Supporting Learning in an Online Discussion

Online discussions are a key feature of the digital learning and teaching Holocaust resource that has been shared in this section:

  • discussions take place in a forum which is the traditional tool used to host these;
  • within SharePoint, the service that was used to design the Holocaust resource, there are a number of alternative applications that support learner discussions including notice boards and news feeds;
  • all of these in some shape or form allow learners and teachers to interact with each other through a text based discussion.

The work of Gilly Salmon has been influential in illustrating how learning can be supported in an online discussion. Salmon had originally worked for the Open University Business School, which was one of the first universities in the UK to employ a Virtual Learning Environment in course delivery in 1988. Salmon developed a 5-step model of teaching and learning with a VLE that can also inform how teachers approach learning in an online discussion forum.



  • the tutor/teacher/lecturer becomes a moderator or e-moderator, acting as a facilitator of learning.
Step Description The Learner The Teacher
1 Access and Motivation Learners need to be able to gain access quickly and easily to the system. A key issue is being motivated to spend time and effort. Stage 1 is over when learners have posted their first messages. Teachers are welcoming and encouraging. They offer technical support, information and advice.
2 Online Socialisation Online socialisation is a key component of learning online in a networked community. Stage 2 is over when learners start to interact socially online. Teachers support learners in developing a sense of community.
3 Information Exchange Learners begin to appreciate the broad range of information available online. Information exchanges flow freely. The teacher manages discussions. They ensure that discussions concentrate on exploring or discovering known answers. Summative feedback and assessment can be introduced.
4 Knowledge Construction Learners begin to interact with each other in more exposed and participative ways. They formulate their own ideas and write them down. They respond to the contributions of others. The teacher builds and sustains online groups. They enable the development of ideas through discussion and collaboration.
5 Development Learners become responsible for their own learning through computer mediated opportunities and need little support beyond that already available. The teacher supports and responds. Teachers and learners are using a constructivist approach to learning.

Table based on Salmon, G. 2005. Emoderating. Taylor & Francis Ltd. Abingdon.

How do you support learning in an online discussion?

  • Netiquette
    • Ensure that your learners are aware of the ‘rules’ or netiquette around participation in an online discussion. These could be co-created with learners and might include:
    • Advice on the length of contributions, the format of discussions and the use of grammar, spelling and emoticons
    • Encouragement to participate and not lurk
    • Actions to take when you feel uncomfortable with a conversation or a post
  • The role of the teacher moderator includes:
    • Ensuring that discussions are focused and take place in a threaded manner
    • Regularly summarising discussions

What does learning in an online discussion look like?

Low quality (surface learning) High quality (deep learning)

·      Request factual information

·      State an opinion with no logical basis

·      Stray from the logical discussion without any reason to do so

·      Lack precision in their contributions

·      Form one or two word answers

·      Make sweeping generalisations

·      Offer impractical solutions

·      Make unsubstantial claims

·      Raise questions that are broad and that reverse the progress of the discussion

·      Make degrading or impolite comments



·      Show evidence of independent concept analysis

·      Display reflective thinking

·      Go beyond material in the teaching units

·      Report a real world observation that exemplifies a concept

·      Pose questions requesting clarification of ambiguous points

·      Offer new and relative authoritative information

·      Offer opinions substantiated with logical arguments from accepted facts

·      Synthesize given information

·      Formulate hypothesis whose testing would lead to new insights

Adapted from Brown, A and Davis, N. 2004. World Yearbook of Education. Routledge Falmer. London. Page 259.

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