July 8th, 2008

Asynchronous Discussion: The Heart of the Online Course


Asynchronous online discussion plays a key role in humanizing online courses. Asking provocative questions is an important part of getting students to participate in discussions, but the right questions alone are not always enough to create a truly connected class.

“The discussion forum is most closely going to replicate the experience of exchanging information, not just between students and teacher but among the students, as if we were in the classroom. It has to be the heart of the course,” says Kyla Heflin, director of extended studies in the College of Education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

To get students to appreciate the significance of the discussion forum, Heflin has a Web page in her courses that explains the grading rubric for discussion and her expectations. An important part of her rubric is having two deadlines for each weeklong discussion. The first deadline, which occurs in the middle of the week, is for students to post their initial responses to the discussion prompt. Then the students have until the second deadline to respond to at least two classmates’ initial responses.

“At first, students were very resistant to having two deadlines per week. They felt that taking an online course would give them complete freedom to do the work on their own schedules. I tried that, but the course lost that interactive quality. It’s critical to keep people on the same schedule, or else they don’t talk to each other,” Heflin says.

With just one deadline at the end of a discussion, students tend to cram the discussion into a few hours just before the deadline. This decreases the likelihood for well-crafted responses and leaves those who posted early waiting a relatively long time to receive feedback.

Requiring students to respond to at least two classmates’ initial responses keeps them from getting stuck in their own threads and talking about what they posted.

Heflin actively participates in each discussion and holds herself to the same deadlines in the discussion forum. “I noticed that that has helped students know generally when I will be in the course, and that’s important.”

Heflin, who was a successful classroom instructor before teaching online, tried to take what she did in the classroom and translate it to the online classroom without success. “I needed to relearn how to teach in another medium, almost another language. Everything is text, and if you aren’t an instinctive writer or don’t enjoy the act of writing, online will be tough,” she says.

To help get a better idea of how well she was communicating in her courses, Heflin sought feedback from her students beyond the standard course evaluations. She learned that her communication was coming across as “tense, concise, and abrupt.”

In addition, she describes herself as a reserved person who students in the face-to-face class get to know over time. Concerned that students would have difficulty getting to know her online, given her reserved nature and writing style, she decided to take steps to communicate some of the nuances that are often lost when teaching online.


She decided to use emoticons to communicate tone and posted a photo of herself and an introduction (not just an e-mail that gives information about the course, but a message that gives some personal information), and her students were very positive. “These things don’t seem like a big deal, but they can change the course. I’ve gotten so much feedback from students that they like having a face to place with a name and the text that’s coming across. It’s a very simple thing, but it really works.”

Heflin also makes it a point to make students aware of her presence in the course by posting weekly announcements and posting frequently in the discussion forum, “so it isn’t just me posting one lecture and never getting back on there. It feels more like a conversation that way.”

Contact Kyla Heflin at kheflin@uccs.edu.