21 Ways to Structure an Online Discussion, Part Two

Sticky notes with light bulbs on them has one pink colored one that sticks out with light bulb lit up

*This is a five-part series.

Four Online Discussion Ideas to Explore Concepts Through Divergent Thinking

In the last installment of this article series, I described five ideas for structuring online discussions when the aim is to encourage learners to apply concepts that they have learned, mostly by recognizing examples or generating them.

In this and the next article, I will describe ideas for structuring an online discussion when the goal is for learners to further explore a concept studied in class. I subdivided the ideas into two categories: Some are useful when the goal is for learners to engage in divergent thinking, in other words, when they are generating ideas and expanding the range of solutions or brainstorming (this article). The second set is useful when the aim is for learners to engage in convergent thinking, to gain a deeper and richer (and common) understanding of a concept (the next article).

The four online discussion structures described in this article to assist learners in exploring concepts through divergent thinking are:

Sticky Note Party

Description: Sometimes called affinity mapping, this favorite activity of design thinking practitioners is an effective way to harness a team’s brainstorming capacity. This discussion requires the use of a virtual collaborative pinboard, something like Google’s Jamboard, Padlet, Lino, Wakelet, Pinside, Scrumblr, or if your organization has access to it, Miro. The process starts with each learner independently brainstorming responses to a prompt. They write one idea per sticky note and pile them in one location on the collaborative board. Then, each learner presents one idea to the team in a live session. If anyone else has a similar idea, they place their sticky note on top of the speaker’s note, in one pile. Once each person has had a turn, they present their second idea, and so on around the team until everyone’s sticky notes have been presented. As a third step, the group looks at the ideas on the board and discusses whether they can categorize the piles of ideas. Sometimes, groups will choose to group similar ideas together into a concept map. Sometimes, they will choose to represent their ideas into a Venn diagram, a flowchart, a hierarchy, or some other way that captures the main ideas and their relationships. The group then summarizes and presents the results of their brainstorm, either visually or in a written format. There can be a gallery walk where teams investigate and comment on the outcome of other teams’ efforts.

Tips: Unlike small group activities where smaller teams are better than larger ones, this activity can accommodate groups of up to 10 learners easily. Ideally, learners will be able to meet for a live discussion while having access to their pinboard. However, with a bit of adjustment, it is possible to do this activity asynchronously, where learners leave richer explanations of their ideas on sticky notes and teams propose the categories they see emerging from the sticky notes on a text-based discussion forum before they go ahead and move the sticky notes to form categories. In an asynchronous format, clear instructions are essential.

Example: (Education course). What can we do to make our classroom more equitable for all learners? In your group, brainstorm ideas and hone your collective wisdom into five concrete suggestions. Start by individually generating a minimum of five ideas on your team’s pinboard (post one idea per sticky note). Then, meet as a group to discuss all the ideas and group them into categories. Write your team’s top five suggestions on the class’s discussion board. Read the other team’s posts and acknowledge your favorite idea that your team had not thought about (i.e., post a response to that team’s post describing which idea caught your interest as the best idea and why you wish you had thought of it yourself by explaining why you think it will be effective).

Variations: There are several ways to vary this activity based on the parameters of the brainstorming exercise. Here are a few examples.

