The pdf here looks at best practices for teaching online.
Sets out ten best practices to guide your initial online teaching experience.
Postdoc Academic Chat #6
Keys to Effective Online Teaching
Monday, March 11, 2019
#1. Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online
#2. What Does The Excellent Online Instructor Look
#3 Getting Started with Online Discussion Forums
#1. Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online
The posting below looks at best practices for teaching online. It is longer
than most postings but I felt it best to give you the complete description of all
ten practices. I highly recommend the entire book. The posting is from
Chapter 3, Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online, in the book, The Online
Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, by Judith
V. Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad. Published by Jossey-Bass , A Wiley
Imprint. 989 Market Street. San Francisco, CA 94103-1741-
www.josseybass.com-.Copyright © 2010 by Judith V. Boettcher and Rita-
Marie Conrad. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Table 3.1 sets out ten best practices to guide your initial online teaching
Ten Best Practices for Teaching Online
Best practice 1 Be present at the course site.
Best practice 2 Create a supportive online course community.
Best practice 3 Develop a set of explicit expectations for your learners
and yourself as to how you will communicate and how
much time students should be working on the course
Best practice 4 Use a variety of large group, small group, and individual
Best practice 5 Use synchronous and asynchronous activities.
Best practice 6 Ask for informal feedback early in the term.
Best practice 7 Prepare discussion posts that invite responses, questions,
discussions, and reflections.
Best practice 8 Search out and use content resources that are available in
digital format if possible.
Best practice 9 Combine core concept learning with customized and
Best practice 10 Plan a good closing and wrap activity for the course.
Best Practice 1: Be Present at the Course Site
Being present at the course site is the most fundamental and important of all
the practices. Over time, we have learned to quantify what it means to "be
present." The best online faculty, according to students, are faculty who are
present multiple times a week, and at best daily. No matter how expectations
are communicated regarding faculty availability, the default mode is twenty-
four hours a day, seven days a week. Students expect online faculty to be
present when they are there, no matter the day or the time, unless explicitly
Thus, one of the most important expectations for online faculty is-if at all
possible-to be present in some way every day. These expectations can be
modified, and students will be very accepting if their faculty clearly states
personal policies on presence and provides notice if family or professional
events cause deviation from these policies.
Liberal use of tools, such as announcements, discussion board postings, and
faculty blogs, lets students know just when the faculty member will likely be
present for fast turnaround on questions and potentially available for live
interaction by phone or collaborative online tools. These same tools can
communicate when the faculty member may be away for an extended time-
say, two days or more. Strategies such as assigning a student or a team of
two students to monitor question forums or blogs can also be a good stand-in
for the facility presence for a day or two and create community support and
Why is presence so important in the online environment? When faculty
actively interact and engage students in a face-to-face classroom, the class
evolves as a group and develops intellectual and personal bonds. The same
type of community bonding happens in an online setting if the faculty
presence is felt consistently. Regular, thoughtful, daily presence shows the
students that the faculty member cares about who they are, cares about their
questions and concerns, and is generally present for them to do the
mentoring, guiding, and challenging that teaching is all about. In other
words, text and audio presence compensate for the physical remoteness of
online learning and the lack of face-to-face presence.
One posted message from students that you do not want on your site is the
question, "Is anybody there?" Such a posting would be made only by a
student who is feeling abandoned, alone, and isolated-a clear and
unambiguous signal that not all is well.
The concept of daily presence may be alarming to you as it might fuel the
widely reported perception that online courses take significantly more
faculty time than classroom-based courses. One way to create a sense of
presence without it consuming too much time is to focus discussions on the
course site and avoid one-to-one e-mails. Time-released announcements that
remind learners of assignment due dates and prepared audio containing
additional content that can be swiftly uploaded midweek are other ways to
let the learners know you are there.
Of course, there is the danger that too much faculty presence will stunt the
discussions as well as delay the development of learner self-direction. So
while you may check in to the Web site daily for a few minutes to see if
there are questions, by no means feel that you have to add significant daily
comments to the course site.
Research on faculty presence suggests that there are three types of presence:
social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence. (Garrison,
Anderson, & Archer, 2000). More about these types of presence are in the
tips in Part Two.
