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Online Learning Success:
Participating in Online Discussions
Written by Gayle L. Fornataro, Virtual Valley Student Success Coordinator

home > student resources > Online Learning Success: Participating in Online Discussions

Table of Contents:  

1. Welcome
2. Lesson One: What to Expect
3. Lesson Two: Am I Ready for an Online Class
4. Lesson Three: Time Management
5. Lesson Four: Participating in Online Discussions
6. Lesson Five: What is Plagiarism
7. Lesson Six: Ergonomics
8. Glossary

On this page, learn about:

  1. The Benefits and Challenges of Online Learning
  2. Threaded Discussions
  3. Netiquette
  4. What Do I Say
  5. The Chat Room
  6. Keys to Success

The Benefits and Challenges of Online Learning

Perhaps the biggest difference between online classes and the traditional classroom is that all your contact with your instructor and classmates in an online class happens in writing. 

In speech, we are able to communicate meaning and attitude through gesture, facial expression, and tone of voice as well as with words.  In writing, of course, we rely on words alone. 

Also, since there is not roll to take, logging on and getting involved in online discussions is how you “go” to class.  You cannot rely on eye contact and an interested facial expression to show your instructor that you are involved in a class discussion.  You must contribute meaningfully to the discussion to demonstrate your engagement. 

This is actually a good thing.  It is what makes online classes student-centered.  In an online class, you must participate to pass.  Since everyone must participate, you get to know everyone in the class – even the quiet student who always sits at the back of the room, too shy to speak in front of a group.

Another benefit is that an online class gives you the luxury of taking time to compose your thoughts, so many students find it less intimidating to voice their opinions or offer an answer to a question. The online discussions can also be fun, especially when everyone gets involved.  

Communicating solely through writing, however, poses some challenges as well.  The following sections of this lesson will give you some good ideas about how to make sure you come across as you want to. 

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Threaded Discussions

Most of the discussion in an online class happens “asynchronously” in the Etudes discussion forum. Here, students can read the posts of their classmates and reply with comments of their own.  Everyone does not have to be online at the same time to have a dynamic class discussion. 

This lesson will provide some pointers on how to communicate effectively in online discussions; The Etudes tutorial, available from the Virtual Valley Student Resource Page, will show you exactly how to use the powerful Etudes discussion forum tool.

In a “threaded discussion” several different conversations may be going on at once.  The Etudes forum offers the option of creating as many discussion topics as needed.  For example, there might be a list of discussion topics such as “Questions,” “Student Lounge,” “Group Work,” Reading Discussions,” and so on.

Here is what the forum looks like when a topic, in this case “Questions” has been opened:


The main topic here is “Questions,” and there are five different subtopics that students and the instructor have posted underneath.  If all the class discussion took place in one big forum, there could only be one discussion at a time, or things would get very confusing. In a threaded forum, multiple conversations can be going on at the same time without such confusion --provided everyone posts their messages correctly.

So, part of learning to participate in class discussions effectively is learning to post your messages in the proper place.  It is generally pretty logical, but you need to keep track of where you are. 

If you had a question, for example, you would go to the “Questions” forum (not all classes have the same forums, this is just an example).  Then, you would take a look at the topics already posted.  Many times, you will find that your question has already been answered.  If not, you would see if there is a topic for your question.  If you had a question about due dates, for example, you would post it under the “due dates” topic. 

If no one else had posted a topic about your question, then you would create a new topic, which opens a new thread where others can post questions or answers on the subject.

Bright Idea! When you participate in a discussion, be sure to stick to the topic. If you want to raise an unrelated issue, create a new topic. This will keep the discussion threads clear and organized.

Not only does proper posting help avoid confusion, it also ensures that you get credit for your work. Many instructors give credit for participating in the online discussions. However, if you post your message in the wrong forum, your instructor will not be where he or she will look for it. So, always make sure you understand where you are supposed to post your forum messages.

Having separate discussion topics makes it much easier to follow the flow of the conversation.  However, it can still be a little confusing to keep track of who is saying what to whom, even within a single focused thread. 

When you post a reply to a topic, your message appears at the end of the list of messages already posted there. That’s fine if you are just posting comments on the topic in general.  However, if you are posting a message directly in response to what someone else posted, you need to make sure that your classmates will know which message you are commenting upon.
Etudes has an easy to use “quote” feature for precisely this purpose.  Instead of posting a reply, you can quote from the original message.  Then, your classmate’s quoted words appear in your message with your comments underneath. 

Alternatively, you could begin your post by acknowledging the name of the poster and summarizing the point you want to comment on: “Juanita, I thought your idea that ……”

Whichever method you choose, it is crucial to discussion clarity that all the participants clearly show which discussion ideas their comments are directed towards.

When you are posting a message to the discussion topic in general, click on "post reply" to that topic. When you are commenting on a particular post by a classmate, use the "quote" feature. When you want to start a new topic of conversation, click on "new topic."

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“Netiquette” is simply “Net etiquette.”  Netiquette outlines simple, polite, online discussion behaviors that participants in an online discussion expect from one another.
Online discussions in a college class are perhaps more formal than other public message boards.  It helps to remember that in an online class, discussion forums are used in place of the face-to-face discussions in other types of college classes. You want to behave online just as you would if you were physically sitting in the room with your instructor and all your classmates (except that you can be wearing your pajamas and slippers!)

