How Long Should Discussion Threads Be In An Online Learning Class

If you’re taking online courses, you want your discussion thread to be up to par. Here’s how long should each one be.

Finding patterns

When a course is underway in a discussion session, it will have a time limit. (Where it’s always possible to catch up.) Again, there is always a chance that discussion flow may become strong, but time limits are the response to that. They function like mental checks. As long as the discussions keep flowing, it’s not necessarily necessary.

And yet, discussion threads, whether ranked or moderated, are always important. They are where discussion happens, where material is adapted and shared (sometimes pretty widely), and where the learning happens. (In a good thread, very few people comment. The closed group of similar students doesn’t need to hear what everyone has to say.) It’s in those threads where the teachers get to hear what students are thinking, and those teachers usually get the best opportunity to listen. It’s in the threads where people engage with teachers, and where teachers keep tabs on what’s going on, and vice versa.

You don’t have to go as far as Reddit to be an online discussion forum enthusiast, but the courses mentioned above, like a lot of online classes, are most definitely going to be online. So, naturally, the role of the discussion thread is to be as robust as possible.

In the online course, the discussion structure is set up as an internal wiki. It isn’t the only way, but the idea is that it isn’t like an open discussion discussion board. When active discussions go, users will have options on how to address each other.

Student-Transparent Learning

For an online course, those discussion threads need to feel as useful to the student as they will be for the teacher. That’s particularly true when one is teaching a course such as extended management. The student, as the moderator of the discussion thread, can provide information that applies to their major or a selected area of interest. The student can, for example, organize the discussion by course topic, but the short document can be interpreted as such. The student can let them know when topics or projects get to be overloaded.

This information shouldn’t be so varied that it takes forever for someone to finish it all. The student can explain how to use the technology—even if it requires more effort than the general classes—when addressing their issue or point of view.

Fresh Perspectives

While teaching online, teaching is subject to a lot of variables. In particular, students might not have a distinct pathway into the course. They might meet a friend on e-mail, have the conversation in a group, or be promoted directly to the discussion room.

When doing so, one should establish a clear purpose for the discussion thread. My personal preference is to answer questions related to my particular course or area of interests, but I am willing to allow what happens in the discussion threads of this school year’s online course to be relevant to other, more generalized areas of interest and knowledge.

Another key principle is to establish a balance of authority—both to the student and to the instructor. We are aiming for online courses for people with a clear idea about their own self-defined field of expertise. I want the students in the class to hear what’s actually said, even if that information is at odds with the way they may be thinking. I want the debate to be open-ended enough to not hurt my students’ self-confidence, and I want them to have the option to flag inappropriate content. This makes a difference in the learning process because it gives the students the opportunity to offer new perspectives.

With those principles in mind, we use this forum to talk about anything, as long as it’s relevant to the course or major. For example, I think of this forum as a place to share ideas about a foreign policy of trying to help make the Middle East into a democracy, or to share ideas about the management of large private sector companies, or for one semester on ethical science publishing. These questions are so large that to have different responses is often useful for the class members. Even if I can’t answer, the discussion threads help the class members learn from each other.

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