Online Discussions Your Students Will Love

Use Harmonize discussion boards with Canvas to encourage more frequent and thoughtful engagement in online courses

Getting students to engage in online discussions might feel impossible…

Harmonize makes it a cinch.

Increase student engagement

Harmonize shows students and instructors everything that’s happening, at a glance. As a result, it’s easy for students to discover content and for instructors to monitor student engagement. Reactions and tagging make collaborating in online discussions feel easy and natural for students.

Keep students on the ball by providing more structure

Milestones, or multiple due dates, help students remember deadlines and engage now instead of at the last minute. Use them to set clear expectations, remind students of approaching due dates, and pull them back into the conversation.

Chat and polls

Increase interactions between students and instructors

Encourage more vibrant and frequent interactions by giving every student a pathway to participation. Use annotations to provide richer feedback and facilitate peer-to-peer learning. Instructors can also spark new conversations using chat, polls, and Q&A boards.

Everything you need to take your discussion boards to the next level.

Grid view

Gauge student engagement at a glance. The Harmonize layout makes it easy to see which conversations have the most engagement and what students are saying.

flag icon Milestones

Lend structure to your course experience. Milestones help students see what’s expected of them, and when, so they make substantive, on-time contributions.

rich multimedia icon Rich multimedia

Why should students only be able to post text? Harmonize supports video, images, audio, and embedded URLs, so students can finally express themselves.

Q&A Boards icon Q&A

Let students answer each others’ questions. Leave Q&A boards up all term to avoid repeated questions and help students share information in one place.

polls icon Annotations

Adding annotations to content promotes peer-to-peer learning, richer instructor feedback, and deeper engagement with course material.

reactions & tagging icon Tagging

Pull students into the conversation by tagging them directly. Students and instructors have the ability to tag anybody in the class.


Keep students on task and help them meet deadlines with notifications. Add a custom notification for the whole class or individual students.

chat bubble icon Chat

Using Harmonize Chat, instructors and students can communicate in real time. It’s easy for students to see which classmates are online and begin a new chat.


Use polls to gauge understanding, assess students, or review content. You can even use a poll to take attendance. Run a poll on its own or add it to any discussion.


Students can use emojis to respond to their classmates. Reactions lower the barrier to responding to peers and help more students contribute.

Canvas Discussion Board

What is a discussion board? An online discussion board, also known by various other names such as discussion forums or online discussion platform, is a term for any online “bulletin board” where you can leave messages and expect to see responses to your messages. For course instructors, these message boards serve as an online discussion platform for students in online courses — an asynchronous discussion tool that allows students to collaborate with others through posting thoughts or answering questions outside of a physical classroom.

Originating within the Learning Management Systems themselves, online course discussions have evolved since their early days. For example, the ability for instructors to better organize discussion threads as well as the introduction of more modern social-based communication elements like mentions, have made them much more attractive. However, the limitations of many of the traditional discussion board tools remain, including those of the Canvas discussion board.

Discussion forums, like the Canvas group discussion and those found in other LMSs, have become a standard way for students to interact with course content. But these forums are typically text-based and can be challenging to extract deep engagement from students. Nevertheless, the online discussion board is proving to be a powerful tool.

It fosters a sense of community and encourages student-to-student interaction, which research demonstrates improves learner engagement and achievement. Discussion boards for students give all learners the opportunity to expand and clarify their understanding of key ideas. It moves beyond the passive learning forms of reading and listening and allows the learner to actively engage with their peers and instructor.

Canvas Discussion Board Examples

There are many Canvas discussion board examples as well as general discussion board feedback examples you can leverage. You can find relevant questions here and use these online discussion examples to craft questions. In addition, check your Canvas instructor guide for other Canvas discussion board templates.

Just as important, you’ll want to use creative discussion board ideas to build an interactive discussion. An interactive discussion example includes fostering a space for students to create social presence, interact, and practice leadership — doing that will help create a more interactive space.

To increase student interactions, consider varying the group size of discussions, as part of your discussion board assignments examples. It creates opportunities for more students to lead discussions, and it also helps those students who are more comfortable sharing in small groups. But to create a space that can support these kinds of activities, you have to have the right tools.

Another interactive Canvas discussion example includes tools with a user experience that mimic familiar experiences often have the highest usability — think features like tagging/mentions, reactions, in-app and email notifications, and social media-like interfaces. If a student or instructor logs in and can connect the screen they’re viewing to something they are familiar with from their personal lives, they’re more likely to engage. Don’t make technology one of the barriers to participation. Capabilities for creating smaller and student-led discussion groups in your Canvas discussions for students, tagging instructors or other students, and flagging questions for more feedback all lead to increased student activity and engagement.

