21 Ways to Structure an Online Discussion, Part Five

Multimedia resources coming from microphone

*This is the last of our five-part series.  

Online Discussion Ideas – Multimedia and Resources

The past four articles in this series have suggested 21 ideas for structuring an online discussion. These proposals addressed learner suggestions that online discussions should encourage unique (and non-repetitive) contributions that foster community and engagement (Schultz et al., 2020).

One last point worth making about online discussions is that these conversations can be conducted using a variety of media. While text is the most readily available format in most Learning Management Systems (LMS), it is not the only way to do it. In fact, the more a discussion is media-rich, the more learners can absorb cues about the intent of the author of a post (the way in which the thoughts are expressed), which results in learners getting to know one another as people and builds community.

Here, then, are some media formats to consider and tools to use for an online discussion.


Text is, of course, the most common way to engage in online discussions. A dedicated discussion tool is integrated in most LMS. But remember that there are tools to integrate discussions in situ with a learning activity, to have a discussion where and when the learning happens. For example, when an instructor delivers a synchronous lecture, Google Slides gives learners the opportunity to ask questions and post comments on each slide as the topic is being discussed (rather than in a separate, asynchronous discussion board). There are other ways to break out of the linear, threaded format of LMS-integrated discussions. Many polling tools allow learners to use their mobile device to submit text-based responses in real time (like a clicker in a classroom). The responses are collected and displayed in a variety of formats such as weighted word clouds that provide a snapshot of the class’s responses. Some of the available polling tools include: Poll Everywhere, Mentimeter, Slido, Kahoot!, and for applying the Delphi method of bringing a group to a consensus, there is ThoughtExchange. Many online guides exist to help select the tool that meets your needs (G2, n.d.)


An image can easily capture relationships between concepts in a way that text simply cannot. As the saying goes, an image is worth a thousand words. Many of the discussion ideas presented in this article series relied on collaborative virtual pinboards to present ideas and move them about to illustrate connections. Tools for such activities include Google’s JamBoard, Padlet, Note.ly, Miro, Lino and for dotmocracy activities (aka dot voting) (Diceman, n.d.), the app Dotstorming. Graphic work can also include the creation of concept maps which can be created collaboratively using dedicated tools such as Bubbl.us, Coggle, Creately, Diagrams.net, GitMind, Wisemapping, GroupMap, Milanote, Mindly, Mindmeister, Mindomo, MindMup, Sketchboard, and Wisemapping.

Learners can have a visual discussion on these tools or share the link to their graphic work in a text-based discussion forum, or they can download the output of their graphical work and share the image on the text-based discussion board. If the latter, instructors should provide instructions about the size and resolution of the image expected. Many online guides provide a comparison of the freely available, easy-to-use image resizer tools that learners can use for this purpose.


Voice carries intonations and emotional cues about an author’s intent that text simply lacks. Adding this layer of personality helps to form class community while maintaining each learner’s privacy. Sound can be easily accessible during commutes in the same way as a podcast or audiobook. Most LMS aren’t set up to easily record and upload learner podcasts and play them back. There are plugins that make the process more user friendly, such as Moodle’s Poodll. There are also dedicated voice boards, standalone voice-based discussion boards that make the process easy to do. One such tool is Vocaroo. And of course, although necessitating a bit more effort, most LMS will accept sound file uploads and playback as attachments to a text-based discussion board. Learners can use tools such as Audacity (Windows) and GarageBand (Apple) to create their audio podcast. This will necessitate a bit more direction from the instructor about using the technology. If you know of other audio-based tools, please share them in the comments below.


Finally, the full-fledged way to see and hear who is making a comment, to gauge the emotional reaction, intent, and mindset of the author, and to form communities is to use video-based discussion posts. Instructors are encouraged to research the privacy policies of their institution with regards to the use of learner videos. Even when such policies allow for video exchanges, instructors may wish to give learners options, for example, doing a puppet show or taking the audience on a field trip that does not show a learner’s face for learners who aren’t comfortable appearing on camera. Videos can be posted to platforms such as YouTube and linked in the LMS text-based discussion. Alternatively, FlipGrid is an easy-to-use, dedicated video-based discussion platform. It is owned by Microsoft and free for educational use. Finally, VoiceThread is a tool that does it all. It allows users (learners or instructors) to post a slide show and the audience to post comments embedded in each slide – so the conversation happens in context. The author or the audience can post comments in a text-based, audio, or video format. The threaded discussion appears next to each slide. It’s easy to use and has been adopted by many institutions and online conference organizers.

This completes our tour of ideas and inspirations to create engaging online discussions and break out of the text-based, prompt-and-answer discussion rut. These are not, of course, the only ways to do it. To help you explore new ways to organize a discussion or to inspire you to design a new structure, here are some helpful resources.

