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Online discussion groups: Strategies to enhance participation and collaboration

Graeme Salter
Faculty of Informatics, Science and Technology, University of Western Sydney
Phil Nanlohy
Faculty of Education and Languages, University of Western Sydney
Steve Hansen
Centre for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, University of Western Sydney
Online discussion groups are one of the powerful new tools that teachers can use to increase interaction, reflection and collaboration. However, setting up an online discussion group does not necessarily guarantee any of these benefits. This paper focuses on strategies from the literature, and case studies at the University of Western Sydney, that have been successful in encouraging both participation and collaboration in online discussion groups.


Lack of participation by students in online discussion groups is a common concern of teachers using asynchronous computer-mediated communication. This expectation is often realised. There are many reasons for this. For most students this will be a new medium for communication. This can be uncomfortable and given the self-activating nature of the medium, some delay or totally put off joining. Many become lurkers. Given the permanent nature of the discourse, a common fear by students is criticism, or even ridicule, by their fellow students of what they have written (Pearson, 1999). It is quite different to expose cognitive shortcomings to peers rather than just the teacher.
"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt" ( A student comment in Pearson, 1999).

This can be particularly daunting for students who are used to being relatively passive in face-to-face classes. Newcomers may spend 10 to 20 hours simply reading before they will risk adding their own comments (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff, 1998). Once involved, many students spend considerable time editing and re-editing their work so that it is not ambiguous (Pearson, 1999). Limited access to the Internet and technical problems can also affect participation.

After encouraging students to participate, online discussion groups open up many opportunities for collaborative learning. The benefits of collaborative learning are often cited. In particular, students get to 'learn from each other's creative leaps and mistakes' (Shneiderman, Borkowski, Alavi, & Norman, 1998). However, it cannot be assumed that students will know how to work collaboratively online (Marjanovic, 1999). Many students (and staff) are likely to be new to the medium and may not know how to 'behave' (Hartley, 1999). With the lack of social context cues, such as body language, the ease of responding immediately and the fine distinction between what one person finds acceptable and another offensive the discussion may degenerate into name-calling, flaming and other anti-social behaviour. This initially happened in a very small number of topics at UWS where completely anonymous and untraceable access was allowed. This level of access is not given now and students are warned that the moderator can trace all postings, including those that list as anonymous within the discussion.

Even if the discussion is orderly there is no guarantee that true collaboration will occur. In another early attempt at online discussion groups, students were asked to respond to a probe from the reading for the week. The students followed the requirement and the discussion was simply 60 individual messages responding to the question. No interaction at all was generated. The medium does not inherently encourage interactivity, collaboration or reflection and can be as didactic and competitive as other forms of teaching (Hartley, 1999).

Strategies to enhance participation and collaboration

The following strategies are based on case studies within the University of Western Sydney conducted during 1999 and from papers by experienced practitioners.


Simply setting up a discussion group and inviting students to participate is bound to fail or attract only a small number of participants (Mason & Bacsich, 1998; Warren & Rada, 1998). In an effort to provide a constructivist environment, the student can sometimes be left too much on their own. Student-centred is not the same as teacher-absent (Hartley, 1999). The teacher as facilitator needs to provide an adequate framework for students to work within.
"Students take a course to be guided and most learners, even highly motivated ones, need structures within which to pace their work, focus their study and concentrate their efforts" (Mason & Bacsich, 1998)
Before the discussion begins the expectations, in terms of volume, frequency and type of comments required, should be made explicit. Rules or 'netiquette' should also be given or established up front. Privacy is another important issue. Students may be reluctant to participate when, similar to video-conferencing, you never know who may be 'watching' from the side. It needs to be made clear exactly who has access to read the material.

In our experience it is important not to leave discussion topics totally open-ended, but to limit them in terms of size and/or time. There should be closure to an activity either at a set time or after the discussion has lagged. As well as duration, the teacher can provide structure by specifying group size and type, scheduling and outcomes. Some suggest that a group size of around 12-25 is ideal in order to provide a critical mass, but limit the volume of information so that it is not overwhelming (Cifuentes, Murphy, Segur, & Kodali, 1997; Harasim et al., 1998). However, smaller groups, such as dyads, can also be successful. For example, a small group can operate as a 'publishing syndicate' to provide critical review in a supportive environment.

As well as providing structure, the active involvement of the teacher or moderator is one of the keys to participation. Students are much more likely to participate if the moderator responds regularly, posts new material, provides critique, feedback and encouragement (Harasim et al., 1998).


