Simply providing online discussion forums is not enough to keep students engaged in virtual courses, according to educators who are well-versed in online instruction: For real learning to occur in an online setting, virtual-school educators must establish clear rubrics and enforce rules for participation.

Recently, educators came together in their own online forum for a webinar from the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) to discuss the topic: "What Works in Creating Student-to-Student Interaction in Online Courses?"

As more and more middle and high school students take online courses, virtual-school teachers and administrators are looking for ways to make the online learning experience as engaging and effective as possible, said Susan Lowes, director of research and evaluation for the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University Teachers College.

Much of this effort has focused on creating interactive content, such as animations and simulations, and on incorporating plenty of opportunities for meaningful interaction among students, such as group projects and discussions.

Lowes used a technique called network analysis, as well as interviews with teachers, to study how students interact in online discussion forums.


Lowes’ analysis compares two discussion forums from the same online course, taught by two different facilitators.

The large red circles in the middle represent the forum moderators, and the other large circles represent participants who had the most number of people responding to them during the discussion. The arrows show the direction that comments flowed, and the width of the line shows how many times participants talked back and forth.

What is evident in this analysis is that the discussion represented by the diagram on the right was much more evenly distributed across participants, and participants interacted with many different people. In the discussion shown on the left, two students dominated most of the talk, while some students–represented as black dots far away from the diagram–did not participate at any point in the discussion.

To understand how these two discussions on the same topic developed differently, Lowes divided the interaction into three categories: (1) "cheerleading," or posting reinforcement, such as "Great job!," that added no new information; (2) adding new information; and (3) questioning or challenging.

"What we found," said Lowes, "was that the left-hand conversation had much more cheerleading, while the right-hand conversation had more new information added and questioning. This leads to the conclusion that cheerleading tends only to create more cheerleading, while questioning leads to more new information added. Basically, cheerleading doesn’t move the conversation forward at all."

The analysis also revealed that some discussions become "captured," or dominated, by a few posters, leaving others simply to drop away. Strong posters will attract followers, but others might be ignored. Early posters get many responses, while later posters get only a few. Late posts tend to become orphans, and their threads usually die; the posters of those threads can feel abandoned.

Also, greater teacher presence does not stop discussion; is it the content presented that makes the difference.

Lowes believes that cheerleading "should not be allowed at all. It stops discussions in their tracks and should be forbidden. Only questioning or challenging is most likely to lead to additional posting."

Bruce Harrison, distance learning coordinator for the Virginia Beach Public Schools, said he developed a rubric that codes different types of interaction.

"We call ‘cheerleading’ comments ‘atta-boys,’ and if students want to post this type of comment, they have to put an ‘a’ in parentheses before the comment," he said. "These ‘atta-boys’ don’t get counted as participation, and students can choose not to read them in order to help with time management. If it’s a question or if the students add new information, they put an ‘s’ in parentheses to indicate a substantive comment. These comments get counted for classroom credit."

Harrison’s rubric provides rules for students during an online discussion that many educators seem to be adopting.

Debbie Smith, a math educator with the Florida Virtual School, said the only way to get students to participate is by requiring student responses.

"We require students to respond to at least one other student, and our discussion group has parameters. There are a specific set of questions that must get answered by the end of the session," she explained.

Lowes said many educators have told her they require students to give a certain number of responses, such as "give one and respond to two," et cetera. Also, some teachers say that students must post an answer by a certain day.

Another way to encourage more meaningful online discussions is by choosing discussion topics that lead to what Lowes calls "exploratory talk." This kind of talk is characterized by an assertion followed a challenge and counter-challenge (or differences in answers), by new information accompanied by elaboration and explanation, by different ideas discussed before an agreement is reached, and by new information being added after a challenge.

"Topics that are relevant to students usually spur exploratory talk. Exploratory talk is the basis for collaborative learning, and facilitators need to incorporate as many of these topics as possible," explained Lowes.

One teacher who participated in the webinar said that it helps when students choose the topics for discussion from a list, or the facilitator picks a topic that is culturally relevant to students. For example, this educator said that while teaching Pride and Prejudice, she had her students discuss class system and marriage.

"This means that not all topics covered in class should be taught in the same type of online environment," Lowes said. "Teachers should consider using different [techniques] for different kinds of topics."

For example, Lowes suggested using blogs when commenting on introductions, reflections, and cumulative talk. This way, students don’t have to follow threads and don’t need to discuss the topic, but simply leave comments.

"Save threaded discussion for exploratory talk, where there is need for back-and-forth in order to come to an agreement," said Lowes.

Some educators also use wikis as an alternative to threaded conversations. Wendy Drexler, a teacher and ed-tech graduate student at the University of Florida, said she uses wikis mainly for teacher collaboration at this point, but she hopes students will catch on soon. Drexler believes, as do other educators, that the thought of being published on the web will draw student participation.

Drexler created an online group project that now has more than 700 students participating from around the world. There’s also a supporting wiki. The wiki is both student- and educator-driven.

Educators aren’t the only ones who need guidance about online discussion. One teacher suggested that students need to be taught how to participate effectively in an online environment. "Rubrics could certainly help," she said.


North American Council for Online Learning

Susan Lowes

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Online Communications resource center. Community involvement in education is a no-brainer; research overwhelmingly suggests the profound impact that families and the community have on student safety and success. And, thanks to dramatic improvements in internet-based communications in recent years, establishing an effective school and community communication system is now easier than ever. Go to: Online Communications