Best Practice 2: Create a Supportive Online Course Community
Nurturing a learning community as part of an online course is almost as
important as being a significant presence. A learning community in a face-
to-face environment often develops spontaneously as students generally
have more opportunities to get to know one another and develop friendships
outside a particular course. More explicit nurturing and planning is required
in the online environment for a learning community to develop.
Community building is the focus of much research in online learning
(Brown, 2001; Rovai, 2002; Shea, 2006). Some of the research seeks to
define a community; other research examines the stages of a community and
the faculty and student behaviors that facilitate community building at these
Here's how to get started with designing community into an online course.
(Many more ideas are in the chapters with tips in Part Two.) A good strategy
for developing a supportive online course community is to design a course
with a balanced set of dialogues. This means designing a course so that the
three dialogues of faculty to learner (F-L), learner to learner (L-L), and
learner to resource (L-R) are about equal (Pelikan, 1992). In one online
course, the F-L dialogue might be accomplished with three types of
communications: short mini-concept introductions, twice-weekly
announcements, and interactions with the student postings. In another
course, this dialogue might be accomplished with a combination of
announcements, discussion postings and monitoring, written mini-lectures,
or audio/video podcasts.
Encouraging the L-L dialogue can be done with one or more of these
• Launch the class with a personal introduction posting so that students get
to know one another and you get to know about the students and their
interests. The types of information often shared by faculty and students at
the beginning of a course touch on professional experiences and personal
data such as family, friends, pets, or hobbies, often supported by a
photograph or two. It is not uncommon to see pictures of learners with their
dog or car or engaged in a hiking, kayaking, skiing, or another activity.
Faculty also often include information about their teaching philosophy and
current work or research projects.
• Encourage the use of a general open student forum for students to post
and request help and assistance from each other through the various peer-to-
peer tools, such as discussions and help areas. Learners can use this type of
space as a first place to go for help from each other. Think of this place as a
student union or coffee shop where students can collaborate, brainstorm, and
support one another.
• Divide a larger class into small groups of four to six, similar to a study
group, that students can depend on for supportive networking or mentoring,
including help in identifying resources or clarifying key points of a class
• Set up problem-solving forums or discussion boards, and assign students or
student teams to monitor and support direct questions.
Not all learners will respond to these strategies for encouraging the building
of a learning community. Learning within the setting of an online course
community will work better for some students than for others. Some
students may choose not to participate very actively at all; others find it is
the best way for them to learn. The point is that for students who need it, it is
an essential part of how they learn. Vygotsky's theories remind us of how
much we learn as social beings within a social context. The online
community is part of what makes this happen for many students.
Best Practice 3: Develop a Set of Explicit Expectations for Your Learners
and for Yourself as to How You Will Communicate and How Much Time
Students Should Be Working on the Course Each Week
This best practice cannot be overemphasized. It clarifies, specifies
expectations, and reduces uncertainty. Develop and post prominently on
your course site a set of explicit expectations for how students are expected
to communicate online and how you expect them to communicate with you.
For example, some faculty have a rule that they do not answer content-
focused e-mails. This is a good practice because content-focused queries
belong in one of the many public spaces of the course site. Queries and
responses posted in open course spaces benefit all the learners, as students
see both the questions and the responses, and you can develop expectations
that students can answer each other's questions. Of course, e-mail remains a
good choice for personal and confidential communications.
What about a policy on response time for questions posted on a course site
or to e-mail? Institutions have varying policies on this question. Some
institutions with large online programs have a policy that faculty are
expected to respond to learners within twenty-four hours during the week.
Expectations for responses during the weekend can vary, but as most
working professionals work on their online courses during the weekend,
faculty should establish a general rule as to weekend windows of
Another common effective practice is for online faculty to schedule special
virtual office hours, being available by chat or live classroom, e-mail, or
phone, particularly when learners are likely to be working on an important
assignment. In the interests of time and community, it is best to use a
communication tool where responses and content can be shared with
everyone and archived for flexibility in access and review.
This basic expectation of response time can easily be modified as long as the
change is communicated to the students. It is easy to develop your own
policies or rules of thumb if the institution does not have them in place.
Think about the students as family for the duration of a course or program.
