Online discussions for learning

At work, I design, create and facilitate online learning for teachers. There are many challenges to be overcome when you’re a teacher who’s unlikely to meet your learners in person. One of the challenges with which I’ve been preoccupied of late is the online discussion. On some of our courses, these are vibrant spaces where participants are open about their thinking; keen to challenge one another in respectful and research-informed ways. On other courses, these spaces include more surface-level interactions than I’d wish to see.

I’ve been looking, first of all, to what the research has to say about online teacher communities and how this might shed light on our experiences and provide insight into how to make these discussions most effective. My reading list is long and there’s a great deal more to engage with as one piece inevitably leads on to several more but here’s a litalgamation of my learning so far.

A sense of belonging

One goal for participants engaging in an extended piece of online learning  has become, for us, ‘a self-sustaining generative community’ (Matranga et al. 2016) long after the end of a course. There are certainly advantages for the organisation if this is the case but it also means that, hopefully and perhaps more importantly, participants’ learning experiences can continue to have an impact on their practice for a longer period of time than the course’s duration. This impact is of particular concern when their learning takes place over a few weeks rather than at a sustained level closer to at least two terms that might be considered more effective (DfE. 2016).

The most crucial part of an online discussion is ‘not the information shared between participants; but rather the sense of belonging that participation engenders’ (Khalid et al. 2018). We’re currently exploring how encouraging participants to have a personal connection to the group might be achieved through course leaders using and modelling community-based language and rich responses in discussion forums.

Beyond our organisation’s work with individual teachers and the impact we hope to have on classroom practice, there is perhaps a wider impact to be achieved in generating a sense of belonging through online discussions where teachers are leaving the profession and experiencing isolation (Worth et al. 2018).

Features of effective online discussions

When facilitated successfully, participants in an online community can feel encouraged to take risks, discuss successes, failures and challenges, and experiment in their classroom practice (Lantz-Andersson et al. 2018). Communities can provide learners with a space that facilitates ‘access to authentic materials and experiences’. A place where ‘physical boundaries’ and ‘time restrictions’ are eliminated. (Khalid et al. 2018) Some learners are ‘more likely to contribute to a discussion in this form than in a face-to-face classroom’ (Cornelius et al. 2019).

Some of the more successful features of online communities involved a level of ‘problem-solving, building an argument, growing confidence, and discussing developments.’ ‘The asynchronous nature of engagement was reported in several studies to provide enhanced opportunities for teachers to reflect on their professional practice.’ (Lantz-Andersson et al. 2018)

On our courses, there are lessons to be learned from our most ‘popular’ discussions: those which have generated the highest levels of engagement.

  • One discussion enabled teachers to share their workload ‘hacks’ with one another. This was an opportunity to solve a common and pressing problem through sharing of ‘authentic experiences’.
  • Topics where course participants have been invited to consider opposing and conflicting viewpoints have generated informed and critical debate, especially where the discussion had been well-structured with prior stimulus and expert input in the form of a webinar or piece of writing.
  • In some cases, the most popular discussions have been those that bring participants together to share expertise on a specific area of work, for instance closing the gap in English, or where they have subjects in common, for instance an MFL specialism.

These clues from research and examples from experiences so far may point to some of the way ahead.

The role of facilitator

In order to address our challenge with online discussions, I’ve defined the main role of facilitator is as follows:

Achieve a culture of trust and collegiality where critical discourse is the norm, and learning from meaningful discussions and exchanges is the outcome.

Easy peasy then! Well, not so much as research and our own experience suggests.

The challenge: ‘Five of the studies explicitly described teachers’ sharing practices as superficial and involving little critical exchange.’ ‘Participants were found to seldom challenge peers or engage in higher levels of analysis or reflection. When reviewing teachers’ interactions in discussion forums, for example, the vast majority of responses to others’ comments were found to be supportive without addressing the content of the course or furthering the discussion.’ ‘Discussion forums were used by a limited number of participants and dominated by a core group.’ (Lantz-Andersson et al. 2018)

The role of facilitator is just as crucial online as it is face-to-face, perhaps even more so, until a community is well-established. Where we’ve seen communities establish themselves quicker is where there are high levels of intrinsic motivation already or where the course is more of a blended model where participants have been able to meet in person first. Where our courses are less of a blend then the role of facilitator becomes even more vital.

A facilitator is someone with expert subject knowledge and experience who can structure and model engagement at the level we’d expect to see it; with critical thinking and reflection.

‘When a moderator qualifies the discussion, the participants get involved and contribute with cognitive and metacognitive reflections.’ (Khalid et al. 2018)

‘Moderate the framing and qualifying process of an online discussion, to lead teachers to the desired reflexive level and help them benefit optimally from their participation.’ (Khalid et al. 2018)

‘The more instructors promote interactions by providing timely feedback on students’ messages, encouraging students to participate in interactive activities, and supporting struggling learners, the more likely it is that students will persist in online classes.’ (Choo et al. 2016)

Possible actions to take

After initial engagement with research, consideration of our experiences, and discussions with colleagues in other organisations through the Digital Learning Forum (thanks everyone!), we have an initial set of actions to move forward with as this subject is continually revisited and our approach refined:

  • Make use community-based language within course and in discussion responses: we, us, our, community, together to contribute to a sense of belonging
  • Use asynchronous discussions to enable ‘any time’ engagement
  • Trial some synchronous discussions to drive engagement in the initial stages
  • Develop discussions that involve a level of problem-solving or debate
  • Limit the number of discussions so that facilitation and engagement can be focused only on those that directly contribute to a course’s learning outcomes
  • Use metacognitive questions to scaffold online discussions
  • Model answers and critical thinking in response to participants to encourage behaviours
  • Ask questions in discussions that provoke deeper and more critical thinking

I expect there to be a great deal more learning ahead but hopefully we can develop online discussions within our online courses that engender a sense of belonging and allow educators at all stages of their career to have opportunities to reflect on their professional practice and share authentic experiences.


Choo, M. H. et al. 2016. Online Instructors Use of Scaffolding Strategies to Promote Interactions: A Scale Development Study.
Cornelius, S., Calder, C., & Mtika, P. (2019). Understanding learner engagement on a blended course including a MOOC. Research in Learning Technology
DfE. 2016. Standard for Teachers Professional Development.
Lantz-Andersson. A. et al. 2018. Twenty years of online teacher communities: A systematic review of formally-organized and informally-developed professional learning groups.
Matranga, A & Klein, V & Silverman, J & Shumar, W. 2016. Understanding Teachers’ Participation in an Emerging Online Community of Practice.’_Participation_in_an_Emerging_Online_Community_of_Practice
Khalid, M. S. & Strange, M. 2016. School Teacher Professional Development in Online Communities of Practice: A Systematic Literature Review.
Worth. J. et al. 2018. Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England Nurturing: supporting and valuing teachers. NFER.
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