paper). Conversely, in problem-based classrooms, instructors present an issue or pose a problem, necessary information and sources are identified to work through the issue, and finally learning is reinforced through application.

This methodology is perfectly suited for discussion boards and can be applied to almost any subject in virtual formats.

In 2017 I created a professional development course for community college professors who wanted to examine deep pedagogy in online environments. I created two discussion board prompts--one traditional, one problem-based.

The learning objectives were the same--identify and evaluate common best practices for online instruction; explain and apply the Community of Inquiry learning theory. Despite the identical student learning outcomes, the instructional approaches were quite different. Take a look:


Answer the following questions using the Community of Inquiry website (link below) and Ragan (2009). Ten Principles of Effective Online Teaching. Magna Publication (attached). Minimum of 500 words. Document your sources in your preferred manner. Respond to postings by two (2) classmates by agreeing or disagreeing --ask for more information whenever possible. Refer to the rubric for grading criteria.

1) Read 'Ten Principles of Effective Online Teaching.' Which ones do you think are most important and why?

2) What is Community of Inquiry and why was it developed?

3) Explain how you could use Community of Inquiry.



Students, please watch the short video (below) for this discussion module. Discussion postings should be thoughtful, conscientious, and provide evidence of ample research. Readers need enough detail to generate a full understanding of your post, especially so we can respond fully; 500 words in total usually does the trick. Conform to the rubric for grading specifics and document your sources. Be courteous; when classmates respond to your posting, don't leave them hanging!

1) Complete some Internet research using the keywords 'best practices and online teaching.' Post an article/weblink for the class with a brief description of the main points and tell us why you selected it.

2) Explore the Community of Inquiry website below. Select one document or web page from the entire site and become an 'expert' on it (expert means well enough to answer questions). Post it with a brief description. Tell us why you selected it.

3) Choose at least 3 'finds' by your classmates (1 from each question, and then an additional 1 from either) and ask them questions. Put their expertise to the test!


The discussion boards were succeeded by a reflection forum where participants compared and contrasted their experiences.

Overwhelmingly, the students preferred the problem-based model over the traditional forum. They used words such as top-down and impersonal to describe the traditional board, while adjectives such as curiosity and expertise were noted for the problem-based approach.

I also enhanced the problem-based prompt with a brief, embedded video introducing the topic and evaluating sources through my own keyword search. Because this method can be time consuming for instructors and students alike, having fewer, deeper discussions is better than littering your course with a plethora of shallow ones.

What's the big idea?

Simple tweaks in design can make a huge difference and the big idea is to help students view discussion boards as more than a chore. Accordingly, it's necessary to inform students that they cannot be made up --they are not merely tasks for teacher eyes, they are asynchronous peer interactions that happen in real-time.

Graded discussions can also happen synchronously in remote classes using appropriate technology. If it's a large class, lead multiple sessions during the scheduled class time. Create a rubric so that students know how to prepare in advance (similar to how speeches are graded).

Finally, the burden of design does not have to fall completely on the instructor--students can take the lead with support. Place students in teams to tackle a learning module, lesson, chapter, topic, etc.

The teams should be tasked with tracking down sources and creating open-ended discussion prompts for their classmates to answer while they facilitate and respond to postings. Students can work in Google Docs and virtual breakout rooms to collaborate. When students create the discussion boards and identify the sources, the result is a personal connection to the material.

If the skills or content are initially too challenging for students to tackle head-on, lead a synchronous session and then task the teams with crafting challenge questions for their peers.

In many ways, remote and virtual classrooms provide increased opportunities to empower students, and discussion boards, when used prudently, can lead to more engaged learners.

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