Students are very accepting of a faculty member's time and life requirements
if they know what is going on. And students often step in and help each
other even more when they know a faculty member is sick, traveling, or
engaged in significant professional or family obligations. Often students can
agree to monitor course questions posted in the open forum or in the
discussion boards, for example.
Online learning is just as intensive as learning face-to-face, and time to do
the work needs to be scheduled and planned for, just as if one were attending
face-to-face classes. Being clear as to how much effort and time will be
required on a weekly basis keeps surprises to a minimum.
How much time should learners be expected to dedicate on a weekly basis to
an online course? A good rule of thumb is six hours of productive learning
time that is used for activities such as reading and processing content, as
well as participating in online discussions. For many learners, it can take ten
hours to achieve the six productive hours.
Best Practice 4: Use a Variety of Large Group, Small Group, and Individual
A learning community works better when a variety of activities and
experiences is offered. Online courses can be more enjoyable and effective
when students have the opportunity to brainstorm and work through
concepts and assignments with one or two or more fellow students. Of
course, some students work and learn best on their own. Building in options
and opportunities for students to work together and individually is highly
Teams are particularly effective when students are working on complex case
studies or scenarios for the first time. Early in a course, students may like to
get to know one another by working with just one or two other students in
teams of two or three. Later in the course, with more complex projects,
groups of three or four can work well. It is also important to build in whole
class activities such as discussion boards or events with invited experts.
Best Practice 5: Use Synchronous and Asynchronous Activities
When online courses were introduced, they were almost totally
asynchronous-an updated version of the correspondence distance learning
courses so widespread in the middle of the twentieth century. Now we have
course management systems, virtual live classrooms, spontaneous
collaboration tools, and an almost infinite number of Web tools and
smartphones that support synchronous chat, video messaging, and more.
These tools make it possible to do almost everything that we do in face-to-
face classrooms. In addition, we can often engage learners in more extensive
collaborative and reflective activities.
Sometimes there is nothing better than a real-time interactive brainstorming
and sharing discussion; at other times, the requirement to think, plan, write,
and reflect is what makes learning most effective for an individual. The
variety of activities now possible online makes it easy to create many types
of effective learning environments. For example, in financial and statistical
courses, real-time problem-solving and question-and-answer review sessions
can be effective learning strategies. While working professionals often
choose to complete advanced degrees online so that they can make use of the
asynchronous, anytime, anywhere features of a program, these same learners
enjoy getting together at a specific time to interact in real time.
Best Practice 6: Ask for Informal Feedback Early in the Term
Course evaluations have been called postmortem evaluations because they
are done after the fact, and nothing can be changed to increase the
satisfaction of the students making the comments. Early feedback surveys or
informal discussions are effective in getting students to provide feedback on
what is working well in a course and solicit suggestions and ideas on what
might help them have a better course experience. This early feedback is done
in about week 3 of a fifteen-week course so time is available to make
corrections and modifications while the course is ongoing. A request for
informal feedback is an easy opening for students who might have
comments, suggestions, or questions. A simple e-mail or discussion forum
asking one or two of these questions works well:
• What's working thus far?
• How could your learning experience be improved?
• What do you want or need help with?
• What are the top three to five understandings you have learned thus
Best Practice 7: Prepare Discussion Posts That Invite Responses, Questions,
Discussions, and Reflections
One of the primary differences between the online teaching classroom and
the classroom of the campus-based course is how students and faculty
communicate and the range of tools that they use to do so. After all, we don't
see the students; rather, we get to know them by what they write and say in
the discussion boards and their assignments and, to a lesser degree, in e-
mail, phone, and collaborative online classrooms.
The communication tool that is the heart and soul of the online course
community is the discussion board. This is the primary place where faculty
talk to students and students talk to other students. This is also the place
where students and faculty get to know one another and the tool that helps a
widely dispersed group of students and faculty become a learning
Discussions in an online course are the equivalent of class discussions in a
face-to-face class. A key difference, of course, is that these discussions are
asynchronous, meaning that students have time for thought and reflection.
