Instructor involvement in Online Discussions? To be or not?

This post is Part 1 of a 2 part series on Instructor involvement in Online discussions

How important is discussion and discourse in learning?  How about in online learning?  Somewhat important —- vital —- not?  This past week I’ve been immersed in online discussions— as a participant and as a mentor to professors teaching online. Before we go on, the answer to the question is … vital, critical, essential – the instructor that is.  A caveat, deep, authentic and successful learning is supported by instructors that guide, yet focus, redirect, and shall I say… nurture. It’s a challenge, as facilitating discussions in online classes is much different than face-to-face. It’s no surprise that instructors teaching online are often at odds with how to develop effective discussions in the online class. Some professors even feel it’s best not to get involved. What to do?

From a Student’s Perspective…
Can students have meaningful and valuable online discussions asynchronously without the instructor’s presence?  Research says no, for the most part. And from a student’s perspective, I’d have to agree. My most meaningful learning experiences involve at least some level of interaction and contributions from the professor. The involved instructor keeps the discussion focused and moving by responding to student posts with comments and questions that challenge students to build on their point and think.

What the experts say about Instructor Participation….

  • “Instructor presence [including participation in discussions] is a key element in the distinction between online and face-to-face education. Online instructors need to be “seen” in order to be perceived by their students as present in the course just as do face-to-face course instructors”. (Mandernach et al, 2006)
  • Paloff & Pratt (1999) pose that the instructor in an online class is responsible for facilitating the personal and social aspects of an online community in order for the class to have a successful learning experience.
  • Olcott & Wright (1995) assert that the responsibility for instructional quality and aggregate effectiveness of distance education rests with the instructor.

ImageCreating a framework for Effective Online Discussions
This week as I’ve been participating in a MOOC called iFaciliate a 5 week online MOOC for educators which modeled what’s needed to establish effective discussions. This course refers to the Community of Inquiry model, which synthesizes pedagogical principles and needed instructional practices for effective instruction in the online learning environment. I discussed this model in a previous post.

How to Create the Framework for effective discussions:

  • Establish guidelines and purpose for threaded discussions –  outline these at the introduction to the course.
  • Establish a Social Presence – this is where participant and instructor, introduce themselves to classmates –  sharing, introducing and connecting. Also known as the orientation  phase, Social presence is defined as the ability of learners to project themselves socially and affectively.  When students feel connected with other learners, feel part of the class and community, they are more likely to engage in discourse and discussion about course content.
  • Make the technology transparent – the discussion needs to be about the students – the content and the learning, not the technology, i.e. the Learning Management system or the discussion threads. When students are participating in online discussions, the ‘technology walls’ should disappear – just as when we are in a classroom, is the focus on the whiteboard, the power point slides or the professor’s tie for that matter?

Check back this week for part 2: How instructors can effectively facilitate online discussions.

10 thoughts on “Instructor involvement in Online Discussions? To be or not?

  1. Hi,

    I’m Donna, and this is my third quarter of teaching an online class. I am still learning.

    Nothing is ever simple, is it? Finding balance in life is a challenge.

    This morning, in my medical terminology class, I posted a reply to a student, explaining the differential diagnosis of microcytic hypochromic anemia. I don’t usually enter the discussion forum, but post comments to students when I grade them. So, today I entered, but don’t know if this is intimidating or helpful to students.


    1. Hi Donna,

      Well placed comments in the discussion forums (as your example illustrates) are essential — and valuable. It demonstrates to students your presence; that you are reading the forums, are “there”. This in itself is encouraging to students. Also in your example, you are using your expertise most effectively by explaining a concept that most students in the class would not be able to answer.

      Thanks for sharing Donna.


  2. I believe that the instructor has to be involved in the discussion. It is time consuming, but it is what we do. I have had friends say to me that since I teach online, there should be no limit on the number of students. Obviously, they’ve not taken an online class.


      1. I would completely agree with that comment. The time I spend online is much more than teaching a f2f. I would add though that with online I have a component that is hand graded so I can have a time each week to communicate directly with each student with my comments back to them regarding their assignment. That does take a lot of time but I feel it’s worth it and students really like that.


  3. As an online student, my opinion would be, instructors have to be involved in the discussions. In fact, I would say, it is ‘vital’ in this media of education for students not to get isolated. I have been in virtual classroom of both kind of instructors. One, who used to give feedback for every post and the other, who totally forgot his virtual class. Both had its own pros and cons. Constant feedback, sure makes you feel in a community but at times gets annoying. No feedback, puts you in a dark room. Finding the perfect balance is the key here. Instructors may jump into a discussion with their own comments about the subject. They may lift up intellectual discussion and give feedback on those. In online learning instructors involvement provides a lot of motivation to students.


    1. Hi Priya. Thanks for your comment! You bring up an excellent point – first by highlighting how critical the instructor’s role is from a student’s perspective, and what a challenge it is for the instructor to be able to identify when and how to get involved in the discussion – not too much and not too little. What I find interesting, is how you identified that you did feel part of a community, even with feedback that might have been over the top, yet in the dark without any feedback. The ‘in the dark’ feeling is where student can feel isolated, and completely disconnected as you identified. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂


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