Online Discussions for Deeper Thinking

Why Online Discussions?

I recently had an unplanned absence from my classroom for an entire week. Although I was going out of town, I knew there would be down time allowing me to work remotely. Naturally, my biggest professional concern was what to do about my class. My high school seniors would certainly enjoy the unscheduled time, but I didn’t want to lose momentum in this sustainable public policy course.

What I settled on was online discussions — but with a new twist. New online discussion tools provide many options to engage the imagination and stimulate thoughtful discussion besides the standard written prompt. And some online discussion tools have new features such as scoring tools, built-in rubrics, and social media features that make digital discussions practical, interesting, and fun.

Canvas, a Learning Management System, simplifies Discussion scoring by aggregating each students posts, incorporating rubric scoring, and providing students with substantive feedback. Scores are copied right into the gradebook.


The traditional online discussion often begins with a text-based prompt or question. “Was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima justified?” Questions like this can certainly stimulate a powerful discussion. But variety is the spice of life, and adding or substituting an image or video provide a deep well of inspiration. One colleague of mine recently had her students post a photo of an art work in progress. Classmates replied with helpful feedback that encouraged improvement. Students also benefitted in appreciating their classmates’ ideas and process.

The New Online Discussion

During my absence, I posted a series of three video-based discussions. Students viewed the video, then responded to discussion questions. Each student was required to post an initial response before gaining access to read their classmates’ posts. In this way, students
are compelled to do their own initial viewing and commentary. Subsequent replies to their classmates’ comments often affirm and/or challenge their thinking. This additional processing of information makes a richer student experience. In fact, despite my absence, these three discussions were as powerful as classes in which I’m present.

My discussions were based in Canvas by Instructure, and that made scoring a breeze. The grading tool (SpeedGrader) allows teachers to click from one student to the next; and in discussions, SpeedGrader aggregates all of the posts and comments by student. No searching for each student’s contributions because they’re all gathered in one spot. Assess, score, and click to the next student. Some other Learning Management System’s offer features similar to those in Canvas.

Other possibilities for discussion stimuli include literary excerpts, primary or secondary sources in the social sciences, podcasts, or links to other web pages where students can read and view other content before a discussion.

In one discussion during my week-long absence, my students watched a video about climate change impacts. Students were assigned by last name to Google a reputable source discussing three of the ten impacts. Back in the discussion, students provided a

Stimulating discussion has never been easier! Online discussion tools often allow for embedded audio, video, and images, as well as links to other websites.

link to their source along with a quotation that either explained the impact or connected it to other aspects of climate change. Again, students were blocked from viewing others’ posts until they completed this first step. (I completed Impact #1 right in the Discussion Instructions to demonstrate what I expected.)

Next, each student commented on classmates’ responses to the other six impacts. This provided me with some evidence that students had examined and thought about their classmates’ findings. More importantly, it compelled students to think more deeply about  climate change.

Today’s online discussions can be developed quickly, and with unique and challenging multimedia prompts. This provides variety and creates interest for students, resulting in deeper thinking and richer discussions. Students can take time to think carefully and respond thoughtfully. Not very long ago, scoring an online discussion was a difficult and daunting undertaking. Today’s discussion tools can enable higher levels of thought, including analysis, evaluation, and creativity through student collaboration.

Have you used online discussions in a different way? Do you have questions about any of the ideas above, or perhaps a special situation for which you’d like suggestions? Post these in the comment section below. And please consider subscribing! You’ll be notified of new posts as they’re published.


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