Another key difference is that discussions, blogs, and other tools require
written or audio comments that are captured and become part of a course
Discussions are often designed for one of the following learning purposes
(Painter, Coffin, & Hewings, 2003; Goodyear et al., 2003, cited in Grogan,
• Providing an open question-and-answer forum
• Encouraging critical or creative thinking
• Reinforcing domain or procedural processes
• Achieving social interaction and community building so that students
get to know each other personally and intellectually
• Validating experiences
• Supporting students in their own reflections and inquiries
Here are a few hints for discussion postings culled from many conversations
with experienced online faculty.
• Create open-ended questions that learners can explore and apply the
concepts that they are learning.
• Model Socratic-type probing and follow-up questions. "Why do you think
that?" "What is your reasoning?" "Is there an alternative strategy?"
• Ask clarifying questions that encourage students to think about what they
know and don't know.
• Stagger due dates of the responses, and consider a midpoint summary or
• Provide guidelines and instruction on responding to other students. For
example, suggest a two-part response: (1) "Say what you liked or agreed
with or what resonated with you," and (2) "Conclude with a follow-up
question such as what you are wondering about or curious about."
• Provide choices and options. Providing choices for students in questioning
follows the recommended design principle of encouraging personalized and
customized learning. Working professionals are often grappling with many
issues; providing choices and options makes it possible to link the learning
more directly with their work experiences, interests, and needs.
• Don't post questions soliciting basic facts or questions for which there is an
obvious yes-or-no response. The reason for this is obvious: once one student
responds, there is not much more to say. Specific fact-based questions that
you want to be sure that your students know are good items for automated
quizzes or for students to record in blogs.
• Log on to your course a minimum of four days a week to answer e-mail,
monitor discussions, post reminders, and hold online office hours. For higher
satisfaction for you and your students, log in every day.
Best Practice 8: Search Out and Use Content Resources That Are Available
in Digital Format If Possible
If content is not digital, it is as if it does not exist for most students. This
means that students will more likely use content, resources, and applications
that are online, digital, and readily available. They want to be learning
anywhere, anytime, and often while they are doing other things, such as
driving, taking care of children, or exercising. Carrying around large, heavy
textbooks feels like an anachronism to them.
Book publishers are now making more of their content available digitally.
Some institutions are running pilot programs with students using the new
larger-screen Kindle from Amazon or one of the Apple iPod series.
Selecting a textbook available in multiple formats can be a boon to students,
particularly working professionals who may have heavy travel schedules.
For many courses, however, textbooks are not yet available in digital form,
but publishers are responding. This best practice can be applied to
supplementary resources and library resources. A reference document with
instructions on remotely accessing library resources is a must for online
courses. In addition, a key member of the instructional team is the library
reference person assigned to support online learners.
Students enjoy seeing how what they are learning links to current events.
Thus, building links to current events into discussions, blogs, and
announcements supports the exploration stage of early grappling with core
course concepts. So this best practice includes encouraging students to make
good use of Internet resources. You might want to consider enlisting student
assistance in identifying high-quality content that is available online. This
can include tutorials, simulations, and supplementary material. The number
and quality of tutorials in complex concepts in physics, chemistry,
engineering, and business continue to grow. Students enjoy searching and
testing these resources and often engage more deeply as they use resources
that they may have found themselves.
Best Practice 9: Combine Core Concept Learning with Customized and
This best practice combines a number of basic learning principles, many of
them addressed in more depth in the tips in Part Two. Briefly, this principle
means that faculty need to identify the core concepts to be learned in a
course-the performance goals and learning outcomes-and then guide and
mentor learners through a set of increasingly complex, personalized, and
customized learning activities to help learners apply these core concepts and
develop their own knowledge structures. Vygotsky's principle of the zone of
proximal development includes the concept that the learning experiences
ought to pull students' learning forward, always in advance of development
(Del Rio & Alvarez, 2007).
In practical terms for online courses, it means designing options and choices
within learning experiences, assignments, and special projects. Supporting
learners with their personal and professional goals that are closely linked to
the performance goals of a course and even beyond the course parameters is
a win-win situation for the learners individually and as a group. It enhances
the meaningfulness of the learning and infuses learner enthusiasm in
completing the assignments.
Another key principle that aids in concept learning is also inspired by
Vygotsky (1962, 1978). He noted that concepts are not words, but rather
organized and intricate knowledge clusters. This simple but profound
principle means that while we must teach in a linear fashion, presenting
concepts individually and in small clusters, we need to continually reapply
core concepts within a context, such as those in case studies, problems, and
Effectively learning concepts, as we know from studies of novice and expert
learners, requires a focus on patterns and relationships, not only on
individual facts or vocabulary.
A popular new teaching and learning suggestion advocates making students'
thinking visible (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). Making our thinking
visible requires students to create, talk, write, explain, analyze, judge, report,
and inquire. These types of activities make it clear to students themselves,
the faculty, and fellow learners what they know or don't know, what they are
puzzled about, and about what they might be curious. Such activities
stimulate students' growth from concept awareness to concept acquisition,
building in that series of intellectual operations that Vygotsky believes is
required for concept acquisition.
Discussion forums, blogging, journals, wikis, and similar social networking
type tools provide excellent communication channels for engaging learners
in clarifying and enlarging their mental models or concepts and building
links and identifying relationships.
Best Practice 10: Plan a Good Closing and Wrap Activity for the Course
As courses start coming to a close and winding down, it is easy to focus on
assessing and grading students and forget the value of a good closing
experience. In the final weeks of a course, students are likely to be stressed
and somewhat overwhelmed by the remaining work. In this state, they often
do not pause to make the lists and do the planning that can help reduce stress
and provide a calming atmosphere. A useful image for reducing stress is in
David Allen's book, Getting Things Done (2002). Allen notes that making a
list helps us to clear the "psychic RAM" of our brains so that we feel more
relaxed and more in control. Once we have made lists and prepared our
schedule, we don't have to continually remind ourselves of what needs to be
done and when.
End-of-course experiences often include student presentations, summaries,
and analyses. These reports and presentations provide insights into what
useful knowledge students are taking away from a course.
At the same time, these learning events can provide a final opportunity for
faculty to remind students of core concepts and fundamental principles.
These end-of-course experiences are a good time to use live classrooms,
YouTube, and other synchronous collaborative tools.
Traditional courses have long focused on tools and techniques for presenting
content. Traditional concerns of faculty focused on covering the material,
getting through the book, and meeting expectations so that faculty in other
courses wouldn't muse and wonder, "Didn't you learn these concepts from
faculty X? And didn't you study the work and contributions of [fill in your
A major drawback with course designs that have content as a priority is that
it often focuses attention on what the faculty member is doing, thinking, and
talking about and not on the interaction and engagement of students with the
core concepts and skills of a course. Recent trends in higher education are
encouraging a focus on learners as a priority, resulting in many publications
such as launching a Learning-Centered College (O'Banion, 1999). This
movement refocuses instruction on the learner and away from the content, a
shift that encourages faculty to develop a habit of asking questions such as,
"What is going on inside the learner's head?" "How much of the content and
the tools can he or she actually use?" "What are learners thinking, and how
did they arrive at their respective positions?"
We have much to learn about teaching and learning, and specifically about
teaching and learning in the online environment. The good news is that we
now know much more than what we did when online learning started in the
Summary-and What's Next
This set of ten best practices is really the tip of the iceberg in developing
expertise in teaching online, but we hope you find it a useful set of practices
as you get started. The next eight chapters provide many tips and examples
for teaching online, as well as summaries and themes for what is happening
in the four phases of a course.
#2. What Does The Excellent Online Instructor Look
The posting below looks at some of the characteristics of the excellent online
instructor. It is from Chapter One, What Are the Characteristics of Excellent
Online Teaching?, in the book, The Excellent Online Instructor: Strategies
for Professional Development, by Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt.
Published by Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San
Francisco, CA 94103-1741 www.josseybass.com. Copyright © 2011 by
John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
The growing popularity of online instruction has brought with it increasing
recognition that teaching online differs from face-to-face teaching. As a
result, more attention is being paid to what constitutes positive educational
experiences online and the characteristics of good online instructors and
courses. Organizations such as Quality Matters have emerged that are
designed to evaluate online course design, and faculty at many institutions
are being trained as Quality Matters evaluators so as to determine the quality
of courses being designed by their peers and to offer suggestions for
improvement. In addition, other institutions, such as California State
University-Chico (Rubric for Online Instruction) and the Illinois Online
Network (Quality Online Course Initiative Rubric) have published course
design rubrics that are available online for anyone who wants to evaluate his
or her own course. These can also be used as components of the evaluation
of good course design and online teaching practice. Like the Quality Matters
rubric, the CSU-Chico rubric focuses primarily on good design elements.