While students accept traditional teaching activities as 'natural' they may question the relevance of newer forms such as online discussion groups (Salter & Hansen, 1999). There is a need to make discussion groups interesting and relevant to the life experiences, vested interests and ambitions of students (Klemm, 1998). It has been found that students are most active in topics in which they have 'a strong personal interest of relationship to the curriculum' (Harasim et al., 1998). When beginning a discussion with students who are new to the medium it may be better to focus on material that is already relatively familiar or even social rather than cognitive, such as an ice-breaker, to give them a chance to learn to operate in the new environment.


Many authors experienced in computer mediated communication suggest that discussion groups should have some element of compulsion and not be totally voluntary or ungraded (Cifuentes et al., 1997; Harasim et al., 1998; Klemm, 1998; Morris, Mitchell, & Bell, 1999; Warren & Rada, 1998). Pragmatic students will avoid participation if there is no incentive. If students are expected to participate as part of their learning it seems equitable to provide marks roughly commensurate with the amount of work required in the discussion area. This does not mean that all areas have to be assessed (Naidu, 1997) or that other incentives cannot be substituted. For example, the possibility of interacting with a world-expert on a topic may generate considerable enthusiasm and participation.

A common practice in allocating marks is to require students to post x-number of items per week. While this may help get students engaged it says nothing about the quality of their work (Klemm, 1998). Grading postings is subjective, but no more so than marking other work such as essays. Providing a clear description of the grading criteria beforehand can be useful to guide the students (Cifuentes et al., 1997). The criteria may be somewhat unique to the new medium. For example, one group used a range of criteria including 'raising an issue germane to the readings of the week and not previously raised by another student' (Warren & Rada, 1998). Discussion groups lend themselves well to peer interaction and review. Marks may be awarded based on the quality of a student's critique as well as their own work. The volume of postings may make marking an entire topic infeasible and it may be necessary to mark only a sample. This does not have to be a teacher-centred selection. It worked well in one subject where students were asked to select and submit what they considered to be their three best posts for the semester based on criteria such as the ability to argue a case and critical evaluation.


The success of online teaching is strongly correlated with the 'timely provision of equipment and support' (Mason & Bacsich, 1998). The 'anytime' convenience of online discussion groups may be lost if students without external access to the Internet have to go late at night to computer labs that are continually full during the day. As well as providing adequate access, support should be provided early in semester and include traditional methods such as face-to-face and printed materials as well as online supports (Cifuentes et al., 1997).

We have found it useful to include a frequently asked questions or 'Ask the lecturer' topic where students can ask subject and/or technical questions. The students are prompted to look here first. For example, 'If you have any unanswered questions you can ask xxx for an answer here. Have a look at the other questions that have been asked - you might just find the answer there'. In this way the lecturer often has to answer the question only once and, if anonymous posting is allowed, students can ask that 'silly' question they were too afraid to ask otherwise (which, commonly, other students also want to ask).


In order to achieve collaboration it is important to foster a sense of community. The atmosphere of the discussion should be collegial rather than adversarial. At the beginning of the discussion it can be useful to provide non-threatening activities in order to establish a climate of cooperation and trust. Any 'netiquette' established should be enforced.

While it is useful to use controversial quotes or probes to generate strong and varied reactions it is important to realise that students may be easily offended if their work is criticised. Students should be encouraged to be positive when offering a critique. For example, "Bob, I find your ideas on surrogate motherhood very interesting. However, have you considered the following argument, which would not support your conclusion ..." (Harasim et al., 1998). In addition, it should be demonstrated that opinions alone are not enough. If students use terms such as "I agree" or " I disagree" they should be encouraged to follow them with "because..." (Harasim et al., 1998).

Social spaces such as 'virtual cafes' can help build a sense of place for both students and staff. As well as providing social areas where students determine the content it can be beneficial to allow students to control some aspects of the educational areas. Discussion topics may be student generated and/or moderated. In one of the topics at UWS where students were given control a very good discussion ensued whether project team members should be specialised or multi-skilled. It was pleasing that after much discussion one of the students invited the lecturer to comment and join the discussion. The lecturer summarised the discussion (a useful task for the students to do also) and in particular made use of the earlier comments of the students involved. Another useful technique is to require students to actively contribute material they develop to a shared knowledge base (Collis, 1998; Kjollerstrom & Martensson, 1999). For example, students can supply annotated web links, provide assessment items or present an electronic seminar. In the same discussion noted above, students supplied annotated web links to web sites that exhibited good and bad design and, in another instance, web sites that provided sources of java applets. These areas proved very popular and the students returned often to use these resources.

