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C2C Digital Magazine (Spring / Summer 2019)

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Turn Discussion Responses into a Dialog in Online and Blended Learning

By Sharon Gan, St. Luke’s College of Health Sciences 

"Online discussions are the norm in online and blended courses but how do they work? What can we do to make them more engaging?"

Figure 1.  "Web of Connections" (by GDJ, 2018, from openclipart)

Online discussions are the norm in online and blended courses but how do they work? What can we do to make them more engaging?

Markel (2001) posited that discussions support active learning by maximizing exposure to students’ varied prior experiences, and should be used as a cognitive tool instead of one-way communication channels. Generative processing of information (Mayer, 2014) can and should be encouraged through discussions by supporting “deeper information processing results from activating appropriate mental models, using them to interpret new information, assimilating new information back into those models, reorganizing the models in light of the newly interpreted information, and then using those newly aggrandized models to explain, interpret, or infer new knowledge” (Jonassen, 1998, p.3).

Discussions are typically set up this way:

  • Instructions on what the discussion topic is
  • List of requirements and deadlines
  • First post due 11:59 p.m., Thursday, CT.  Respond to two or more classmates by 11:59 p.m., Sunday, CT.



Caused by

Learning processes


Extraneous processing

Cognitive processing that is not related to the instructional goal

Poor instructional design


Focusing on irrelevant pictures

Essential processing

Cognitive processing to represent the essential presented material in working memory

Complexity of the material


Memorizing the description of essential processing

Generative processing

Cognitive processing aimed at making sense of the material

Motivation to learn

Organizing and integrating

Explaining generative processing in one’s own words

Note: Taken from Mayer, R. (2014). Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. In R. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 43-71). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  doi:10.1017/CBO9781139547369.005

Given the time constraints (8- or 16-weeks) of online courses, conditions have been set to encourage community learning. These conditions include rewarding students for responding to discussion posts, encouraging student-student responses, and setting up accountability when displaying student names by their posts. There is much to discuss in the planning and structuring of discussions but this post will focus only on one aspect – feedback.

Even though “feedback needs to be specific, personal, and within 24 hours of posting” (Markel, 2001), executing this is a challenge for instructors when they may teach several classes with the same Thursday/Sunday deadlines. What can we change in this environment to make full use of our resources to enable quick, useful, and personalized feedback? Instead of feedback being one-way communication from instructor to students, let us encourage dialog and active learning between students.

Here’s one way of tweaking the instructions to encourage students to engage with at least one peer for a richer, more in-depth discussion. Instead of having to respond to multiple different peers, this one dialog allows a deeper exploration of a topic of interest. Discussion participants quickly discover that their peers have much to offer in terms of knowledge and experiences.

First post due 11:59 p.m., Thursday, CT.  Engage in an ongoing dialog with at least one classmate. This usually entails at least three responses that are all due 11:59 p.m., Sunday, CT. Feel free to engage with more than one classmate and the best dialog will be used for grading.

Some immediate benefit include being privy to someone else’s personal experiences, receiving prompt feedback, and being able to share one’s insights. Findings (Beaudoin, 2002) suggest that high-visibility learners receive better mean course grades than no-visibility learners even though both types of students do learn from online courses. Why are the low or no-visibility learners often hesitant to comment or post? Beaudoin (2002) posited that they prefer to read what others wrote, were unsure of their personal level of understanding or how to phrase their thoughts, had somewhat irrelevant points that they were embarrassed to raise, were put off by a few peers who dominated the discussion, or simply had other more pressing time commitments.

The tweak in this article responds to the concerns that a dialog with at least one other student allows learners to pull knowledge from prior experiences which negates the right/wrong mentality. Each person brings their own perspective and even in situations of similarity, are never exact duplicates. A dialog is expected to span several different aspects and “irrelevant” points may now be deemed as extensions of the original idea, thus students are not penalized for sharing additional information. With each student being engaged with one dialog partner, the student has more control over the conversation, reducing the distance felt by learners, and increasing their web presence. So here I suggest changing discussion requirements to move away from stipulating the number of responses to encouraging an active, personal, and in-depth dialog.

Beaudoin, M. F. (2002). Learning or lurking?: Tracking the “invisible” online student. The internet and higher education, 5(2), 147-155. [PDF]

Jonassen, D. (1998). Technology as cognitive tools: Learners as designers. IT FORUM Paper 1. Available at

Markel, S. L. (2001). Technology and education online discussion forums: It’s in the response. Online journal of distance learning administration, 4(2). [PDF]

Mayer, R. (2014). Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. In R. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 43-71). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139547369.005

About the Author

Sharon Gan works as an instructional designer with Saint Luke's College of Health Sciences.  She teaches online for the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Kansas. Dr. Gan has a BA in Business, specializing in Human Resources Consulting from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, an MS in Curriculum and Instruction, and a PhD in Educational Leadership in Policy Studies from the University of Kansas.

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