  • Some books collect ideas for classroom activities that can inspire the development of online discussion forums. Some staples include:
    • Collaborative Learning Techniques (Barkley et al., 2005)
    • The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking (Brookfield & Preskill, 2016)
    • The Power of Making Thinking Visible: Practices to Engage and Empower All Learners (Ritchhart & Church, 2020)
    • Fifty Strategies to Boost Cognitive Engagement: Creating a Thinking Culture in the Classroom (Stobaugh, 2019)
    • Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough products through Collaborative Play (Hohmann, 2006)
  • Designers are experts at soliciting ideas from groups of people and creating a framework for analyzing the responses. Several websites share the tools of design thinking in the form of databases or repositories of activities for framing and conducting a discussion. These include:
  • Similarly, workshop facilitators work to encourage conversation between participants and have created tools that can be modified for the classroom. Sites that share resources include:
  • Some educators have likewise collected ideas for classroom activities that can inspire classroom discussion formats. These include:
    • Ed Tech guru Jennifer Gonzalez has a blog entry on her site Cult of Pedagogy describing many ways to structure an online discussion forum (Gonzalez, October 15, 2015)
    • Over the years, Rob Kelly has written extensively in Faculty Focus on the use of online discussion forums often proposing concrete ideas for structuring discussions (Kelly, April 24, 2014, March 3, 2009, March 7, 2013, March 7, 2014, November 20, 2009, September 18, 2014).
  • Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge three educators whose engaging presentations offer a wealth of ideas for online discussion structures:
    • Florencia Henshaw’s one-hour presentation on ways to engage ESL learners in online discussions provides exceptionally creative ways to encourage peer-peer conversations (Henshaw, June 25, 2020)
    • Kristin Kowal and Laurie Berry have developed a hugely popular series called Online Discussions with a Twist that provides concrete and innovative ideas for structuring an online discussion forum. They also developed a webinar on the Teaching Professor site (Berry & Kowal, 2019, June 19, 2020; Kowal & Berry, October 22, 2018)

I look forward to reading up on your innovations for structuring an online discussion in your own future posts of Faculty Focus.

Part 1: Five Online Discussion Ideas to Apply Learning
Part 2: Four Online Discussion Ideas to Explore Concepts Through Divergent Thinking
Part 3: Seven Online Discussion Ideas to Explore Concepts through Convergent Thinking
Part 4: Five Online Discussion Ideas to Foster Metacognition
Part 5: Online Discussion Ideas – Multimedia and Resources

Dr. Annie Prud’homme-Généreux is the director of continuing studies at Capilano University. She is a past recipient of the National Association of Biology Teachers’ Four-Year College/University Teaching Innovation Award. She has been teaching in a blended format for over 15 years and is currently completing a Master of Education in Open, Digital and Distance Education.


Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., & Major, C. H. (2005). Collaborative Learning Techniques. Jossey-Bass.

Berry, L., & Kowal, K. (2019, May 1). Five new twists for online discussions. Instructional Design. https://ce.uwex.edu/five-new-twists-for-online-discussions/

Berry, L., & Kowal, K. (June 19, 2020). Part Deux: Discussion on the Rocks? Add a Twist of Fresh Alternatives! OLC Innovate 2020, Online. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/olc-innovate-2020-session-page/?session=8131&kwds=discussion

Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2016). The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking. Jossey-Bass.

Diceman, J. (n.d.). How to Use Dot Voting Effectively. Retrieved March 4, 2021 from https://dotmocracy.org/

G2. (n.d.). Best Audience Response Software. Retrieved March 4, 2021 from https://www.g2.com/categories/audience-response

Gonzalez, J. (October 15, 2015, February 12, 2021). The Big List of Class Discussion Strategies. Cult of Pedagogy. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/speaking-listening-techniques/

Henshaw, F. (June 25, 2020). Are discussion forums really interactive? Ideas for purposeful asynchronous communication International Association for Language Learning Technology (IALLT) Webinar,  https://fltmag.com/webinar-discussion-boards/

Hohmann, L. (2006). Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play. Addison-Wesley Professional.

Kelly, R. (April 24, 2014). Discussion board audit – A metacognitive, wrap-up assignment. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/discussion-board-audit-metacognitive-wrap-assignment/

Kelly, R. (March 3, 2009). Four ways to improve online discussion forums. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-course-design-and-preparation/four-ways-to-improve-online-discussion-forums/

Kelly, R. (March 7, 2013). Three ways to change up your online discussion board prompts. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/three-ways-to-change-up-your-online-discussion-board-prompts/

Kelly, R. (March 7, 2014). Discussion board assignments: Alternatives to the question-and-answer format. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/discussion-board-assignments-alternatives-question-answer-format/

Kelly, R. (November 20, 2009). Questioning styles for more effective discussion boards. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/questioning-styles-for-more-effective-discussion-boards/

Kelly, R. (September 18, 2014). Strategies for managing online discussions. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-course-design-and-preparation/strategies-managing-online-discussions/

Kowal, K., & Berry, L. (October 22, 2018). Five new twists for online discussions., The Teaching Professor. Magna Publications. https://www.teachingprofessor.com/topics/online-learning/teaching-strategies-techniques/five-new-twists-for-online-discussions/

Ritchhart, R., & Church, M. (2020). The Power of Making Thinking Visible. Jossey-Bass.

Schultz, B., Nielsen, C., & Sandidge, C. (2020). How to do discussion boards according to students. OLC Accelerate, Online. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/olc-accelerate-2020-session-page/?session=9088&kwds=discussion

Stobaugh, R. (2019). 50 Strategies to Boost Cognitive Engagement. Solution Tree Press.