Canvas Discussion Board Grading

The problem with LMS-based discussions though is that they are also notoriously difficult for instructors to track and figure out how to grade discussions. In fact, in a survey of over 350 educators, 61% said that they spend more than two hours each week attempting to grade discussions, noting their biggest challenge on this front was searching through threads from last-minute participation in their LMS discussion forum.

But when instructors at Brown University started using Harmonize, as opposed to Canvas discussion board grading, to evaluate student participation in online discussions, it drastically reduced many of the time-consuming tasks often involved with assessing student work and providing feedback.

For example, prior to Harmonize, when instructors assessed student participation, they often had to dig through 60-page threads, as well as search through activities in other systems. While it worked, it meant additional hours and the manual task of entering graded discussion rubrics in Canvas. With Harmonize’s ability to integrate with Canvas’ SpeedGrader, instructors now save hours assessing student participation.

Instructors easily see students’ posts, alongside subsequent responses and contributions to the course, which provide a more holistic view of how well students are developing and mastering course material. Easing the administrative burden on faculty has also helped increase adoption across disciplines.

Similarly, at Fayetteville State University, instructors felt better equipped to evaluate participation in their online course discussions. With at-a-glance student participation dashboards, as well as integrated auto grading and plagiarism detection, instructors saved valuable time — easily viewing and assessing student activity. With autograding for higher education, there is a streamlined grading experience that allows instructors to focus their energy on instruction rather than course discussion management. After one term of use, a survey of instructors showed that:

“Harmonize gave our faculty all the things that they couldn’t do with previous tools and that made all the difference for student engagement. Better integrations, easier grading, rich multimedia and video discussions got both our instructors and students more engaged across the board,” says Dr. Claudette Fuller, Instructional Designer at FSU.

Canvas Discussion Peer Review

Lively online discussion platforms as well as student-to-student and small-group collaboration are among the hallmarks of face-to-face courses. But when it comes to learning online, some argue it’s difficult to replicate the value of these interactions. While a staple of strictly online courses for years, the online discussion board is finally finding traction in both traditional and blended courses — leveraged as collaboration activities during peer discussion review that work to reinforce course concepts and engage students in deeper reflection outside the classroom. In fact, many a Canvas group discussion rely on a Canvas discussion peer review in order to improve participation.

Research from the University of Alabama shows that student participation increases when students facilitate online discussions and participate in building peer review discussion questions. And in a Baran and Correia’s (2009) study of an online graduate course, researchers found that whether these peer-facilitation methods included highly organized facilitation or practice-oriented facilitation in asynchronous discussion, the methods kept students engaged with the material and relying on student-to-student interaction instead of just student-to-instructor interaction.

In addition, for better engagement, it’s important to be inclusive of the ways students communicate and of different learning modalities. West Virginia University saw an increase in organic interaction among students in their online discussions when they expanded the ways in which students could express themselves.

“Students can submit written responses, create snippets of audio, make and send videos, as well as launch or respond to polls right from within our discussion boards. We get excited about easy-to-use tools that help instructors and students better engage with content and each other. It’s why we’re seeing so much more interaction,” said Beth Bailey, Instructional Designer at WVU.

Rick Bebout, Technology Specialist at WVU, also notes that the quality of responses is better. “The options for how and in what medium to respond is allowing students to express themselves in their own ways, helping us move from transactional to more meaningful exchanges.”

Implementing discussion boards that support better student inclusion, by including things like multimedia and social annotation — for example, Canvas student annotation — have been effective in creating connection and community online, while building student engagement.

Canvas Integrations

To achieve the kind of participation and engagement you’d like in your online discussions, consider implementing tools made for this activity — using seamless Canvas integrations.

From a usability and visual design standpoint, the way an LMS presents discussions is challenging and unengaging. Text-heavy threads and conversations are tough to follow, and the LMS itself doesn’t do a great job of pushing students toward being better collaborators nor instructors toward being better facilitators. The origin of discussion forums in learning management systems — institution’s centralized course management system — makes sense. However, while the LMS has evolved significantly over the years and continues to be essential for supporting teaching & learning, they’re hard pressed to try and do it all.

Using external tools for Canvas, like Harmonize — a suite of digital discussion and collaboration tools that integrate seamlessly with Canvas and most LMSs — you can facilitate a more engaging online learning experience. These tools focus attention on the activities that drive engagement, including:

Apps that integrate with Canvas can increase the quality and quantity of student-to-student, student-to-content, and student-to-instructor interactions and include:

✔ Rich Multimedia & Annotation

✔ Built-in Chat, Polling & Q&A

✔ Tagging, Notification & Reactions

✔ Streamlined Grading to Save Instructors Time & Focus on Feedback

Harmonize’s full and seamless LTI 1.3 Canvas LMS integration means no additional logins for users and a streamlined, time-saving grading experience for instructors. It’s everything an instructor needs to increase student engagement in online discussions and promote inclusive learning, while saving time and eliminating manual tasks.

Additional Resources

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