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The Benefits of Discussion Boards in Online Learning

Can online discussions be relevant learning experiences? Our answer: yes.

female student waving at laptop

Can online discussions be relevant learning experiences? Let’s begin with the obvious. While we’re in the business of building interactive and engaging online discussion platforms, we really do believe the answer to this question is, ultimately, yes. Class discussion, whether conducted face-to-face or virtually, is probably one of the most valuable teaching strategies we have in our toolkit. Students learn better when they’re involved and engaged with the course material, their instructor, and their fellow students.

Still, even in the traditional classroom, class discussion can be hard to manage. Instructors who want to encourage discussion routinely make class participation a required and graded activity. In the online classroom, that approach has had less success, especially when discussions unravel altogether as students rush to post a comment before the deadline. The tsunami of responses does little to move the discussion forward or deepen anyone’s understanding of the material. And, yeah, it can crush an instructor’s will to live.

Fortunately, the education community is starting to have some insightful discussions about online discussions. Listening to those conversations, and sometimes taking part in them, has helped us shape how we’re designing features and functions in Harmonize, the online discussion platform that integrates easily with whatever LMS you’re likely to be using. But a great class discussion isn’t just about better technology tools (though in the online world that certainly helps). It takes real dedication to keep discussions vibrant and on point. And it takes real skill to turn those discussions into graded assignments that don’t provoke eye-rolls or outrage from your students.

So, in the spirit of collaborative knowledge production (we’re all about that!), we’ve outlined a few things you can do to make discussion assignments really work—for you, for your students, and for your institution.

Preventing the Dreaded Pile-On

It happens. Students, whether they’re pressed for time, juggling work and classes, or, yeah, disengaged from the course material, sometimes do as little as possible to meet a course requirement. And when that requirement is “post once and respond twice” to a discussion board, students can be, well, let’s just say, quite literal.

We’ve seen instructors come up with some crazy workarounds to prompt students to post early enough to make a real contribution to their class. And while we like to spend time on the big picture stuff (making the online discussion experience more like the social tools students use in their everyday lives), we get that simple features can make a world of difference to instructors. That’s why we just introduced Multiple Due Dates to Harmonize. It’s a feature that lets instructors customize when discussion posts are due throughout the grading period, giving them new flexibility when it comes to establishing expectations and encouraging (okay, requiring) participation.

Moving Beyond the Transactional

While this new functionality will help instructors manage their classrooms more efficiently, we’re pretty certain that most of you didn’t get into the education game to impose draconian rules on your students. You’re there to teach, instruct, inspire, and open minds to new ideas and ways of thinking. (By the way, if we haven’t mentioned it before, you rock.)  With that in mind, we need to ask ourselves a hard question: are online discussions really working toward any of these goals? We know providing multiple due dates will help you and your students stay on track with discussion assignments. But moving away from the transactional business of “posting once, responding twice” to make the kind of transformational change you want to see in your classroom requires more.

Here are some ideas we’re hearing about that you might want to check out.

Explain the purpose of class discussion

Before you click away, think about this for a minute. Most course syllabi list the requirements for class discussion (in greater or lesser detail, depending on the class and the instructor), but when was the last time you had a frank discussion with the members of your class about what, exactly, class discussion is supposed to accomplish? You’re there together to generate knowledge. Yeah, we know sometimes that’s a tough sell, but reminding your students of exactly what their participation can be an important first step.

Build a rubric for grading discussions

Okay, so maybe you have a few students who aren’t really motivated by collaborative knowledge generation. But they do understand what a grade means. And you can build a grading rubric for class discussions as you would for any other desired outcome. The folks at University of Central Florida have pulled together some great examples that help students understand it’s about quality, not quantity. And whether they’re simple or complex, rubrics that clearly state what you expect are usually appreciated.

Have a discussion about class discussion

Chances are this isn’t the first online class your students have taken and they likely have already formed some opinions about online discussion boards. Give them a chance to air their concerns. At the very least, it demonstrates that you understand the online experience can be a challenge for some students. At best, you’ll learn something about where your students are coming from and set the tone for open and inquisitive discussions.

Putting It into Practice

When it comes to making online discussions more relevant, it really does begin with you. In the online classroom, class discussions aren’t just relevant, they’re one of the few ways you have to understand what’s working in your course and what isn’t.

Online discussion boards are the foundation of online courses and provide five critical teaching and learning benefits:

  1. Inclusivity: Based on an analysis conducted by Professor Hong Zhou at the University of Texas at San Antonio, most students participate more online than they do in person.
  2. Flexibility: Students can participate when and where they can, so they can adjust based on their schedules, which may be impacted by work, child care, and other constraints.
  3. Time: With asynchronous discussions, students can take the time they need to formulate responses and contemplate ideas. Additionally, instructors are not limited by confining meaningful learning to a 60-minute class and can extend learning time by providing additional resources throughout the day, week, or semester.
  4. Professional experience: Professor Zhou also found that online discussion was collaborative and constructive, with students supporting each other. The personal and academic gains students make in an online course reflect the professional communications process they’ll experience in the workplace, which is also becoming increasingly virtual.
  5. Individualization: Students are able to further pursue discussion topics that interest them, engage at a level to which they are comfortable, and develop self-motivation.


Online learning holds incredible promise—not only as an educational pathway for all students but also as a growth driver for universities. While overall college enrollments are declining, the number of students taking online courses is increasing: according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than one-third of all students took an online course in 2018. Students of all abilities and ages are seeking virtual learning options, and colleges are increasingly delivering.

But, skeptics of online learning argue that course discussion will never be as rich as it is in on-campus classes. We wholeheartedly disagree.

It’s critical as online learning has evolved that strategies for the use and deployment of discussion boards change along with it to meet the needs of students as well as instructors.

Inside Higher Ed tackled the role of discussion boards in a recent article highlighting best practices for instructors to adapt for their online classes. Among the insights, instructors noted it’s important to engage students early on in the course, be comfortable with letting the conversation wander, and be an active participant in getting every student to dig in and go deeper. The instructors emphasized that new technologies, such as live one-on-one chat and annotated videos, can help ensure universities are meeting new federal rules mandating “regular and substantive interaction” in online courses.

In addition to these teaching strategies, technology is one of the key factors that makes a significant difference in the online learning experience, but the tools must be up to the task. As with any tool, it can either be a help or hindrance. Used effectively, discussion boards with integrated applications can foster academic conversations and community content rather than simply another assignment.