Online discussion forums

Online discussion areas are widely used across all spectrums. For example, if you want to find out how to make a kite, or remove grout haze from ceramic tiles, an internet search for these things will inevitably direct you to at least one online community and an online discussion. They have been used to good effect in education since the ’90’s in one form or another, and are still as valid today as a tool for engaging students and for extending discussion in the classroom.

If you are unfamiliar with online discussions you may not have come across across some of the related terminology. Online discussions can also sometimes be described as Computer Mediated Conferencing (CMC) and Asynchronous Online Discussions (AOD). Other ways of describing online discussion areas are: Web forums, message boards, discussion boards, discussion forums, online discussions, bulletin boards.

There are many different tools that provide online discussions but the structure is usually the same. The discussion has a title, and participants can either reply directly to the original posting or create a new “thread”. There are different ways of managing threads, depending on which software or platform you are using.
As you would facilitate (or moderate) an in-class discussion, so you would with an online one. Your role as tutor would be to encourage participation, ensure that students are staying on topic, helping to keep the discussion going if it is running dry and summarising main points at the close of the discussion. Good online moderating is the key to a successful activity.  As with face to face discussions, you will always have a mixture of talkative, enthusiastic participants and quieter, more reticent contributors.

The term given for people who look at online discussions but don’t actively take part is “Lurker”.  However, in a classroom discussion, you can get students who remain passive and for varying reasons don’t want to actively participate. Encouraging lurkers to participate in an online discussion can be handled in the same way as you would in a classroom. Simply post a reply which invites the input of those who haven’t yet contributed.  However, it has been found that students who aren’t keen on speaking out in a face to face discussion can often be more confident in posting a reply in an online forum. The biggest advantage of an asynchronous discussion is that it allows people to formulate a considered response. This can benefit students for whom English isn’t their first language, and for less confident students who might feel uncomfortable about contributing to a classroom discussion. (Chun, 1994, Beauvois, 1996, Sullivan & Pratt, 1996)
Online discussions aren’t perfect, there are disadvantages and issues to consider. A list of advantages and disadvantages can be found in this article. However, as long as you are aware of the pitfalls and ensure that the discussions are moderated well, they can be a valuable asset.

Benefits of using online discussions:

  • Accessible 24/7 allowing flexibility for students.  For example, if the discussion is available for 2 weeks, the students have time to think about and post a considered response
  • Since a discussion can remain in place for as long as the moderator chooses to make it available, this ensures that students can dip in and out of different discussion threads and reply to those they wish to contribute to.
  • Tutors can post one reply rather than many, if several students have the same question/issue.
  • The relative anonymity of posting contributions to an online discussion encourages the more introverted students to take part in the discussion, and helps those who don’t feel confident speaking out in class (Beauvois, 1996, Chun, 1994).

Drawbacks of using online discussions:

  • The flexible nature of online discussions and their ongoing availability can cause students to postpone logging in to look at the discussion.  The onus is on the student to be self-directed and disciplined to log in and take part.
  • The permanence of the forum can be off-putting to some who may be concerned about their postings being visible for a period of time.
  • The relative anonymity of the discussion forum can be a disadvantage to some, as the text only nature doesn’t allow for social interactivity with facial gestures and body language.  Participants worry that their comments may be misconstrued.
  • If the discussion is allowed to become too unwieldy with too many tangential threads, it can become confusing and difficult to navigate.

It is interesting to note that some of the advantages also become drawbacks. However, if an online discussion is moderated effectively, most of these issues can be overcome.


Chun, D. (1994). Using computer networking to facilitate the acquisition of interactive competence. System 22: 17–31.

Beauvois, M.H. (1998). Write to speak: The effects of electronic communication on the oral achievement of fourth-semester French students. In J.A. Muyskens, ed., New Ways of Learning and Teaching: Focus on Technology and Foreign Language Education, pp. 93–116. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Sullivan, N. & Pratt, E. (1996). A comparative study of two ESL writing environments: A computer-assisted classroom and a traditional oral classroom. System 24(4): 491–501.

Further reading:

Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom.  Rena M. Palloff & Keith Pratt. (2007)

(An excellent guide from experienced online tutors with detailed information about managing online activities including online discussion).

The Virtual Student: A profile and guide to working with online learners.  Rena M. Palloff & Keith Pratt. ( 2003)

(This book concentrates on the student perspective and offers suggestions on how to manage online activities which will maximise engagement).

e-tivities: The key to online learning.  Gilly Salmon (2002)

(A useful resource which looks at creating effective online learning exercises and provides a useful scaffold for anyone new to online teaching and learning).

e-moderating: the key to teaching and learning online.  Gilly Salmon (2000)

(Provides ideas and examples for creating successful online teaching and learning resources).

1 comment for “Online discussion forums

  1. Ed Bremner
    January 21, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    I need no persuasion on the effectiveness of Fora in effective teaching. I know they work and have seen them do so, however there is a danger in believing they are an easy-fix to building community and encouraging collaboration.

    But the bottom line is they don’t always work. Sometimes they fly and sometimes they just seem to bomb. The problem is that they are so dependent on the participants wish or need to be involved. Whereas one group will take a forum up and quickly make it central to their learning experience, another apparently similar group will seem to almost wilfully ignore it.

    Why does it work one time, with one group and yet fail with another group at a different time. Well, although there are lots of potential reasons due to the social make up of each group; just like you can have a noisy extravert class, followed by a very quiet introvert one. Still, as in the classroom, there is no doubt that there are techniques that can be used by the teacher or forum moderator that can encourage participants which will allow the forum to take off and quickly snowball.

    I look forwards to spending some more time discussing how we could encourage participation in fora and how to guarantee everyone really ‘flies’.

    Maybe we could have a forum to discuss further 🙂

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