It is also important to understand that an online discussion in a college class is more formal than a “text message.”  Text messaging uses abbreviations such as, “How R U?”  These shorthand tricks are not appropriate in an online class forum.  Use full words and complete sentences.

The number one rule of online discussion is “expect to be misunderstood.” It is challenging to put your thoughts into words and make them understandable to others without calling for strenuous effort on their part.  Therefore, you need to read through all your posts before you click on the “submit” button.  Typos, spelling errors, and mixed-up sentences always creep into your messages as you compose them.  Clean them up before you subject others to them!

You also want to consider that how you come across online will determine your grade. To put yourself in the best light possible, or simply to make yourself understood, be sure to edit your messages before you post them.  This is true of private messages as well as forum discussions.

The following Web sites offer more tips on how to use proper netiquette:

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What Do I Say?

Now that you know how the discussion forum works, you might still be wondering how to participate in an online discussion.  Though perhaps easier than speaking in front of a room full of people, posting a message to a discussion board can also be intimidating if you don’t know what sorts of things to say when responding to someone else's post.
One good way to figure this out is to read through several of the posted messages to see what your classmates are saying.  Reading their replies may give you some ideas for your own. Your instructor may also give you specific guidance within an assignment.

Online discussions are best when participants respond to each other. Your instructor may post a question about course material, for example. While it is interesting to read everyone's response to the original question, the discussion becomes even more lively and more fun when you and your classmate's start responding directly to each other's answers.

Bright Idea! To know when your response has received a comment from a classmate, before you click “submit,” check the box that says “notify me when a reply is posted.” You will be sent an email message to whatever email address you registered for the class with telling you that a reply has been posted. Etudes also allows you to "watch" a topic and send you an email when new posts are submitted to it.

Here are some additional tips for creating good online discussions:

  • Select a post that made you think, surprised you, that you learned something from, that you agreed with, that you disagreed with, that you had a question about, or that struck you in some way.

  • Reply to a specific idea in a post rather than the whole post whenever possible. Use “quote” when you are directly commenting on a classmate’s post; use “post reply” when you are responding to the discussion topic as a whole. 

  • In most class discussions, you are allowed to disagree with each other’s perspective, but always be polite about it. Never post a message saying anything that you would not be willing to say to someone’s face. However, healthy intellectual disagreement is a good thing.

  • Ask the original responder a question in your reply. You can ask for clarification, elaboration, or to apply the idea to a specific situation, and so on. Be sure to reply to any questions asked of you.

  • Be yourself and have fun!.

  • Don’t worry about trying to sound too smart, just focus on being engaged with the material and the thoughts of your classmates.

  • Do edit and spell check your posts to make sure they are readable. However, we also need to be tolerant of each other’s typos.

  • Remember the rule “Expect to be misunderstood.” It can be difficult to express your tone to others. Humor is especially hard to convey in writing.  Use emoticons, such as smilies, whenever appropriate to help communicate your tone.

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The Chat Room

While most (in some classes all) class discussions are asynchronous, Etudes does have a live “chat room.” 

The chat room is simply a space for a real-time discussion.  To have a chat, the class, or a small group of classmates, would all agree to log on at a specific time and meet in the chat room to have a discussion.

This can be useful for small group work, especially for making decisions about what assignment you will do and about who will do what to complete it. Some more meaningful class discussions can also take place in the chat room if they are well organized.

However, the chat room requires patience. The messages may take several seconds to load, so the discussion does not always flow as quickly as we might like. Also, it can take a while to write your message, and you may find that the discussion has gone in a different direction before you have a chance to post it.

An additional point to consider is that unlike the forum discussion board, the chat room does not offer the option of multiple threads. Instead, it is just one big discussion; message appear in a list organized by when they were posted. This makes it especially important to stick to the topic under discussion when you are in the chat room.

 Bright Idea! Keep your chat room posts brief. This is a relatively fast-paced discussion with multiple participants. No one respondant should dominate the discussion with numerous, lengthy posts. The discussion forum, where others can read your messages at their convenience is the place for more detailed conversations.

 Bright Idea! If an interesting point is raised in the chat room, and you want to discuss it in detail, post a chat room message suggesting that the conversation be continued in the discussion forum. Volunteer to create a new forum discussion topic, pick a logical place to post it, and tell your classamtes where they can find it.

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Keys to Success

  • Frequently log on to your class website and check to see if new
    messages or discussion topics have been posted.
  • Take the time to read over and edit ALL the messages and emails you post. It's good manners!
  • Use complete words and sentences in your online discussion and
    email posts. No "text messaging" abbreviations allowed!
  • Give all your discussion posts and email messages a title that
    helps others get an idea of what your message is about.
  • Expect to be misunderstood! Use emoticons to help convey your
  • Be an active participant in class discussion. Get invloved, reply to
    others, be yourself, and have fun!
  •  Be polite to others in your online messages, even when you
     disagree with them. Never write something in a discussion post
    that you would not say to someone's face

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