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How to Make Online Discussions More Engaging with Multimedia

The early 2000s called — they want their online discussion boards back. Jokes aside, when is the last time anyone enjoyed reading a threaded discussion? Incorporating multimedia is a must if you want students to engage.

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We know that students learn better when they’re involved and engaged with course material, their instructors, and their fellow students. And while class discussion is an invaluable teaching tool, replicating that back-and-forth in an online environment can be challenging. Even experienced online instructors work hard to keep online discussions from devolving into a routine chore.

Of course, there are lots of ways to make the discussion board come alive—from establishing safe spaces to writing better discussion prompts (check out the Harmonize blog for more ideas). As you continue to adapt your teaching strategy to an online world, remember that, when it comes to technology, today’s students have a different set of experiences and expectations. They aren’t just the mobile-first generation, they’re the mobile-only generation. They spend anywhere from 3 to 4 hours a day checking their social media streams and use visual and interactive tools like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube with ease. They expect their online interactions—including discussions with their classmates—to be seamless, easy, and, yeah, fun.

For your discussions to be truly engaging, you might want to consider incorporating new media into your prompts and assignments: GIFs, memes, video, and audio can all reinforce learning, inspire creativity, and help students engage more fully and authentically with each other. Oh, and in case you were wondering—what is all this? It’s the language they live in, especially now when social distancing has become a way of life.

So let’s break it down.


Memes? In the classroom? Isn’t that why we asked our students to close their laptops for the duration of the lecture? Well, yes. But discussion forums aren’t lectures. (Arguably the same could be said for online learning in general, but that’s probably a different blog.) For discussions to work, students need to trust each other. And memes are a great way to break the ice, lighten the mood, and signal to your students that discussions can happen in a variety of ways. In this time of social distancing, funny memes can be a useful way to bring people together. Of course, humor can be tricky. So be sensitive to cultural differences, especially if you are asking students to post their own memes. Set up some simple guidelines to help them engage with each other appropriately.


Not quite a jpeg, not quite a video, GIFs are bits of visually looping data. And while they’ve been firmly embedded in the Twitterverse, they actually do have a place in learning. Growing up in a world of information overload, today’s students have very short attention spans—some studies indicate that they lose interest in a task in less than 8 seconds. GIFs aren’t just short bits of information, but repeatable bits of information, which gives them a fighting chance of holding a student’s attention. In fact, students often carry on full conversations using just emoticons and GIF. Capitalize on this and engage with them in a format that will be fun and engaging. And while GIFs tend to be silly, they can also be used to illustrate concepts, particularly those that can be expressed in simple diagrams, such as this:

how to create an ellipse

You might want to post your own GIF to the discussion board to illustrate a point. Or try out one of the ideas here. Involve your students–their efforts may surprise you.


Before you break out into a cold sweat, consider this: survey after survey confirms that Generation Z really does prefer visual learning, specifically video. (In fact, the only learning method they prefer more is an actual teacher, so there’s that). This is a significant shift from Millennials who still tended to prefer textbooks for learning. While tools like Zoom allow everyone to meet at the same time for synchronous learning sessions, video allows you to turn the asynchronous features of online learning to your advantage. Studies have shown that micro-learning (which is essentially what those short YouTube instructional videos are) actually help students learn more and retain that learning better. Let your students know they don’t always have to post a written response to the discussion board. Give them the option of posting a video–discussion board tools like Harmonize allow students to annotate photographs and video. Keep your discussions lively.   


Don’t underestimate the power of audio. A simple audio introduction can be a great ice breaker, but you can encourage your students to experiment with audio in different ways on the discussion board. You might have a student who wants to create a 5-minute podcast about her research—let her! Or you might ask students to record 2 minutes of brainstorming on a particular topic, post that work, and then have students respond. Audio is a great tool for theater, music, and language classes too.

Bringing it all together

Asking students to respond to a discussion topic (and each other) using a medium other than text helps them think about things differently. Let them know you’re willing to support their choices and don’t be afraid to be silly. Learning only happens when we allow ourselves to be open to new ways of thinking. Using the discussion board as a tool for exploration is one very good way to make that happen.