Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Online Communities

Communities of Practice

Online Discussion Forums

There has been a push to embrace collaborative learning in education. Simultaneously, there is also an increasing demand for the integration of digital technology in education. As a result, the online discussion group has emerged. The online discussion group is a tool that allows participants to engage in collaborative learning within a digital environment, and has been established as a popular method to apply accepted learning theories through technology. Drawing on Vygotsky’s social development theory, the online discussion group provides a space for participants to engage in dialogue and develop a dynamic learning community which enhances and enriches understanding of content (Kayler and Weller, 2007).

Two major forms have come to typify online discussion: the chat and the forum. The chat is characterized as a synchronous conversation that occurs between multiple participants who are online at the same time, allowing questions and responses to be posted simultaneously. The forum, however, is asynchronous and does not occur in real-time. Therefore, participants are afforded the flexibility and convenience to provide reflective and thoughtful contributions to an online discussion at their leisure (Wall Williams et al., 2001).

Online discussions have been heralded in education for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most valuable is the claim that online discussions allow for an enriched learning experience that results in a higher order of thinking. In her research, Meyer (2003) observed that students involved in a threaded, asynchronous online discussion tend to exhibit a higher level of thinking that may not be seen in the classroom, particularly when they contribute comments that are exploratory in nature. Meyer (2004) also identifies the value in the written document that is produced in an online discussion that can be referred to and analyzed by both student and teacher at any time for assessment purposes.

The nature of online connectivity to transform time and space has also influenced the application of the online discussion group. Research conducted by Kayler and Weller (2007) indicated that utilizing a web-based learning community is an effective means to expand teacher-student interaction time and classroom pedagogy beyond face-to-face opportunities, thereby extending the boundaries of the educational arena. Other research has indicated that online discussion, particularly asynchronous forums, allows for “unrestrained, comfortable, and flexible participation, in addition to allowing unlimited space for participants to express viewpoints as well as being able to read other group member's contributions and build on them” (Wall Williams et al., 2001, p. 151). The opportunity for students to read, analyze, and respond to the work of their peers is one that is relatively unique, and helps foster a supportive and encouraging atmosphere as well as allows students to see how others write, reflect, inquire and debate.

Like all technology, online discussion is not without its challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge is that it has proven time consuming. Successful and meaningful online discussion requires effective planning, reading and responding to contributions, and monitoring and directing the discussion, all of which can be very time-consuming and lead to a less positive experience for both teacher and student (Parra, 2000; Meyer, 2003). In addition, a lack of participation or the tendency for simple, shallow contributions can also diminish the meaning and success of an online discussion (Kayler and Weller, 2007).

Another challenge lies in the very nature of online interaction. Online interaction can be perceived as distant and impersonal, lacking the body-language and visual cues that contribute to making meaning in a face-to-face encounter. Depending on the preferred learning style of a student or their comfort level with digital technology, opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication may arise (Wall Williams et al., 2001; Meyer, 2003). Other challenges hinging around accessibility and the technological skills students and teachers require to engage in online discussions also need to be considered.


Kayler, M., & Weller, K. (2007). Pedagogy, Self-Assessment, and Online Discussion Groups. Educational Technology & Society, 10(1), 136-147.

Meyer, K. (2003). Face-to-face versus threaded discussions: the role of time and higher-order thinking. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(3), 55-65.

Meyer, K. (2004). Evaluating online discussions: four different frames of analysis. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 8(2), 101-114.

Parras, G. (2000). Learning English through online discussion groups. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 44(1), 36-38.

Wall Williams, S., Watkins, K., Daley, B., Courtenay, B., Davis, M., Dymock, D. (2001). Facilitating cross-cultural online discussion groups: implications of practice. Distance Education. 22(1), 151-167.


Being a good moderator is a very difficult role. Moderators act in numerous ways to not only police an online discussion, but are also act as administrators and work to keep discussion going when it starts to falter. According to Collins and Berge (1997), “Findings included indicators of the roles of moderators acting a different times and for different lists as a filter, firefighter, facilitator, administrator, editor, promoter, expert, helper, participant, and marketer.” Feenberg and Xin add, “Teachers must adopt a dialogic style involving students actively in the electronic classroom. Collaborative learning theory finds its most compelling realization in this setting. Online teachers must exploit this potential of the medium to create an educational experience comparable in quality to the conventional classroom. Properly performed, the moderating role in the online discussion forum can serve as a basis for this new type of collaborative learning.”

Moderators lead the way in making sure that a conference or discussion is successful. They need to act to keep the discussion on track as well as limit hurtful, unconstructive or off topic discourse. They key to being a good moderator is to develop a set of specific and explicit rules regard the behaviour of site users. These codes of behaviour should be agreed upon by all users. Furthermore, in order to create a cohesive community and improve discussion, the users themselves should help to create these rules.

It is important to understand that good moderators act as teachers, facilitating discussions toward specific outcomes. It is important to understand that the skills needed to be successful in this task face-to-face can be very different from those needed online. As Chao says, “Moderating online conferencing is as important as conducting discussion in class. You want to create a friendly, non-threatening atmosphere so students feel free to speak of their minds. You want to make sure the discussion is on topic and everyone participates equally. There are even tactics to increase participation and to avoid potential conflicts between diverse perspectives. The need for moderating discussion in class and on line is the same but the techniques vary significantly.”

While the need for moderators in online discussion groups is significant when dealing with classrooms moving to online spaces, more and more message boards and online discussion forums (youtube, myspace, facebook, etc.) employ few moderators. Instead they rely on users to self-moderate, or to effectively use peer pressure to help keep the discussion flowing and safe for all users. This is similar to Wikipedia in that while one user can do a lot of damage by vandalizing an article, any other user can easily and quickly undo the damage at any time. Online discussion groups rely on these moral users to police their message boards.

Moderators walk a fine line in online discussion groups. Yet it is only through their use that elearning communities can flourish. While self-moderating works for general discussion boards, any system devoted to learning must allow for facilitators to model proper interactions and keep the peace.


Chau, Tracy. Resources for Your Teaching: Articles and Tips. University of Alberta, Arts Resource Centre. Online at:

Collins, M.P. and Berge, Z.L. (1997). Moderating Online Electronic Discussion Groups. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association. Chicago, IL. March 24-28.

Feenberg, Andrew and Xin, Cindy. A Teacher’s Guide to Moderating Online Discussion Forums: From Theory to Practice. Online at: