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Educational Design and Engagement

Educational Design and Engagement

Enriching the student learning experience & supporting development of on campus and online courses.

The importance of discussion forums for online learning

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Discussion is a powerful tool for online learning. It can help foster a sense of community and encourage peer to peer interaction and improve learner engagement. Discussion can take the form of debate or reflective sharing, giving learners the opportunity to expand upon and clarify their understanding of key ideas. It moves beyond more passive learning forms of reading, listening, and watching and allows the learner to actively engage with their peers and teacher.

Why should you use discussion in your online learning?

Online teaching by its nature involves students and teachers interacting at a spatial, and often temporal, distance. Without the benefits of being in the same physical space at the same time, online learning might feel a poor alternative to in-person teaching. Not to mention that space and time are not the only distances that online educators must contend with. At any one time, psychological, communicational, emotional, political and social distances may be present in addition to spatial and temporal1.

Transactional distance (Moore 1997) can be used describe the psychological and communicational distance that may arise in any instructional context and include the above types of distance2. Despite its presence, transactional distance does not mean online learning cannot be a rich, engaging, and meaningful learning experience. It does mean, however, that careful consideration must be given to the design of online learning.

When used with other learning types, discussion forums can help mitigate transactional distance. When interacting with students in discussion forums, teachers can imbue their course with teacher presence. This helps to reassure students that someone is present and gives value to the discussion forums. Discussions also lessen the transactional distance between student and teacher.

When interacting in the discussion forums, you can utilise many different methods to create teacher presence:

• Introductory messages that set up expectations for the course
• Individual responses to learner comments and/or posts (depending on cohort size)
• General feedback based on common themes and ideas present in learner responses (ideal for larger cohorts – can be pinned to top of forum)
• Audio, video or text response that address common questions presented by cohort

How should you manage discussion forums?

It is important to have a plan and set expectations for learners from the start. You don’t have to be available every hour of everyday, but it is important to let students know how often you will be engaging with discussion forums. This will also help you to manage moderation alongside your other teaching responsibilities.

Be clear about what discussion board etiquette looks like. Consider the following:

• Be concise.
• Advance the conversation.
• Respond with points raised in their posts.
• Reference course concepts in your posts.
• Be considerate, respectful, and encouraging
• Use appropriate language.
• Consider the aim of each discussion forum.

Remember, you don’t have to respond to every individual post if that is not appropriate to the aim of the individual discussion forum. Clear, concise and general feedback can be as informative for learners as individual feedback.

Where can you learn more?

You can access the Top Ten Tips for Using Learn Discussion Boards on the University’s Information Services webpage. Learn is the biggest Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) at the University, supporting more than 5000 courses annually. It is used to support face to face teaching, blended learning, and fully online courses.

Additionally, you can also access guidance materials and a comprehensive technical support document for moderating discussion forums in Learn. These can be found in the ‘Course materials’ section on the Moderating Discussion Forums page.


1. Moore, M. (2013). The theory of transactional distance. M.G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of distance education (3rd ed.), Routledge, New York, pp. 66-85 
2. ‘The Edinburgh Model for Online Teaching’ on Learn.



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