Online Discussions: Frustrating and Ineffective?

Having pursued my bachelor’s degree in a face-to-face setting I was not aware of how commonly discussion threads were used in online education. I had online courses and hybrid courses during my undergraduate and MBA coursework, but none of these courses featured any discussion threads. Discussion threads were viewed as ineffective as discussions could occur within the class meetings. Additionally, other assessment measures were taken to “test” for student achievement. Assessments such as papers, tests, homework assignments, and presentations were common.

Then, I pursued two other graduate degrees online. I noticed a disturbing trend, the overuses of online discussion threads. These courses were asynchronous in nature [no set meeting time like a synchronous course would have]. At first the discussion threads seemed to replace the homework aspect of the grading scale. Then, it became clear that the online discussion threads were being used as a means to check whether or not students were completing the assigned literature. Readings were assigned over periods of the course; called modules, that were generally one to two weeks long.

This is where the problem came to exist. As educators we should strive to have all assessments associated with learning objectives and the course curriculum. Having assessments that have no direct or indirect correlation with objectives and the course are viewed as busy work. Busy work is viewed as an unnecessary request by students. I have seen first hand that undergraduate students struggle to understand what busy work actually is, but graduate students have a firm grasp.

Why are discussion threads busy work? They require a limited response related to a small piece of information. For example, you may have been assigned to read 100 pages in a given week and the discussion thread has to do with three of those pages. These three pages may have been viewed as irrelevant to you and their focus is not in line with the learning objectives of the course or the course curriculum, but the instructor thought it was something interesting.

Why are discussion threads frustrating and ineffective? The focus is on obscurity; rather than understanding. All discussion threads I have seen focus on an obscure fact or comment made within a module’s readings that needs to be addressed. These are often statements that have nothing to do with the course content or learning objectives, but were interesting to the instructor when they glossed over the readings. How to fix this? Online discussion threads need to focus on a broader outcome that can be tied to the learning objectives. For example, if the learning objective of Module 1 is to ensure students can identify a communication style in education, the question should be associated with that, not a question on a few pages out of the 100 pages a student read. Another issue is the setup and execution of the discussion thread itself. In my experience the discussion threads have required an initial post by a certain day of the week and then two responses by the end of the week. This hamstrings students who are go-getters and want to get their coursework done; as they are relying on their classmates who are likely to procrastinate until the due date. This limits the effectiveness of the discussion thread. The focus becomes more on responding just to fill the quota and complete by the deadline. How to fix this? Make the discussion threads more organic. Give overall parameters [or a rubric] of what is expected in the responses, but do not exercise a limit or strong deadlines. Discussions are more effective when they are done like they would be in person. For example, if someone sends me an email asking intriguing questions it may take me more than 24 hours to consider a response. I would not write a response simply to have it done, but would contemplate the questions, formulate an effective response, and respond when appropriate.

Online discussion threads can be much more effective than they currently are. Due to their current setup that are viewed as busy work that just needs to get done. Online instructors need to find an effective way to make their discussion threads appropriate in relation to the learning objectives and the course; as opposed to simply a manner to check a student read or as a manner of attendance.


Matthew Marino
Founder and CEO at
Matt Marino is a NJ certified business and computer teacher. Marino has ran the web design and media company Franchise Inc. Media and Bambino Enterprises Web Design since October 2003. Matt founded the non-profit Foundation for Academic Advancements in Educational Technology in October 2014. Matt also serves as a Freelance Contributor for Seeking Alpha, and Nasdaq. Since January 2016 Mr. Marino has served as an adjunct professor at Monmouth University.