For this session of Coffee Break TIPs we met to discuss ways of engaging students though online discussions.

WhatsApp & Facebook: Students are organising their own discussion spaces

A lot of student-led discussions already happen online, albeit informally, for instance through WhatsApp or Facebook groups.  Students initiate these and are quite savvy when it comes to online ways of communicating quickly and effectively with their peers.  One important feature of such informal discussions is that they are initiated by students highly motivated to obtain the information they need or participate in a community of peers.

How do we create similar levels of motivation in more formal, instructor-initiated online discussions?

Have a well-defined purpose

Colleagues shared how they had successfully implementation of online discussions for learning; discussions which were characterised by having a well-defined purpose and clear instructions for students:

  • in modules where students don’t see each other that often (e.g. because they are on placements)
  • in online programmes
  • for mixed cohorts (where, for one module, students are put in a class with peers studying other fields or specialisations within the discipline).

We also mentioned what constitutes an interesting and engaging online discussion activity: one example could be a short video of good or bad professional practice (that can be role-played and shot by the instructors using UWL Replay – Panopto) that students could comment on and debate.

Consider group size

Consider an online discussion just like a classroom discussion: if the group is too large, students will be reluctant to contribute and not everyone will be heard or recognised.  Colleagues found that by setting up group discussions for smaller groups, the discussion was more effective and engaging.

Start the conversation

It’s encouraging for the instructor to post the first message, welcoming and encouraging contributions, modelling the type of language and response that is required.  An example of a Blackboard discussion board (with separate forums for activities, where students create their threads) can be seen below (click the image to enlarge).  Guidance for getting started with Blackboard discussion boards can be found on the Blackboard Help website.

example of a dis


Find out more

We concluded by sharing the article ‘My Three Principles of Effective Online Pedagogy‘ by Bill Pelz which includes very interesting ideas for online discussions as well as advice on how to assess such activities.