Introduction: Discussions in an e-learning course.


Discussions are an excellent element of each VET course. They support interaction, create a sense of community and involvement, allow the sharing of information and knowledge. Online discussions contribute to development of cognitive, critical thinking, allow time for thoughtful, in-depth reflection on course topics, facilitate exploratory learning, empower students to express themselves, especially those who are shy or afraid of speaking publicly. On the other hand, they can cause a lot of problems for the participants and create frustration. Dealing with an overload of information, skimming through unimportant posts and writing posts effectively: these are the skills, which can be learned with time. How to support a participant so that the discussion is be the most useful? 


Estimate the time

Online discussions take much more time than those that are face-to-face. According to Horton, a 10-minute conversation equals a 20-minute conversation through the internet call (e.g. through Skype), 30 minutes of chat and 2 days of discussion in a forum. When designing an exercise that includes a discussion you need to estimate the required time. A chat or classroom discussion (if possible) might sometimes be more effective to achieve your objective.

Organise the forums

Depending on your  e-learning platform there can be various options and different types of forums. Take into consideration various options:

  • one forum for the whole course (take into account the problem of searching for relevant information) or many forums for many topics (take into account that participants could get lost in too many separate forums);
  • a technical forum to solve problems related to software or equipment (will you manage to moderate this forum or will you need support?);
  • a noticeboard-type of forum;
  • a social forum for entertainment (are you planning to visit this forum or is it a facilitator-free zone?).

Set the rules

At the beginning of the course it is good to inform the students how to reply and quote messages, how to create new threads, how to share links, add attachments, what is the maximum size of attachment. You can also establish some rules and include them in the introductory, such as the form of addressing each other (e.g. by first name), whether students are expected to adhere to general netiquette (provide a link or create your own),  etc.

The topic of the discussion

Interesting discussion begins with an encouraging, attractive topic. Discussion on an obvious topic will never be engaging and may lead to repetitive comments and, as a result, to boredom. Try to construct an e-tivity in such a way that the discussed problem is multidimensional and there are diverse ways in which it can be addressed. Make sure that the topic is clear, understandable, allows others to locate relevant discussions, and that it points to the key problem of the discussion. Think about what is the most important for learners to know and understand about the topic and shape your questions with that goal in mind.

Here are some question types that simulate different kinds of thinking:

Convergent Thinking

Divergent Thinking

Evaluative Thinking

Usually begin with:

  • Why
  • How
  • In what ways...

Usually begin with:

  • Imagine
  • Suppose
  • Predict...
  • If..., then...
  • How might...
  • Can you create...
  • What are some possible consequences...

Usually begin with:

  • Defend
  • Judge
  • Justify...
  • What do you think about...
  • What is your opinion about...


  • How does gravity differ from electrostatic attraction?
  • How was the invasion of Grenada a modern day example of the Monroe Doctrine in action?
  • Why was Richard III considered an evil king?


  • Suppose that Caesar never returned to Rome from Gaul. Would the Empire have existed?
  • What predictions can you make regarding the voting process in Florida?
  • How might life in the year 2100 differ from today?


  • What do you think are the advantages of solar power over coal-fired electric plants?
  • Is it fair that Title IX requires colleges to fund sports for women as well as for men?
  • How do you feel about raising the driving age to 18? Why?

Determine and communicate how you will evaluate student participation

Stu­dents must know how their con­tri­bu­tion will be assessed in order to make effec­tive responses (What are the criteria for acceptable responses? Do they need to post a certain number of posts? Are there any deadlines? Any specific length? Is there information they should include or reference?). Oth­er­wise, they may mis­un­der­stand your direc­tions or become unsure of what is expected of them, which would lead to a frustrating and ineffective learning experience.



Every discussion should have a beginning. Moderator should welcome and encourage participants, explain the objectives of the discussion, and show links related to a topic or a discussion.

Be active but don’t dominate

The more often you discuss, comment, encourage to participate, stress creativity, soothe the mood or play devil’s advocate, the greater the probability that the participants will be active. But pointing out small mistakes and errors, especially at the beginning of the course, can be intimidating. Summarize the topic (or ask one of the participants to do so), answer the posted question if nobody else has done it in the allocated time.

Expressing your position

Naturally, you have a right to do this, but rather in the summary of a discussion. Remember that your role is to moderate i.e. to support participants in a discussion, and not to convince them. If you state your opinion too early, especially if it is controversial, this may lead to the negative effect of a dominating moderator, which was described above.

Problem “I agree with the previous speaker”

You have to learn to deal with shallow contributions. Encourage participants to give examples and present evidence in support of their statements. If everybody is of the same mind, then play devil’s advocate, provide challenges, such as “and what if…”, “prove that I am wrong…”

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Discussion forums in courses where people have to sign up with their first and last name don’t guarantee that they will be free from frustrated litigants. Sometimes an innocent comment can cause an avalanche of blame, grievance and aggression. The role of a moderator is always to calm the situation down, and help solving the problem taking into account all sides. Deleting a post that breeches the netiquette or is against the law is an extreme solution which works only in extreme situations (and then requires an explanation of the reasons). You can also use e-mail or send an individual message to the author. 

Weaving versus summarising

These are quite typical activities of a moderator or tutor. What is the difference? A summary is a shortened version of a contribution, which highlights the main points and arguments. Weaving is more creative; the moderator chooses selected fragments and reassembles them into a new story, creating connections that are not always obvious to the participants.

How to weave?

  • collect all contributions, e.g. copy and paste them into a new document,
  • read them and highlight key elements,
  • identify connecting elements and contradictions,
  • sum up key elements indicating compliance and contradictions, give examples and refer to the original contribution,
  • add a positive comment,
  • add a critical comment,
  • congratulate,
  • publish it on the forum and encourage further discussion.

Last modified: Saturday, 14 June 2014, 6:20 PM