Online Discussions

2 The Four Roles of an Online Instructor

3-modesA Observe & Consider

To get us all on the same page, below is an article that outlines a framework will use to consider the various aspects of implementing an online discussion in your course. In the article, the author outlines four roles that help categorize most of the work performed by an online instructor: Pedagogical, Social, Managerial & Technical. It’s often the case that instructors implement an online discussion for reasons encompassed by the pedagogical and/or social role. However, it’s important to consider that all four dynamics are at play.

The Role of the Online Instructor/Facilitator, Zane L. Berge, Ph.D.

Let’s now look at the four roles in a bit more detail and discuss some of the main instructional objectives and/or considerations that fall under each role:


Pedagogical Role – Create discussions that focus energy on critical concepts, principles, and skills.

Key considerations:

  • Develop questions that suit your course goals and help students think critically.
  • Develop questions that provide room for students to personalize their post in a way that encourages responses from peers.
  • Explore the various ways in which instructor participation can help or hinder a discussion.
  • Be attentive to assessment and targeted assessment strategies that best parallel the design of your online discussion.

There are a number of ways to address these key considerations. First, you can make efforts to integrate the online discussion and the in-class time as much as possible so that students understand and benefit from both environments. You might also use the discussion board as a source for in-class lecture/discussion topics, and mine the discussion for concepts that aren’t clear and need to be rediscussed in class. Also consider replacing some existing assignments in your syllabus in order to account for the time spent in online discussions. Finally, assessment is one aspect of online discussions that spans the pedagogical and managerial roles. On the front end, developing an assessment strategy forces thorough consideration of pedagogical goals. Then, as implementation begins, assessments rubrics become an important managerial tool for both students and instructors (see managerial role for more details).

These articles and resources explore more pedagogical elements of online discussions:

  • Discussion Prompts – This article comes from a repository of blended learning resources by the University of Central Florida. It provides useful guidelines for constructing good discussion prompts. Notice the many helpful examples.
  • Cognitive Question Prompts – Use this chart to help develop discussion question that align with your instructional goals. The chart also provides useful prompts for facilitators to use in keeping discussion going.
  • Questioning Styles for More Effective Discussion Roles – This short article offers ideas for aligning pedagogical goals with various types of discussion prompts.

Social Role – Foster a friendly, social environment to promote learning and sharing

Key considerations:

  • Focus on cultivating student participation in this online environment; be precise and clear with your students about what type and level of participation this should be.
  • Integrate online and in-class discussions, topics, and responses as much as possible to streamline course content.
  • Promote community building, with you and your students and amongst your students.
  • Define and enforce expectations for language, interactions, and online interpersonal communication.

How can we address these considerations? First, we can encourage students to reply to each others’ questions, to work in teams, and to report back to class with information from the online discussion. We can also post rules and model behavior for the type of interactions that you expect (how formal, informal, etc.) and what type of etiquette accompanies these. Allow students enough time to digest, reflect, and produce their own analytical responses and thoughts. As mentioned above, grade for participation, and encourage those who don’t talk as much in class to participate more online.

Review these articles to dig deeper into the social dimension of online discussions:

  • Building An Online Learning Community – In this article, the author presents two learning community cases studies and offers a roadmap for how to enhance the social dimension of an online community.
  • Online Learning Communities Revisited – This article was developed for the UW Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. It briefly examines learner satisfaction and learning outcomes in relation online learning communities. It also outlines several elements of community and how they work together to sustain a cooperative environment.

Managerial Role – Clarify discussion objectives, timelines, and procedural rules

Key considerations:

  • Ensure students have the right skills and information to participate fully.
  • Establish a rhythm for your discussion by thoughtfully timing deadlines for initial posts and responses.
  • Communicate clear and consistent expectations to the students.
  • Define ground rules for respectful interactions.

To do this, establish an FAQ section about course procedures, expectations, discussion rules, and other likely administrative questions. By doing this in the course site itself and in a discussion forum, you can respond to questions that might come up over and over again in a space that is visible to the whole class, avoiding the need to address each similar question on an individual basis. This will also be a way to provide examples of good posts, model expectations for language and style of posts. We can include detailed guidelines and rubrics on how the posts will be assessed and make these accessible on the course site. To manage your time as an instructor (and therefore to manage the discussion more easily), set up online office hours or a time block during which you’ll be active in the discussion forums when you can facilitate the threads and respond to student questions. In line with replacing other assignments in your syllabus to allow for more student focus on the online discussions (as mentioned under the pedagogical role), consider requiring a “discussion portfolio” semester-long assignment that students would be required to curate and submit. This puts many of the discussion responsibilities and management on the students and requires them to be acutely aware of the expectations of the discussion threads/posts in order to hand in a “good” portfolio.

Review these articles to further investigate the managerial role of online discussions:

  • Assessment Rubrics: As mentioned above, assessment is an element that spans the managerial and pedagogical role. Rubrics are the manifestation of pedagogical planning, but in practice they help clearly communicate expectations to students and allow the instructor to assess in a consistent way and direct feedback to learners. Take a look at these examples:
  • Modeling expectations – This page provides a useful example of how one professor thoroughly models posting expectations.

Technical Role – Make students comfortable with the learning management system, tools, and software

Key considerations:

  • Review key features of UW supported online discussion tools, including the Learning Management System [LMS].
  • Consider various options for student training and support, like campus-supported student training sessions, Lynda.com, or other distributed training resources.
  • Equip students with a detailed guide of how to access the online discussion tool and a backup plan for what to do in case of an outage.
  • Briefly explain the function and purpose of the online discussion space/tool and its role in the course (either in person in your first class or on the syllabus) so that you get buy-in from the students.

The technological role can be especially tricky both because we often assume (wrongly!) that this generation of students is well informed and equipped enough to work with any online learning tool, and because it is impossible to plan for every possible technical glitch that might pop up. In order to help navigate this role, we offer as much support in advance of the first post/discussion as we can. Provide instructions online or as a handout that explain how to access the course discussion site. Keep these instructions simple, and to the extent possible, link all navigation through one main course site to streamline any navigation for your students; if you use multiple learning management tools or systems in your course (for the discussions or for the course as a whole), funnel these links and access points through one main course portal. Walk through the process of how to access the online discussions and post to them during class, on your own with your student or with the help of STT (Student Technology Training) or another UW campus resource. Lastly, create a training resource page on the course site that lists ways for students to find support and referrals to on-campus support services.

How-to Videos:

Supplementary Readings and Resources


3-modesB Connect & Share

Word Association Activity

What comes to mind when you think of online discussions? Our past experiences and ideas will no doubt inform the a variety of feelings and opinions (good or bad) we hold on the topic. To help capture our collective thoughts, let’s play word association!

The following link will take you to our WikiSpaces site. Take just a few moments to type the words that you associate with online discussions (remember, good and bad). The process will be cathartic and help us key in on important dynamics as we move through this topic. Go to the Wiki!

Media Attributions

  • 3-modesB
  • 3-modesC

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The Four Roles of an Online Instructor by Steel Wagstaff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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