Posted by: Gillian | January 3, 2010

Using course online discussions

Some adult learners just love discussions in online courses but others take one look at the requirement to discuss and just freeze.  This is a pity as discussions should be the heart and soul of a course so here are some thoughts to ‘unfreeze’.

First, the reasons for freezing may be less to do with you, the learner, than they are with the course.  Some discussion boards still use fonts and layouts that make the small print on car-hire agreements look user-friendly.  Then, of course, you get told that discussions are compulsory and graded – and no-one then feels like asking the simple questions that everyone else is thinking and needs answering before anything more ambitious can be tackled.  So learners don’t contribute, give up and flunk the course.  Relax!  You really can make discussions do what you want them to.  Some hints:

The key is to start writing something – almost anything – and to keep it short. The longer your writing, the more difficult it is to keep it well-structured and once you lose the structure you lose your audience.  Ten words are better than a thousand when starting.

If you are a handwritten-letter sort of person, remember that discussion boards do not require a greetings line and, unless the post is a long one, they do not normally require a ‘signature’.  You just write your message and post it.  So, no need to be embarrassed working out whether it is Dear or Hi or Hello – the answer is none of them.  Just write.

Many discussions do not become useful immediately but you can make your ‘almost anything’ work for you.  Depending upon circumstances you can:

  • Ask if people want to set a time to treat the discussion board like instant messenger so that you aren’t left waiting for hours (or days) for a reply.  You can suggest a time when you will be online for the purpose.
  • Set up a connected thread with the reference for at least one useful reading and ask others to add to it.
  • Post your own mindmap or sketch or notes of the subject so far and ask others to add to it.  If that sounds too scary, you can always say, “Here’s my diagram so far.  My notes will follow later.”
  • Start an online brainstorm by writing, “I’m trying to brainstorm ideas for this topic and am open to help. My key words so far are:….”

If the question is as clear as mud, try rewriting it and see what happens. “I’m not sure about this model.  If we are saying…, then I think… . Does this sound right to anyone else?”

Always write in a way that means someone else can answer or take the idea forward.  “Good idea, John!” may be an ego boost for John but it does not take the idea forward.  It would be far better to write, “Good idea, John.  I saw something similar…” Or, “Good idea, John. If you go first, then I’ll…”

Remember others are nervous, too.  If you reply to a message that is not in a popular part of the discussion you get two benefits: you gain a participation mark and you may well get a grateful/relieved reply so that the discussion begins to grow using the ‘take the idea forward’ principle.

If someone writes ‘Good idea, John’ to you and you can see that is the sum total of their participation in the discussion, you have two choices: ignore them or help them to be a bit more participative. Early in the course you will probably want to help. One possible response would be along the lines of: “Glad you liked it but can you help me find other examples/references/counter-arguments?”

Build on ideas.  If someone has a good idea, refer to it and add to it.  There is nothing wrong with that as long as you acknowledge where the idea came from. You might be able to link it to another idea from someone else in the group and by referencing both and adding your own comment or question, you can shape the discussion in a way that interests you.  That’s what would happen if you were sitting having a coffee and talking things over and that is what the discussion board is meant to replicate.

If you post something that later looks just plain silly and you cannot delete it, the best policy may be to write something along the lines of “On reflection, Sunday’s post was not one of my better efforts.  Let’s try again.  What I now think is:…”

If you know you are going to have scheduling problems in, say, week 6 of a 15 week course, make sure you put in the effort for the five weeks before it and then whatever little you manage to put into week 6 will almost certainly get noticed and answered by others.  If you are put into groups and each of you in turn has to lead a weekly summary, be honest with your classmates and ask if you can lead “any week except week 6”.  Others could have similar problems and be grateful of a chance to state their own difficulties.  Of course, if the entire group has difficulties with one week (e.g. end of year accounting, special deployment, sales kick-off conference), it is reasonable to ask the course leader if they can grant an extension.

Remember that disagreement is useful if you can back up your arguments.  As long as you focus on the subject, not the person with whom you are disagreeing, a lively and interesting debate can take place.  You can attack Widget-Processing-Theory as much as you like, just make sure that John, who likes Widget-Processing-Theory, is given a fair chance to put his side of the story.  You may end up agreeing to disagree or you may end up with a new, more useful Widget-Processing-Theory Mk2.  Whichever, you should still be on civil terms and, as long as you are, the discussion grade for both of you should be a good one!


  1. Very good Gillian! No, seriously, this is extremely helpful as it deals with a lot of the smaller but important points which prevent people taking part in online discussions. Perhaps another blog on actually setting-up and integrating on-line discussions in a course or programme would also be very useful – when you have time that is! Judith

    • Humour appreciated, Judith! Yes, will happily do the blog you suggest – and may even do so this month as there will be plenty going on. Hope all is well with you?

  2. […] this really good article about how to contribute to online discussions. Then come back and make life more interesting for […]

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