Creating a classroom community where meaningful conversations can happen isn’t easy—it’s an ongoing process that takes time. But using online discussion tools can be one great way to help your students build these skills. Plus, the ability to engage in online discussions responsibly is a great 21st-century skill in and of itself.

Online discussions often lead to better in-class discussions afterward—you know, the kind where students raise their hands and speak out loud. With online discussions, students have a chance to engage with each other virtually, often having their thoughts and opinions validated. Afterward, they’re typically much more willing to share out loud in class and often share in thoughtful ways.

Related: 4 steps to making rigorous discussion a routine

Still not convinced? Here are a few more reasons to consider using online discussions:

5 online discussion tools to fuel student engagement
  • Because comments are more permanent, students tend to think a bit more critically about what they say.
  • Especially for more introverted students, online discussions can be less intimidating than speaking in front of the class.
  • It’s easier for students to share dissenting opinions or “outside-the-box” ideas.
  • As students type responses, they often recognize and share more nuanced and compelling points and arguments.
  • Anonymous posting (though still teacher-moderated), a key feature with some discussion tools, can help erase the fear of public judgment or ridicule.
  • Everyone has ample opportunities to be heard and connect with other classmates, ensuring equity among all voices in your classroom.

If you’re looking for an online discussion tool, you’ve got a variety of options. Here are a few top picks and teacher favorites:

Backchannel Chat
Price: $15/year/class; $299/year/school
Platforms: Android, iOS, and web
Grades: 7-12

Backchannel Chat’s moderated online discussions are intended to engage students and encourage them to share. Think of it as a teacher-moderated, private version of Twitter, where students can discuss topics that might just transcend the virtual space. Setup is quick and easy: Teachers sign up, name their chat, and give students the URL. Students can join with only a name; no other personal information is required. Teachers can moderate discussions, remove messages, and “lock” the chat at any time.

About the Author:

As senior producer and content strategist for Common Sense Education, Jeff Knutson helps creates and publish content for teachers aimed at helping them learn new, innovative, and effective ways to use edtech in the classroom. Prior to his work at Common Sense, Knutson was an editor and classroom teacher. He’s an advocate for the creative, thoughtful, and responsible use of technology, and he thrives on sharing his knowledge, experience, and perspectives with others.


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