  • Build a Checklist. In this activity, the group uses the power of brainstorming to create a checklist for doing a particular task (for example, they could create a checklist of the steps required to build a website for a client, or for DNA polymerase to replicate genetic material). A checklist is a useful exercise because it forces the team to bring to the surface and discuss each component of the larger task, their order, and their importance. First, each person brainstorms the steps of a process individually, capturing each step on a sticky note. Then the team uses the shared pinboard to create a linear flowchart of the process, discussing which ought to be the first step, the second, and so on, negotiating the sequence and even presence of each step. As a final step, the group may discuss the importance of each step, weighing each one with a score, and removing the ones deemed less important for a shorter checklist.
  • Force Field Analysis. This type of brainstorm aims to identify the forces acting upon “something” to cause it to change. Teammates first brainstorm all the forces acting upon the object that cause change. Then they repeat the exercise brainstorming factors that are preventing change. On each of their sticky note, they add a value that represents the strength of that force, usually on a scale from 1 to 5. The pinboard is represented with the object in the middle and the forces for and against change on either side of it. The process proceeds as the activity described above (i.e., each person presents one sticky note, a discussion ensues, and after each person has presented their ideas, the team categorizes the group’s responses). As an example, a prompt might ask learners to classify the forces acting on individuals in their decisions to get vaccinated.
  • SWOT Analysis. This well-known business tool asks the group to brainstorm ideas about the strengths (S) of an organization (or a concept), its weaknesses (W), opportunities (O) for its future, and threats (T) to its survival. Individuals first write each idea on one sticky note. Then the team pools everyone’s ideas on a shared SWOT chart (on a collaborative virtual pinboard), first discussing each person’s ideas for strengths identifying categories of ideas that emerge. The team then moves on to weaknesses, opportunities, and then threats. Other than a business course where this format could easily be applied, with a bit of imagination an activity like this could be adapted in other courses such as chemistry, where learners must do a SWOT analysis of a type of chemical bond, or in a biology course learners might analyze the case for placing an animal on the endangered species list.
  • Fishbone Analysis. Another way to structure the brainstorm and its resulting analysis is to use the well-known Fishbone Diagram (see the resources cited under More Information below for templates). In a Fishbone Analysis, teams brainstorm the causes of a situation or problem. They organize them into six main fishbones that stem off the fish’s backbone. Each fishbone can be further developed into sub-causes which represent minor causes. This diagram helps people see causes and effects. It could be used, for example, when learners investigate what led to the development of a particular policy (its societal, political, financial, and other causes).

More Information: Barkley et al. (2005); Digital Society School (n.d.-a); Gamestorming (n.d.-a, n.d.-b, n.d.-c); IAF Methods (n.d.); IDEO.org (n.d.-b); MediaLAB Amsterdam (n.d.)

Wisdom of Crowds

Description: This type of discussion is helpful when a group wants to prioritize ideas generated by its members. This type of discussion starts like the Sticky Note Party, where each participant generates at least one idea in response to a prompt. Then, each member of the team examines the range of responses and ranks them. The team then looks at the team-ranked responses and discusses the top ideas. Two variations on how to conduct this activity are described below. It can be done as a whole class or in smaller groups.

Tips: This discussion activity can be combined with others like Case Study, Role Play, or Debate (which will all be described in Article 3 of this series).

Example: (Biology course). Should Monsanto be allowed to distribute the GMO Golden Rice to developing countries, free of charge? Golden rice is a genetically modified rice variety that produces vitamin A, a nutrient deficient in the diet of people living in many developing countries. One half of the class will be assigned to the Pro team, the other half to the Con team. Each person must research the topic and provide at least three arguments to support their team’s position. The team should then discuss all brainstormed ideas, rank them, and select the top three. Write one post fleshing out your team’s three chosen arguments.


  • Dotmocracy. When conducted in a face-to-face context, dotmocracy starts with each idea written on a sheet of paper posted on the walls around the room. Then, participants are given a set of colored sticker dots – red, yellow, and green. Participants go around the room, read the statement on each sheet of paper, and add a dot – green if they support the idea, yellow if they are lukewarm, red if they oppose the idea. Once everyone has added their dots, it is easy to see which idea is most supported, which idea is most controversial (has support and opposition) and which ones leave people indifferent. A discussion can follow from this visual summary of the class’s input. In a virtual environment, there are several ways to conduct such an interactive “gallery walk.” The first is to use a collaborative document such as Google Slides where each learner posts one idea on one slide. Then, learners review each slide and post a colored dot. The results trigger a conversation about the ideas, as they would in a face-to-face activity. The second way to proceed is to use a dedicated app, such as  Dotstorming. Such app allows each person to post their ideas but have additional features to manage the voting, such as hiding the dots until everyone has voted to prevent “group-think,” giving each learner a limited number of voting dots (e.g., asking everyone to choose their top three ideas), and sorting the ideas by the number of votes for ease of analysis.
  • 25/10 Crowd Sourcing. This way of triggering conversation was suggested as part of the Liberating Structures toolset. In the face-to-face version, each participant writes a bold idea in response to a prompt on an index card. They mill around the room and exchange the card five times so that the authorship is lost. Then, they read the card in their hand and on the back rate the merit of the idea on a scale from 1-5. Participants repeat the steps outlined above four more times. At the end, the five ratings are summed, and each idea ranked. The top five ideas are further discussed. In an online environment, participants can each (anonymously) add one idea on a slide using Google Slides. Participants then go to Google’s Random Number Generator to generate five random numbers – the number of the five slides they will review and rate (i.e., if the random number generator provides the number 6, then the learners should review the sixth slide of the Google Slides document). Each learner reads her assigned slide and leaves a rating, from 1 to 5, in the Speaker Notes at the bottom of the slide. At the end, the ratings of each slide are tallied, the ideas ranked, the results presented on the text-based discussion board where the discussion can continue.

More Information: Diceman (n.d.); Lipmanowicz and McCandless (2013)

Lotus Diagram

Description: A Lotus Diagram is a collaborative concept mapping activity. It is useful when the goal is to make evident all concepts related to a central one. A subset of learners is assigned to start the concept map, placing the concept under investigation in the middle and adding related concepts that “flower out” from the central one. Then, a second group of learners each take one of the secondary ideas and repeat the process, using those ideas as their central ones and fleshing them out by identifying and drawing their linked concepts. The resulting concept map will have three levels of concepts arising from the central one. For a fuller exploration, it is possible to repeat these steps another time, adding a fourth level of concepts. Optionally, another group of learners can be tasked with capturing relationships between concepts on the concept map, irrespective of their “level.” There are a plethora of online tools that can be used for collaborative concept mapping from the presentation tool Prezi to the dedicated Bubbl.us, Coggle, Creately, Diagrams.net, GitMind, GroupMap, Milanote, Mindly, Mindmeister, Mindomo, MindMup, Sketchboard, and Wisemapping, to list just a few.

Tips: Learners need clear expectations in a concept mapping activity. For example, instructors may wish to specify that each learner must add a minimum of five concepts to the concept map. Note that concept mapping exercises are wonderful “pre- and post-” activities, where the concept map developed before a concept is studied captures the learners’ existing knowledge and can serve as a springboard for the lesson. Learners fill in the concept map after the lesson to visualize (and gain awareness of) how their learning has grown.

Example: (Research Methods course). Develop a three-layered concept map of the concept of Quantitative Analysis that we studied in Module 4. Learners assigned to Group 1 should each add five related concepts to the central one of quantitative analysis. Learners in Group 2 should each select one secondary concept and flesh it out by adding five related concepts that stem from it. Once the map is complete, identify one concept you think is missing from this diagram (or that you think is erroneously present or is misplaced) and describe what it is and where it belongs. Submit your revised map, with your addition and a short description of your reasoning, on the discussion board.

More Information: Digital Society School (n.d.-b); Janse (2019); Miro.com (n.a.); State Library of Victoria (n.d.); Tarr (n.d.)


Description: This activity, also a favorite of design thinkers, is used for creative problem solving. It involves taking the insights and solutions developed in one context and adapting and adopting it in another context where a similar problem needs solving. One real-world success story of using this technique is an engineer who transformed the scary MRI scanner experience of children by making it similar to an amusement park ride on a pirate ship (IDEA.org, n.d.; Kelley & Kelley, 2014). To do a mash-up, teams start by defining the features of the problem they wish to address (e.g., how can we make an MRI scanner experience more enjoyable for children?). Then, the team brainstorms industries or contexts where this problem has been solved (e.g., an amusement park). For the top choice, the team brainstorms how the problem has been addressed (e.g., gamified environment, colorful theme-based design, sights and sounds that fit into a story or adventure, tasks the kids must complete, reward for participating, etc.). Finally, the team discusses how some of these inspirations could be used to solve the initial problem (e.g., transform the MRI scanner into a pirate ship, provide a narrative of an adventure, and ask kids to count the number of times the pirates beat on a drum—to integrate the MRI’s sounds as part of the play). All this can be done using Sticky Note Party methods and pinboards.

Tips: Since this activity can be quite open-ended, it is important for learners to be clear about the process. Instructors may wish to provide a worked example or demonstrate how to do it in class before letting learners do it in their teams.

Example: (Nutrition course). In your group, propose a healthy school lunch program. Brainstorm some of the problems with current lunch programs, then identify an industry that has solved your chosen problem and brainstorm the features of its programs. Finally, use these inspirations to propose solutions. For example, you might try to answer the question, “What might a farmer’s market version of a cafeteria look like?” (idea inspired from IDEO.org (n.d.-c)). Describe your best innovative team solution in a post.

Since it may be difficult to see how this online discussion structure could be applied to disciplines that do not take place in the human realm, here is another example.

Example: (Molecular Biology course). RNA translation of the genetic code could be written as a program code, with recursive steps (repeat steps 1 to X until Y) and logic decision trees (if X then Y otherwise Z). First, write the process of RNA translation as a program code. Don’t worry about exact programming language—focus on the logical steps. Then look for inefficiencies in the code. How is the way in which it is done in nature different from the way in which you would program it from a purely programming perspective? Identify the ways in which the natural process is inefficient and propose ways in which it could be improved. Comment on two of your peer’s responses by identifying what could be the implications of their proposed “process improvements” for the cell.

More Information: Ahlstrom and Hyper Island (n.d.); Digital Society School (n.d.-c); IDEO.org (n.d.-a, n.d.-c)

In the next article, I will describe tools for structuring online discussions that encourage learners to explore the concept in greater depth through means of convergent thinking.

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.


Ahlstrom, M., & Hyper Island. (n.d.). Mash-Up Innovation. https://toolbox.hyperisland.com/mash-up-innovation

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

Diceman, J. (n.d.). Dotmocracy – Dot Voting Tips and Resources. Retrieved February 3, 2021 from https://dotmocracy.org/

Digital Society School. (n.d.-a). Fishbone Diagram. Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved January 30, 2021 from https://toolkits.dss.cloud/design/method-card/fishbone-diagram-2/

Digital Society School. (n.d.-b). Lotus Blossom. Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved January 30, 2021 from https://toolkits.dss.cloud/design/method-card/lotus-blossom-2/

Digital Society School. (n.d.-c). Mash-Up. Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Retrieved January 30, 2021 from https://toolkits.dss.cloud/design/method-card/mash-up/

Gamestorming. (n.d.-a). Build a Checklist. Retrieved February 2, 2021 from https://www.sessionlab.com/methods/build-a-checklist

Gamestorming. (n.d.-b). Force Field Analysis. Retrieved February 2, 2021 from https://www.sessionlab.com/methods/force-field-analysis-pzx0xc

Gamestorming. (n.d.-c). SWOT Analysis. https://www.sessionlab.com/methods/swot-analysis

IAF Methods. (n.d.). Fishbone Analysis. https://www.sessionlab.com/methods/fishbone-analysis

IDEA.org. (n.d., February 6, 2021). From Design Thinking to Creative Confidence. IDEO.org. https://www.ideou.com/blogs/inspiration/from-design-thinking-to-creative-confidence

IDEO.org. (n.d.-a). Analogous Inspiration. Retrieved February 2, 2021 from https://www.designkit.org/methods/6

IDEO.org. (n.d.-b). Find Themes. Retrieved February 02, 2021 from https://www.designkit.org/methods/find-themes

IDEO.org. (n.d.-c). Mash-Ups. https://www.designkit.org/methods/mash-ups

Janse, B. (2019). Lotus Diagram. Retrieved February 6, 2021 from https://www.toolshero.com/creativity/lotus-diagram/

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2014). Creative Confidence. Williams Collins.

Lipmanowicz, H., & McCandless, K. (2013). The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures. Liberating Structures Press. http://www.liberatingstructures.com/ls/

MediaLAB Amsterdam. (n.d.). Fishbone Diagram. Retrieved February 2, 2021 from https://www.sessionlab.com/methods/fishbone-diagram

Miro.com. (n.a.). Lotus Diagram Template for Create Teams. Retrieved February 6, 2021 from https://miro.com/templates/lotus-diagram/

State Library of Victoria. (n.d.). Generating Questions – Lotus Diagram. Retrieved February 6, 2021 from http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/teachers/generating-questions-lotus-diagram

Tarr, R. (n.d.). Lotus diagram templates for essay planning. Retrieved February 6, 2021 from https://www.classtools.net/blog/lotus-diagram-template-for-essay-planning/