The ability to respond anonymously can increase participation and also equity as ideas are measured on their own merit rather than the person (Chester & Gwynne, 1998; Marjanovic, 1999). However, anonymity can also lead to misuse and reduce trust. Some favour the use of pseudonyms which provide a state of 'managed ambiguity, permitting relationship, while offering an opportunity to actively conceal or reveal elements of real-life identity' (Chester & Gwynne, 1998).

The most successful discussion group in the trial period used an interesting combination of pseudonyms and groups. The students were asked to divide into groups of four and choose a name by which their group would be known. In semester 1, 1999 the groups chose names of drinks, such as Tequila or Milo. The students met regularly to work with the material on the discussion board and were required to post a reply, as a group, within a given time frame. This work was assessable and contributed to other assessment items. Individuals could contribute to the group's response without fear of individual criticism. After all groups responded, the tutors responded to the student's contributions in different colours within the group's original message which placed the feedback immediately below the text to which it was related. This created a transcript of all student posts and tutor responses for all to share. The process was successful not only in terms of the quantity of contributions (over 18,000 words), but also in the quality of contributions and feedback (Nanlohy, 2000).


Discussion groups can be used to increase the active engagement of students. However, it is important to note that active learning is more than just pressing keys and reading off the screen. Activities such as investigations, role-plays, debates, responses to guest lecturers are some of the methods that can be employed to increase student engagement.

The strategies provided here have been found, by formal research or experience, to be effective in given situations. The list is by no means exhaustive and there is no guarantee that they will be effective in other contexts. They will need to be adapted, built upon and some even discarded. This field is only young and best practice will only develop over time as we share both the successes and the failures of the use of online discussion groups in education.


Chester, A., & Gwynne, G. (1998). Online Teaching: Encouraging Collaboration through Anonymity. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 4(2).

Cifuentes, L., Murphy, K., Segur, R., & Kodali, S. (1997). Design Considerations for Computer Conferences. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 30(2), 177-201.

Collis, B. (1998). New didactics for university instruction: Why and how? Computers & Education, 31, 373-393.

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S., Teles, L., & Turoff, M. (1998). Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Hartley, R. (1999). Effective Pedagogies for Managing Collaborative Learning in On-line Learning Environments. Educational Technology & Society, 2(2), 12-19.

Kjollerstrom, B., & Martensson, M. (1999). Assessment: The Key to Changing the Way We Learn. CAL-Laborate, October, 17-20.

Klemm, W. (1998). Eight ways to get students more engaged in online conferences. Technological Horizons in Education Journal, 26(1).

Marjanovic, O. (1999). Learning and teaching in a synchronous collaborative environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 15, 129-138.

Mason, R., & Bacsich, P. (1998). Embedding Computer Conferencing into University Teaching. Computers & Education, 30(3/4), 249-258.

Morris, D., Mitchell, N., & Bell, M. (1999). Student Use of Computer Mediated Communication in an Open University Level 1 Course: Academic or Social? Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 99(2).

Naidu, S. (1997). Collaborative reflective practice: An instructional design architecture for the Internet. Distance Education, 18(2), 257-283.

Nanlohy, P. (2000). Learning to Use a Virtual Discussion Space - The FEAL Discussion Board. Notes: Internal UWS Report.

Pearson, J. (1999). Electronic networking in initial teacher education: is a virtual faculty of education possible? Computers & Education, 32, 221-238.

Salter, G., & Hansen, S. (1999). Modelling New Skills for Online Teaching. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE) (pp. 301-305).

Shneiderman, B., Borkowski, E., Alavi, M., & Norman, K. (1998). Emergent Patterns of Teaching/Learning in Electronic Classrooms. Educational Technology Research and Development 46(4), 23-42. [viewed 26 Jan 1999; verified 21 Oct 2001]

Warren, K., & Rada, R. (1998). Sustaining computer-mediated communication in university courses. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 14, 71-80.

Contact details: Graeme Salter, University of Western Sydney
Phone (02) 0246 3511 Fax (02) 0246 3075 Email

Please cite as: Salter, G., Nanlohy, P. and Hansen, S. (2001). Online discussion groups: Strategies to enhance participation and collaboration. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 618-623. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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