The Illinois Online Network QOCI, however, does look at elements that
promote collaboration between students and interaction between student and
In one of our previous books (Palloff & Pratt, 2003), we noted that much of
the literature on best practices in online teaching was limited to the effective
use of various technologies. Since that time, however, more attention has
been paid to what constitutes best practice in online instruction. This aligns
closely with our discussion of Graham, Kursat, Byung-Ro, Craner, and
Duffy's (2001) article linking the Chickering and Gamson (1987) Seven
Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education to online teaching.
Graham et al. note the following seven lessons for online instruction:
Instructors should provide clear guidelines for interaction with students;
provide well-designed discussion assignments to promote cooperation
among students; encourage students to present course projects to one
another; provide prompt feedback of two types-information and
acknowledgement; provide assignment deadlines; provide challenging tasks,
sample cases, and praise for high-quality work to reinforce high
expectations; and allow students to choose project topics.
Based on Weimer's (2002) work on learner-focused teaching, in order to
achieve all of this, we note that several things need to happen:
The balance of power needs to change - The instructor online acts as a
learning facilitator, allowing students to take charge of their own learning
The function of content needs to change - As noted by Carr-Chellman and
Duchastel (2001), good online course design makes learning resources and
instructional activities available to students rather than providing instruction
in the form of a lecture or other means.
The role of the instructor needs to change - By establishing active and strong
online presence, a topic we will return to in more depth, the instructor
demonstrates his or her expertise and guides the students in their learning
The responsibility for learning needs to change - With the instructor acting
as guide, resource, and facilitator, students need to take more responsibility
for their own learning process.
The purpose and process of assessment and evaluation need to change -
Traditional means of assessment and evaluation need to change - traditional
means of assessment, such as tests and quizzes, do not always meet the mark
when it comes to this form of learning. Consequently, other forms of
assessment, such as self-assessment and application activities, should be
incorporated to assess student learning and evaluate areas for potential
course improvement (Palloff & Pratt, 2003).
What we have been discussing here is what good facilitation looks like in an
online course. But how does this translate into the characteristics of the
excellent online instructor? And are the same characteristics required
regardless of the level at which the online course is offered: K-12 through
graduate level? An issue-oriented white paper that was published following
a conference on virtual pedagogy (Kircher, 2001) offered the following
characteristics: organized; highly motivated and enthusiastic; committed to
teaching; supports student-centered learning; open to suggestions; creative;
takes risks; manages time well; responsive to learner needs; disciplined; and
is interested in online delivery without expectation of other rewards. Savery
(2005) offers the VOCAL acronym to describe the effective online
instructor. In other words, the effective online instructor is Visible,
Organized, Compassionate, Analytical, and a Leader by example. The
Illinois Online Network (2007) adds to the list by noting that good online
instructors have a broad base of life experience in addition to their teaching
credentials; demonstrate openness, concern, flexibility, and sincerity
(characteristics we have consistently equated with online excellence); feel
comfortable communicating in writing (A characteristic also stressed by
Kearsley, n.d.); accept that the facilitated model of teaching is equally
powerful to traditional teaching methods; value critical thinking; and are
experienced and well-trained in online teaching. Kearsley (n.d.) also notes
that having experienced online instruction as a student also helps, something
that we support wholeheartedly. Clearly, it is this last component-well
trained in online instruction-that we will be emphasizing in this book and we
contend that regardless of the educational level of the student enrolled in the
online class, this is the key to excellence. Before we embark on that
exploration, however, we want to delve further into a few areas that we feel
are significant in the emergence of excellence online-the ability to establish
presence, create and maintain a learning community, and effectively develop
and facilitate online courses.
• Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good
practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-6.
• Graham, C., Kursat, C., Byung-Ro, L., Craner, J., & Duffy. T. M. (2001).
