What are the pedagogical uses of online discussions?

Last Updated: Tue May 4, 2021

What are online discussions?

Online discussions occur when an instructor uses software to encourage conversations among students and/or instructors via the internet around a specific topic. While sharing many similarities with methods for fostering face-to-face interactions, online tools offer different opportunities, and limitations, in creating meaningful interactions between students and instructors.

What can I use online discussions for?

There are a variety of ways that online discussions can help in an online, blended or traditional face-to-face course. For example, integrating online discussions with face-to-face class time allows the instructor to reinforce key points and encourage engagement with a topic beyond the classroom. Below are a few use cases that you may find helpful in determining how online discussions can help you achieve your teaching and learning goals.

Supplementary Board
You can use online discussions to supplement in-class discussions or content. For students hesitant about public discourse or simply wanting to focus on the content outside of classroom hours, the supplementary board provides another venue  to engage with you the instructor and other students about course content. For best results, make sure to incorporate insight from the online discussion back into the classroom either by bringing up points or questions students raised or by incorporating materials from the discussion into your lecture or content for the day. That way students better recognize the value of the online discussions.

Community-Building Boards
Online discussions can be a great way to help build a learning community or communities among your students. Social learning is key for many students to learn and excel in a course. You can encourage social learning and build learning communities by giving the students space to interact, even if it is not directly related to the course. As with all online discussions you will need to set clear guidelines and expectations. However, allowing students some ownership or autonomy in a discussion space is a good way to encourage them to take ownership over their educational experience while building meaningful relationships with instructors and students.

Group Discussion Boards
Setting up individual discussion spaces based on groups is an effective way to build learning communities and spark interaction whether in a blended or fully online course. Breaking students into smaller groups builds in accountability and encourages student interactions as smaller groups make it harder for students to “hide” online. You can use Group Discussion Boards either as supplementary discussion or as the main venue for discussion and engagement in your course.

Visible Assignments
Online discussion boards are a great way to have students contribute and view more formal writing or thinking assignments. Having students post their assignments to a discussion board allows other students to see and interact with other students’ writing assignments. Instructors can also use the format to leave example feedback for students to see.

What are my discussion tool options?

There are multiple tools available to facilitate online discussions. Depending on what purpose the discussion serves in your course, and what you want to be able to do with the discussion, one tool or format might work better than another one. Below is a list and short description of the discussion tools that are vetted or centrally supported here at UW-Madison. While there are many other tools or platforms out there, we strongly recommend you use UW-Madison-approved tools to avoid liability issues:

  • Canvas Discussion Board. The Canvas Discussion Board is an easy way to encourage online discussion within your course website. You can set up classwide, sectionwide or group-wide discussions using the discussion board. You can also pin discussions to the top of the board and restrict access to different boards based on time, date, password etc. To learn more about these and other features visit the vendor-supplied Canvas Discussion Guide.
  • Piazza. This is a wiki-style platform that allows students to collaboratively edit an answer together. It also allows for follow-up comments, polls, instructor answers and instructor-endorsed answers. Piazza is particularly useful for Math or Engineering classes that use equations as it has a nice LaTeX equation editor. Due to its integration with Canvas, Piazza opens within the LMS and uses single sign on. Like the Discussion Board in Canvas, each Q&A is course specific and will end after the conclusion of that course. More information about Piazza Q&A can be found here.
  • Google Groups or Office 365 Groups. These tools are not integrated with an LMS and thus not tied to any specific course. But you can link to them from within your Canvas course. Depending on your need, one of these may provide a better fit for what you want to accomplish with online discussions. More information about Google Groups can be found here.

Are the tools integrated into Canvas?

The Discussion Board is a feature within Canvas while Piazza is integrated with Canvas. This allows one-click access from within Canvas with no additional logins needed. Google Groups are not integrated, though you can easily link to them from Canvas.

What resources are available to help me get started?

Please look through these helpful tips and suggestions for creating effective online discussions. In addition, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, PhD Vilas Professor and Sir Frederic Bartlett Professor of UW-Madison, has compiled Five Tips for Improving Online Discussion Boards.

Our learning technology consultants are happy to help you choose the best tool to fit your needs and start using it to improve student success. Contact the DoIT Help Desk to schedule an appointment with a DoIT Academic Technology consultant. In addition, the Learn@UW KnowledgeBase offers helpful documents for instructors, course owners and students.


Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison