Tag Archives: online learning

Free-range vs Facilitated Discussions

If you’ve taken online classes,  you’ve probably had different experiences with discussion forums. Some are incredibly engaging and rewarding and other just fall flat.

Good discussion questions
Good discussion questions are an art, and just like art, there’s technique to consider. There’s the free range discussion, the directive just to “have at it” and use the forum to discuss anything as long as it’s somewhat connected to the class topic. The plus side to this approach is that learners  start taking a wider view of their everyday world and the media they come across, and make their own connections to the subject they’re learning about. The downside is that because  postings can be a bit random, unless the topic’s innately controversial or provocative, there may be few responses from other students who may just not have that participatory mindset (a skill that needs to be nurtured).

The other approach is to key discussion questions to class topics (and in blended learning scenarios, to issues touched on in the synchronous portion of the class).  For example,  discussion questions can be created using the CREST model (Akin & Neal, 2007) where…

  • C=Cognitive Nature: The instructor considers such learning theories as constructivism, asking questions that require a learner to tap into his/her own experiences,  solve problems, and reflect on class and personal readings. The ultimate responsibility to construct meaning belongs to the learner.
  • R=Readings Base: The instructor considers sources he or she wants students to research: text-based, literature-based, or non-literature-based (e.g.,  surveys, media, etc.)
  • E= Experiential Base: The instructor ties questions to learner experiences through role play, shared stories, and/or peer questions. 
  • S=Style of questions: The instructor considers the way the questions will be posed and responded to. For example, the instructor can craft questions that elicit team work, scenario-building, and/or debates
  • T=Type of question: The instructor considers how the question will engage students. Questions can encourage problem-solving, debate, metacognition, reflection, and/or recall.

Of course, there can be a mix of free-range and more structured question and this balance can be  a very satisfactory approach.

Good questions aren’t the only answer
However, all the good questions in the world don’t bring life to some discussion forums. Here too, there’s a spectrum of approaches when it comes to instructor facilitation. There’s the “have at it” approach again, where the carrot being dangled includes grades or badges or there’s the more involved approach.

As noted by Feenberg and Xin (n.d.),

Members of an online forum often have extrinsic motivations to participate such as job requirements or grades. But the social cohesion of an online forum depends not only upon the extrinsic motives participants bring from their off-line lives, but also on the intrinsic motives that emerge in the course of the interaction. In this respect too, online forums resemble the face-to-face meetings and classes they imitate. Without skillful facilitation, concern for grades is usually insufficient to sustain an interesting classroom discussion. Similarly, facilitation is necessary to maintain participation in online classes.

Feenberg and Xin propose that instructors play a number of different roles as facilitators:

  • As communicators, providing context, modeling good behaviors, and sharing their own experiences
  • As monitors, stirring the “discussion pot” on occasion and yes, assessing contributions
  • As the ones who can provide “meta-functions” by watching multiple discussion threads, and by summarizing  and comparing and contrasting different viewpoints.

The authors note, and I agree, that “In online education, skillful facilitation is skillful teaching.” It’s not just an add-on, just as the discussion forum is not just an add-on to the course.  While the “have at it” approach may have some value for question design, I think it seldom has value from the perspective of overall course design. It’s a wasted opportunity.


Akin, L. & Neal, D. (2007, June). CREST+ Model: Writing Effective Online Discussion Questions. Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(2). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol3no2/akin.htm

Feenberg, A. & Xin, C. (n.d.). Facilitation. In Marginalia. Retrieved from http://webmarginalia.net/pedagogy/facilitation/