Using online tools for discussion

Holding discussion asynchronously is an important tool for remote classes and provides students with a continued sense of connection to each other and the class. Online discussion boards and other collaboration tools allow students to engage with one another through a series of written posts and replies,  so that  students can participate in class no matter their time zone or device or connectivity.

Why use discussion boards?

They can be useful for:
  • Providing students with a forum for processing ideas, research, lectures and other materials, and for thinking through content for themselves;
  • Enabling students to articulate and share ideas, thoughts and experiences;
  • Having students think through and comment on fellow students’ work and test their ideas with one another and the instructor;
  • Creating a community so that students can hear from each other and reconnect (particularly important during social distancing);
  • Addressing questions, with either the instructor answering questions or students answering each other’s questions.

Suggestions to consider for running asynchronous discussions

Ask clear questions. Remember, that unlike in the classroom, you cannot easily clarify what you mean. 

Set clear expectations for participation. It can be helpful to let students know how many posts they should be contributing to a discussion and to give students a sense of how long their responses should be so that there is a balance of substance and readability (if the posts are too long, other students might skip them). Do you want these posts to feel formal (with citations) or should they feel more conversational? 

Encourage students to engage with each other’s posts. This can be done both by communicating this expectation and in the way you structure the discussion. It can be helpful to set an initial deadline for students to individually post and a second deadline for them to engage with each other. Otherwise, students who post first won’t have an incentive to come back and see what other students posted later. Explain your expectations for replies in your discussion prompt: for instance, should responses include questions for the original poster, potential answers to questions, letting the poster know what they like about their comment, etc.?

Canvas allows you to control when students can see other responses. You can require students to post first before they can see what peers have posted. This can be helpful when you want to encourage original thoughts that are unbiased by their peers' contributions. 

Consider the format of your discussions to promote student engagement. Just as with in-class discussions, there are a variety of ways you can structure the discussions online. For instance, beyond simply posing questions, you might:

  • Use a standard prompt for repeated discussion posts. For example, each week students post to a discussion with the biggest takeaway of the week and something they still have questions/confusion about. This can be a way to open further conversation.
  • Hold a debate or otherwise assign different students to represent different perspectives.
  • Ask different questions of different groups of students. You might then ask those students to explain their answers to the full class.
  • Assign different students each week to be responsible for designing the week’s prompt. That is, students might identify a passage, figure, or concept from a reading or recorded lecture and use it to pose a question for other students to respond to.
  • Ask students to bring in material they have found on their own that relates to course material, along with some analysis and a question for classmates to consider.

Break the whole class into small groups. The discussion groups functionality allows you to create smaller groups of students. This can be helpful if you want students to work together on a particular question. It can also be especially helpful in larger classes, where it may be challenging for students to review and respond to the large number of posts.

Use threaded discussions to keep things organized for students. Canvas settings include the option for threaded replies which makes it easier for you and your students to follow the conversation and see who has replied to whom.

Stay active in the discussions yourself. This is vital: students will be more motivated to participate if they sense that their instructor is engaged. It’s not necessary (and may be counterproductive) to reply to each post, but you can show your presence in the discussion by posting occasionally throughout the process. Just as in face-to-face discussions, instructors can engage in online discussions by asking follow-up questions, highlighting important contributions, clearing up misconceptions, etc.. 

Synthesize the discussion after it closes. To pull-together the discussion and help students see what they are learning from it, wrapping it up can be valuable. This can be done through a brief recorded video (allowing students to see and hear you responding to them), but also through Canvas announcements or email, for instance.

Provide feedback, possibly outside of the discussion itself. You can provide feedback or even grade points for students individually through the grading tools in Canvas. You can use the comments section in SpeedGrader to communicate with students directly on their contributions. You can also grade contributions, either as simply complete or incomplete to measure participation, or with letter grades or points.

Setting community standards for online discussions

Students will be used to more informal ways of interacting online, so it’s important to be clear about the standards of behavior for online classroom interactions. At a minimum, it can be helpful to remind students to be respectful, to disagree with someone’s ideas, rather than the individual, and to re-read their posts carefully for tone and make sure their points were conveyed in an appropriate way before posting. Remember, it is easy to come across more hostile in online communication than what we intend. 

Some additional things you may also want to remind your students to make the online discussions as productive and welcoming as possible for all participants include:

  • Tone - Before posting, read your message out loud. Ask yourself if you would say this to an acquaintance in a face-to-face discussion. Avoid sarcasm, which can be hard to interpret online.
  • Value your peers  - Make an effort to understand and support your fellow students. People have different perspectives, but everyone is here to learn. The more we learn from each other, the better. 
  • Respectful disagreement – You are encouraged to debate the issues that will arise in this course, but remember to disagree with the other person’s ideas and avoid making assumptions. All of the views we voice are subject to change as we learn more. Avoid any comments that might be perceived as attacking the person behind the post.
  • Use evidence –  Incorporate and share information from the course or other sources when relevant to the discussion. Linking to sources is easy in discussion boards and is a way to help focus conversation on the content.
  • It is OK not to know something or change your mind – Both are marks of being a good student.
  • Ask questions – Feel free to pose questions or ask others to share their thoughts or expertise. There are many diverse backgrounds and experiences represented in the course.

What are some tools to use?


Canvas Discussion Boards

Discussions is a standard tool on the Canvas course menu. It provides for threaded discussions where students can communicate with each other and instructors can comment as well.  Discussion posts easily integrate into the gradebook where instructors can post private grades and comments for each student.

To get started with Canvas Discussions, watch the Canvas Discussions tutorial video or review the following guides:

Canvas Collaborations using Google Documents

An alternative to online discussion boards is the Collaborations tool in Canvas, which creates a Google Document within your Canvas site for your whole class or individual groups of students to work on together.  Within a Collaboration, your students can co-create a document, create a repository of information or links, and provide comments or feedback to each other.

To get started with Canvas Collaborations, watch the Canvas Collaborations tutorial video or review the guide on creating a Collaboration.

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