The Topic of Discussion: How specific online discussion methodologies affect outcomes

Creating online educational experiences that are effective and equitable has taken on new urgency over the past few months. Fortunately, our understanding of what makes for effective online discussion has grown along with the expansion of online and blended education, along with face-to-face courses that employ online discussion.

Decorative illustration depicting abstract shapes

Online discussion is a medium; not a method

Creating online educational experiences that are effective and equitable has taken on new urgency over the past few months. As many institutions look to a fall that will be at least partially online, we’ve seen a chorus of concerns about the impact on student retention and progress. And, as it turns out, one of the hardest aspects of online learning to get right is discussion—but research has shown that doing so is key to driving student engagement and ultimately outcomes.

Fortunately, our understanding of what makes for effective online discussion has grown along with the expansion of online and blended education, along with face-to-face courses that employ online discussion.

We’ve come a long way since the advent of online education in the 1990s when online discussion was designed to be analogous to the in-person classroom discussion. Few faculty had been trained in effective discussion techniques in the live classroom, so it is no surprise that they didn’t get better results when that approach was translated to online. As online discussion has spread, new forms have emerged—with three distinct styles taking hold. Understanding the potential and limits of all three is essential to driving better outcomes for students.

The method of implementation makes all the difference

Instructor-Led Discussion

Asbtract illustration representing highly structured, instructor led discussion

Instructor-led discussion is the ‘classic’ structure that is called to mind when using the term “online discussion.” Often, it still follows the framework where the instructor poses questions that students then respond to, while also replying to one another’s responses. But these are mostly secular forms of the “call and response” model, where an instructor asks a question and students answer. With a single thread on which to reply, it is difficult to design a question that engages all students and allows for productive discourse between all students. This becomes a particular problem in larger courses, where repetition becomes almost unavoidable.

While this model of discussion is highly structured and allows instructors more control to keep the conversation firmly connected to the content of the given week or module, it has been found to be at odds with discussion design methodologies that lead to higher levels of metacognitive attainment from students focused on student autonomy, inquiry formation, and high student-student interaction.

Freeform Chat-Style Discussion

Abstract illustration representing unstructured discussion, like homework help or chat

Chat and homework help discussion, at the other extreme, are frequently entirely student-driven and provide an opportunity for less scripted student-student interaction, but typically do not have a strong pedagogical design nor connection to specific learning outcomes. 

A hallmark of this style of discussion would be student-posted questions clarification, explanation, or assistance. An example of a query one might find posted in this style of discussion would be, “Can anyone explain how to solve for X in number 4 on the homework?”. These types of discussions primarily fulfill a social need, and aid students in achieving the “Remembering” and “Understanding” levels of cognition, but do not typically encourage deeper learning.

Inquiry-Driven Discussion

Abstract graphic representing student-led inquiry-based discussion

In the third form, student inquiry-based discussion, which aligns with Garrison’s Community of Inquiry model, students take a highly autonomous role in guiding and leading the discussion by contributing their own open-ended inquiries and engaging more deeply with their classmate’s responses and own questions, as well as the instructor’s. Although student-driven, the role of the faculty member is critical in framing and highlighting deep engagement with the material. College students have been trained to respond to their instructors in a convergent matter–answer the question your instructor poses. Instead, they need to learn to think divergently, engaging more deeply with the material and one another to form new associations with the material.

It is this third form of discussion that is the most promising. The approach, based on the framework of the same name developed by researchers two decades ago, has slowly gained traction. The emphasis on student-driven inquiry that is deeply connected to the coursework helps further a range of learning goals, including equity, efficacy, motivation, and scale. College instructors have not used it widely because it follows a less familiar pedagogical model—but the positive outcomes of this form of pedagogy make the case for wider adoption.

The case for discussion as a core component of pedagogy

Supporting engaging, in-depth, and consistent online student discussion is an important academic goal, in and of itself.

But online discussion also offers a “means to an end” to achieving higher-level goals in the classroom, including improved equity, overall course outcomes, scalability of instructor presence, and student motivation.

Equity: Research has shown that interaction with active peers in an online discussion environment is good for all learners, but has an especially positive impact on less-advantaged students. This is an important advantage of the community of inquiry approach, as more non-traditional students and students of color are enrolling in online programs than ever before.

Efficacy: Communities of inquiry put students in a proactive role—through forming questions and taking on a sort of teaching role with peers—that pushes them to be more aware of their own learning and thought processes. Open-ended questioning requires this kind of awareness, or regulation of cognition, and also increases the likelihood that students will reflect thoughtfully on peers’ replies. Such processes are critical to deep learning.

Motivation: When online discussion is implemented in a way that supports student autonomy, it can create an intrinsically motivating environment aligned with the tenets of Self-Determination Theory. Students achieve “purpose” by discussing topics they care about, “autonomy” through control over their activity in the community, and “mastery” through proactive feedback on the content of their posts.

Scalability: Communities of inquiry also alleviate one limiting factor on online education: instructor capacity to drive and moderate discussion. As the online students drive the discussions, faculty can take a more strategic role in the online classroom, ensuring that the cognitive outcomes are being achieved.

Technology can scale effective discussion pedagogy

Tools that bake this pedagogical approach into the learning platform can also make it easier for faculty to adopt, and ultimately drive better learning outcomes. Educational technology has developed to a point where AI tools like natural language processing and other tools that improve accessibility are positioned to turn online discussion into a super-powered support system for the educator of the future.

For the first time in its evolution, online discussion is becoming a medium where intelligent instructional support technology can help faculty motivate and enhance students’ engagement, cognitive development, and curiosity, at-scale. The classic (but rigid) structure of “Write a response and reply to two classmates” is transitioning toward more intentional pedagogies that lead to deeper learning for students, and thanks to the assistance of AI, does not lead to more grading and other work for the instructor.

From the data collected through students interacting in online discussion, to the positive impact that being exposed to highly active peers has on marginalized students, it is clear that online discussion can now provide a more powerful way to engage and motivate students that requires its own research and ‘best practices’ development.

When done well, online discussion can be an answer to the question of how to keep students engaged in learning as we face a future that is increasingly online.

About the authors

Marie Cini most recently served as president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), and is the Provost Emerita of the University of Maryland University College. Currently, Marie serves as Chief Strategy Officer at ED2WORK.

Jessica Tenuta is the cofounder and Chief Product Officer of Packback. Jessica works to design Packback’s product experience encompassing the software, implementation recommendations, and supplemental materials.

Request a Demo of the Packback Questions Platform

Curious to learn more? One of our friendly strategy consultants will be excited to meet you and discuss your course learning objectives. We will provide a free consultation to see if Packback would be a good fit for your class!

Request a Packback Demo