Seven principles of effective teaching: A practical lens for evaluating online
courses, The Technology Source (Mar./Apr. 2001). Retrieved from:
• Illinois Online Network (2007). Pedagogy & learning: What makes a
successful online facilitator? Retrieved from
• Kearsley. G. (n.d.). Tips for training online instructors. Retrieved from
• Kircher, J. (2001). What are the essential characteristics of the successful
online teacher and learner? Issue-oriented Dialogue White Paper, Virtual
Pedagogy Conference, UW Oshkosh, July 18, 2001. Retrieved from
• Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide
to working with online learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
• Savery, J. (2005). Be vocal: Characteristics of successful online instructors.
Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 4(2), 141-152. Retrieved from
• Weimer, M. G. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to
practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
TECHNOLOGY FOR TEACHING
#3 Getting Started with Online Discussion Forums
SEP 24, 2014
DISCUSSION FORUMS OVERVIEW
Discussion forums provide students a place to have multiple discussions
online regarding course reading and assignments, to respond to questions
and thoughts posted by other students, and to engage with the material and
with each other outside of the classroom. Using a platform of your
preference for online discussions, students can build a learning community
around discussion topics, participate at their own pace, allow different types
of student learners to contribute, and increase individual student learning.
Additionally, students who might feel inhibited from voicing their opinion in
class can benefit from a discussion forum by being able to express their
ideas in a written format. These topics can be instructor- and student-led.
Instructors should be prepared to spend time participating in these forums if
they expect meaningful discussion from students.
It can be daunting to set up your online form, and tough to reach the level of
discourse you want. But by following these best practices, you can achieve
BEST PRACTICES FOR ONLINE DISCUSSIONS
Set clear expectations
Explain to your students how you expect them to participate in discussion
boards, including deadlines and grading rubric. What is the purpose of your
discussion forum, and how will students benefit from it?
• Make students’ responsibility for participation in discussion forums clear.
For example, do you want to post an article that approaches an issue
from multiple perspectives or respond to an issue that poses conflicts?
• Here's one way to require student participation: leave a discussion thread
open for a certain amount of time and require each student to post at
least one question, and respond to two other students, during the open
• To help build a student learning community and encourage students to
take ownership of their own learning, assign students to moderate the
discussion thread. This type of peer instruction enhances individual
student learning by having the student learn how to determine
important ideas and questions, summarize ideas, and lead thoughtful
• Determine how you will grade posts. For example, instructors may choose
to grade by the quantity of posts or by the quality of the posts. Align
assessment of posts to grading rubric and learning goals.
• Establish appropriate writing style. Do you expect students to be more
formal in their response or to respond informally? Remind students
that they can respectfully disagree with each other.
Encourage critical thinking
For example, you may ask students to “read a course-related article that
provokes multiple perspectives” (Bean, 2011, p. 129), or to respond to a
topic of confusion that came up in the lecture or session.
Examples from Bean's book Engaging Ideas:
• Open-Ended Tasks – allow students to write about any topic that came up
during the week, including summarizing lectures, a disagreement that
came up during class, or deliberating the reading material.
• Semistructured Tasks – post a question to guide students in critical
thinking of a reading topic or a discussion in lecture or section.
• Writing Dialogues – a more creative approach to writing, ask students to
“write imaginary ‘meeting of the mind’ dialogues between people
with opposing views” (Bean, 2011, p. 136).
Limit instructor participation
Studies show that instructors who constantly post responses limit the amount
of student participation (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2007). So facilitate
discussions only selectively:
• Jump into a discussion if the thread is headed in the wrong direction or is
getting off track.
• Post a final wrap-up of discussion topics to end a discussion topic and to
clarify any confusion students might have had.
Do you have an experience to share about online discussion forums? A
question for the author? Comment below.
Tiffany Lieuw is an Academic Technology Specialist with Stanford
ONLINE DISCUSSION FORUMS
Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing,
Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: A
Wiley Imprint, 2011. Print.
Mazzolini, M., Maddison, S., (2007). When to jump in: The role of the
instructor in online discussion forums. Computers & Education, 49, 193-
Graham, C., Cagiltay, K., Lim, B., Craner, J., Duffy, T., Seven Principles of
Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses, 14 July