Four Types of Discussion Forums in Online Courses

A key component of any online course is the discussion board.  As online courses have matured, we  realize that not all discussion forums are or should be the same.  Some discussions are for building community; other discussions are for exploring new ideas; others are for applying core concepts; and others are for gathering evidence of understanding.  If the purposes of discussion boards differ, then how we structure, monitor, and evaluate the discussion boards should also differ. 


Many purposes for asynchronous discussions have been identified (Painter, Coffin, & Hewings, 2003; Grogan, 2005), but in the interests of simplicity, this posting focuses on four types.  It is worth noting that these discussion types build in consistent, regular and substantive dialogue and interaction between faculty and students and between students.  Regular and substantive dialogue is one of the requirements for quality courses recognized and even required by federal guidelines (Toppo, 2018).  

The table, Four Primary Discussion Types for Online Courses, summarizes the purpose, design, monitoring, evaluation recommendations and faculty involvement for each type.   

Here is a brief description of the four types. The first discussion type focuses on INTRODUCTIONS and community-building among the students. The other three types focus on the content and tasks often associated with student activities for each course module: theINITIAL engagement with the content followed by INVESTIGATION and exploration of the content and wrapping up the module with INTEGRATIONand summary of the content.  

  • Type One:  INTRODUCTIONS and COMMUNITY-BUILDING.  Online students can often feel isolated from anyone who can share their immediate learning experiences.  This is the reason one of the best practices for online courses recommends that a discussion forum focused on introductions is one of the first activities of any course to support the emotional component of learning (Boettcher & Conrad, 2016). This introductory discussion forum lays the foundation for student-to-student conversation, interaction and support, creating a comfortable and trusting social presence (Garrison, Anderson & Arche, 2000)  In addition to the introductory forum, a related best practice is a discussion forum as a dedicated informal student space for students to talk to each other about anything related to the course or not.  This is the sometimes called Cybercafe. Other community-building discussion forums might be dedicated to talking and sharing ideas about projects. Another community-focused forum might be dedicated to mutual support about problem-solving, case studies, or just thinking aloud.  This Introductory and community-building discussion board is usually not formally evaluated; but guidelines state how students earn points by being present and supporting the course community. 
  • Type Two:  INITIAL CONTENT ENGAGEMENT. This type of discussion forum invites students to think about what they already might know about a new idea, concept, problem or closely related concept.  The purpose of this discussion activity is twofold – for students to become aware of what they already know and encourage their curiosity about the new knowledge to come, and for instructors to develop insight into students’ existing understanding.  This discussion activity is similar to a “think-pair-share” classroom activity where students share what they think and where, when, or how they might have heard about a concept, person, idea or related event.  Evaluation of these Initial discussions is generally informal, according to a rubric emphasizing participation, and contributions and occasionally focusing on insights and relationships.  This discussion activity often launches a new topic, module or project before embarking on readings, and other content engagement activities.  
  • Type Three:  INVESTIGATION AND RESEARCH.  The purpose of this discussion type is to seriously engage students with the content. This discussion type can be the heart of the content knowledge activities, relying on activities that direct students to read, analyze, and research content material.  New content knowledge builds on the student’s understandings and expands the knowledge base needed to apply and use the knowledge.  Some of the discussion activities might be sharing insights from readings and case studies, suggesting applications of the content in different contexts.  Other activities might be brief action studies, brief summaries of content relationships, student-to-student discussions, or simulations.  Often students will start working with the ideas, researching possibilities and relationships and connecting the dots.  Evaluation of this discussion type is based on the expected level of engagement and how deep or broad their contributions might be expected. The rubric for this type of discussion will have more point values and varying requirements and expectations as to use of the core concepts and with sharing ideas and responding to and exploring substantive ideas of other students. 
  • Type 4:  INTEGRATION AND DOCUMENTATION.This discussion type has a primary purpose of gathering evidence for student understanding or grading.  It includes activities that require students use their new content knowledge to solve problems, investigate related questions, and make predictions.  This type of discussion is a reflective, integrative, and action-oriented activity, often including solving problems, case analysis, and applying and integrating the new concepts with other concepts and relationships.  The posting/essay in this discussion requires substantial thinking and research, including citing important relevant readings, research, and doing problem solving.  This type of discussion will have the most point values, and depending on instructional goals, more or less involvement with other students.  This type of discussion will require more detailed feedback from the instructor. 
This table summarizes the purpose, design, monitoring, evaluation recommendations and faculty involvement for four types of discussions.  

Conclusion

The development of good practices guiding the design and facilitation of discussion forums in online courses are still evolving. However, it is worth remembering that the guidelines and good practices in face-to-face discussions in classrooms and other civil gatherings also have a long way to go. Hopefully this analysis of types and purposes of discussion types will aid in effective design and facilitation of discussions.

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Note 1:  Many thanks to Marlo G Hode, Ph.D, Academic Director, ACUE  for suggesting this blog focusing on types of discussions, for generating the initial table, and for review and comments of drafts. 

Note 2: Discussions about other questions about discussions can be found in the Course Beginning Tips (CB 10 – CB 17) in The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips(2 ed) by Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. M.  Some of these discussions are also in the Teaching Tips library at www.designingforlearning.info.  

  1. How many discussions should I have each week of the course? 
  2. How should I use the discussion forum?  For community-building, casual conversation, for exploring new ideas, focusing on core concepts, for short essays, and reflections, or essays for gathering evidence of learning?  
  3. Which discussions will I grade and with how much formality?  
  4. Should I create different rubrics for the different types of discussion postings? 
  5. How involved should I, as the instructor, be in the student conversations?  

References

Association of College and University Educators. (2019). ACUE’s Effective Practice Framework.  Retrieved from https://acue.org/?acue_courses=acues-effective-practice-framework. (Module B: Module 3b: Using Active Learning Techniques in Large Classes

Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R.-M. (2016).The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips(2 ed.). San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.

Center for Teaching Excellence University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Facilitating Effective Discussions.   Retrieved from https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/alternatives-lecturing/discussions/facilitating-effective-discussions

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2‐3), 1–19. Retrieved from http://auspace.athabascau.ca:8080/dspace/bitstream/2149/739/1/critical_inquiry_in_a_text.pdf

Grogan, G. (2005). The Design of Online Discussions to Achieve Good Learning Results.  elearningeuropa.info.  Retrieved April 8 2019 from http://www.elearningeuropa.info/en/article/The-Design-of-Online-Discussions-to-achieve-good-learning-results.

 Painter, Clare; Coffin, Caroline and Hewings, Ann (2003). Impacts of directed tutorial activities in computer conferencing: a case study. Distance Education, 24(2) pp. 159–173. 

Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. The Internet and Higher Education 10(1):77-88, 10(1), 77-99. 

Toppo, G. (2018). New debate on ‘regular and substantive’ interaction between instructors and students.Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/08/08/new-debate-regular-and-substantive-interaction-between

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