eCoaching Tip 5 Faculty Role in Discussion Forums

February 24, 2006 (Refreshed Aug 16, 2012; reviewed Nov 2018)

eCoaching Tip 5: Faculty Role in Discussion Forums

Among the many questions that faculty have regarding discussion forums, the most puzzling for most is just what their role should be. Obviously their role is to facilitate a meaningful development of ideas, but just what does that mean in the context of an asynchronous online space?

This tip uses the format of an FAQ, answering four of the most common questions about how a faculty member can best facilitate learning in this environment and what kinds of behaviors have a positive impact on learning.

1. What is the most basic principle that can guide my involvement in the discussion forum?

The most basic principle that can guide you in making decisions about how involved to be in the discussion forums is this: The goal of communication in any course is to achieve a balance among the three dialogues of faculty-to-learner, learner-to-learner, and learner-to-resource.  A campus classroom traditionally has had a high percentage of faculty-to-learner dialogue with the faculty leading or directing most classroom activities. The trend to learner-centered instruction means that we need to design courses with a balanced set of dialogues, shifting away from the dominance of teacher-centered activities.

Balancing the dialogue pattern shifts the teaching model from a “transmission of knowledge” mode to a coaching and mentoring mode. Your role as a faculty is to coach and mentor your students as they develop and reshape their knowledge structures.  When you are talking in your role as teacher and expert, learners assume the role of listening, which is a less active role. More learning occurs within learners’ heads when they are actively discussing, writing, analyzing and questioning.

One of my favorite stories is from an online faculty who was somewhat frustrated with what he perceived as sterile and almost pro forma postings on his discussion boards.  Then he had a family emergency that required him to be away from his course for a few days. Before he left, he shared what was going on in his life and instructed the students to continue the class discussions and to support each other while he was dealing with the family emergency. He stated that he would still be affirming and monitoring, but leas frequently. To his delight, the learning community atmosphere that he had been trying to achieve started to happen. The discussion postings took on a new vibrancy of intellectual inquiry and analysis.

We should not assume too much from this story, as the importance of a faculty’s virtual presence and confirmation of content accuracy cannot be overstated. What it does suggest is that learners need sufficient “elbow room” to flex their thinking and to assume some of the responsibilities, generally assumed to be the domain of the faculty.

2. Are there other hints or tips?

Here are a few additional hints for guiding your decisions as to when to be in the foreground and when to be in the background of discussion forums.

  • Be specific about what your role is for each of the discussion board activities.

o   For example, if you have a “Getting Acquainted” Discussion Posting during Week One of a course, you might want to include that you will be reviewing these postings, but not commenting on them. You may want to encourage learners who post later in the week to share or note common interests and experiences. In this way, you are building in some natural grouping or processing of these postings.

o   Later in the course, in a more concept-oriented discussion, it might be appropriate for small groups of two-three learners to review each other’s postings according to the discussion rubrics you have designed. Your role would be reviewing the reviews and summarizing and commenting on the evaluations completed by the learners. This is often a good time to plan to comment on the links, relationships, and applications as noted by the learners.

  • Occasionally, you as the faculty, can take the active role of a Socratic questioner for a more complex topic requiring analysis and problem solving. This would be a case where you would be more in the forefront, encouraging the learners to search within themselves for what they know and think. As is suggested in Tip 3 on questioning, this means, asking questions such as, “What do you think is the main issue here?” and “How does this relate to other core concepts?”  You are in the foreground asking questions, but not proposing or suggesting the answers.
  • Occasionally design activities where you are in the background and students take over the role of questioner, summarizer, and encourager, etc. For more background and ideas on using Socratic questioning, and for how you can delegate roles to learners, the resources on Socratic questions and questioning listed below are useful.

3. Should I be engaged in every discussion forum?

Novice online faculty sometimes feel as if they should be reading and commenting on every discussion posting. Acting on this belief quickly overwhelms faculty.

Keep in mind that learning is a messy process and much of the learning just takes time and space without any lasting productive output. I like to compare some of the discussions to discussions in study groups, in students unions and dorms and coffee houses. Discussions of this type are really opportunities for students to think aloud, to text out hypotheses and ideas.  As you design discussion forums, design some forums or aspects of the forum that are primarily for students to talk to each other. Then if the students have questions that they would like your “expert voice to weigh in on, they can bring it to you.

Additionally, it is important to provide some spaces in your course site for learners to talk to and help each other that are totally faculty-free. Think in terms of a social coffee-gathering place for your learners to freely comment, wonder, and ask for help.

4. Is there an involvement cycle in my course in addition to an involvement cycle in the discussion forum?

Some faculty find it helpful to think about how faculty and students communicate as a series of stages from more involved to less involved over the cycle of an entire course. This means that as a course progresses, the role of faculty and students change.  The virtual presence of the faculty member is just as important in the later phases of a course as in the beginning, but the type of involvement changes. In the initial stages of a course, the focus of the faculty member is on core content focus and facilitating interaction so that a learning community develops. In the later stages of a course when it is likely that students have substantive content questions and insights, the role of the faculty member is to comment, clarify, support, and challenge students.

Here is a framework developed by Conrad and Donaldson (2004) that defines four possible stages of faculty and learner roles throughout a course. You may want to think about where you are in these stages with your students in addition to the cycle of a discussion forum.  A later tip discusses the cycle of a weekly discussion forum.

Phases of Engagement
Phase Learner Instructor Weeks Processes
1 Newcomer Social Negotiator 1-2 Instructor provides activities that are interactive and help the learners get to know one another. Expresses expectations for engagement in the course. Provides orientation to course and keeps learners on track. Examples:  icebreakers, individual introductions, discussions concerning community issues such as Netiquette rules in a Virtual Lounge.
2 Cooperator Structural Engineer 3-4 Instructor forms dyads of learners and provides activities that require critical thinking, reflection and sharing of ideas. Examples:  Peer reviews, activity critiques.
3 Collaborator Facilitator


5-6 Instructor provides activities that require small groups to collaborate, problem solve, reflect upon experiences. Examples:  content discussions, role plays, debates, jigsaws.
4 Initiator/Partner Community Member / Challenger 7-16 Activities are learner-designed and/or learner-led. Group presentations and projects. Discussions begin to go not only where the instructor intends but also where the learner directs them to go. Examples:  Group presentations and projects, learner-facilitated discussions.


Notice that as learners becomes more active, the instructor moves from guiding much of the interaction to participating in activities as needed. As students assume more independent and collaborative roles and responsibilities, a faculty member can step back from being the leader of the learning community to being a co-community member.

Another factor is the cohort factor.  If a group stays together over a series of courses, the first phase may be unnecessary.


Boettcher, J. V. (2007, 2012). eCoaching Tip 3  Developing Effective Questions for Online Discussions.   Retrieved from http://designingforlearning.infocecoachingtips/e-coaching-tip-3/

Boettcher, J. V. (2010). eCoaching Tip 76  Feedback in Discussion Posts – How Soon, How Much and Wrapping Up.   Retrieved from

Conrad, R.-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2004). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco Jossey-Bass  

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2008a). The analysis and assessment of thinking. Retrieved August 15 2012 from

Note: These E-coaching tips were developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. These tips havs been organized and updated through 2016 with added chapters in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at  judith followed by

 Copyright Judith V. Boettcher 2006 – 2018