By: Linda Dale Bloomberg

Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.

Last year I published a series of blogs for SAGE Publications to address strategies for successful online teaching.  In my newly released book, Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners, I provide multiple opportunities to foster collaborative learning as a way for learners to work together on assignments or tasks, build knowledge collectively, think critically, and support each other’s understanding. Interaction within online educational environments has long been advocated as fostering engagement and learning. Interaction also creates a more positive sense of community in online courses, and creating community serves to combat isolation and, in turn, build a sense of connectedness and ongoing engagement. Recommendations for online learner engagement include building interactive opportunities (a) between instructors and learners, (b) among learners (team work, collaborations), and (c) between learners and the course content.

As I write in my book,

Learning is derived from the interactions between learners, instructors and learners, and learning spaces and tools. Though online models may support some of those interactions, they only scratch the surface when it comes to offering diverse, rich, and multimodal educational experiences. This responsibility is ultimately that of the instructor, and this can be accomplished through the skillful use and application of collaboration tools (Bloomberg, 2021, p. 58).

Discussion forums, both synchronous (real-time discussion) and asynchronous (discussion boards) are key collaboration tools that are used in online courses to stimulate and maintain student engagement. Asynchronous discussion, in particular, is increasingly becoming an important communication tool in online education as this allows learners to participate at times that work for them. Asynchronous discussion forums are commonly used by online course instructors as a way for students to reflect on the course content and demonstrate their understanding, while also responding to and interacting with their peers and/or instructors regarding the content.  One challenge with this strategy is that once each student completes their postings and responses, they often quit reading, responding to, and engaging with what others say or think about the issue or topic under study, thus missing out on critical insights and experiences.

While discussion forums are a significant part of online courses, as learners typically post and respond to other learners’ posts, as reported by Learninghouse (2019) only 66% of respondents stated that these forums are engaging, highlighting an opportunity for improvement. There are many ways to think about reimagining and redesigning discussion board forums, to ensure that these are serving the function of encouraging dialogue, critical thinking, and deep (as opposed to surface) learning.

  1. Make sure that the content encompasses something that everybody can relate to.

    If you are going to ask your students to share their experiences, they indeed need to have experiences that they can be able to share! Toward this end, make sure that your prompts; that is, the questions that kick off the discussion are something that students can meaningfully relate to and participate in, so that they are actually able to respond. The most effective discussion questions are those that are going to connect students’ lives–their experiences, insights and thoughts–to the course content.

  2. Offer multiple media options.

    To maximally engage all students, online discussions should be conducted by using a variety of media. While text is the most readily available format in most LMS’s, the more a discussion is media-rich, the more students will be able to access and engage in the discussion. While written text is the most common There are multiple tools to integrate discussions in situ with a learning activity, including graphics, audio, and video materials. There are currently numerous applications and resources available. A great many of these are free of charge, and there are online guides to help select the tool that most appropriately meets your students’ needs.

  1. Model the engagement that you expect from your students.

    Your engagement allows you to share your expertise, and also gives you an opportunity to foster a sense of community within your online classroom. Fostering community means imagining your work as much more than just simply interacting with the individual course learning outcomes, but realizing that you are dealing with a classroom of diverse individuals, and thoughtfully forging connections within that classroom. When you do that, when you provide a space for your students to buy into the community of learners. You also establish your place within that community, so that your students will be more motivated to participate actively, and strive to succeed. 

  1. Employ a co-facilitation strategy.

    To do this you may designate a small group of students to work together to facilitate a particular online discussion each week, and address their peers’ questions and comments. This ongoing cross-posting serves to ensure a vibrant and thriving discussion. The co-facilitators can close their discussion threads by creating a summary of what was discussed and also post their own personal reflections on their co-facilitation experience. Before beginning, be sure to provide your students—via the course syllabus and introductory emails–with a clear guidance and support for their co-facilitation assignment, and always encourage them to reach out to you with any questions or concerns.

  2. Remain active and keep your online presence alive.

    While your students are discussing the content, and the co-facilitators are performing their tasks, be sure to carefully monitor each conversation to make sure that all interaction is indeed productive, inclusive, and respectful. Post regularly in each discussion thread to indicate that you are visible and that you are reading students’ comments and responses.

  3. Always ensure safety.

    Be very intentional in taking carethat your students feel safe and supported as they explore sensitive topics. Encourage those who identify with a marginalized or underrepresented culture to showcase, through the discussion, their own language, values, beliefs, and traditions. This goes a long way toward a sense of ownership and empowerment! When students identify with and can relate to the discussion, this raises the level of critical thinking about the material, and fosters an environment for deep learning to occur.

By thoughtfully designing discussion forums, instructors not only provide students with diverse experiences with the discussion board, but can also assess student learning in exciting and engaging ways. Since each discussion will be accessible and relevant, students will hopefully look forward to–and meaningfully engage with–new postings, as opposed to this being just another course requirement that they simply check off their list. You can transform online discussions into meaningful, purposeful, and vibrant conversations so that your students engage more meaningfully and deeply with the content. They may also find themselves interacting more purposefully with their peers and working hard to support one another during their learning journeys.

Reflective Questions
  1. What is the value of synchronous discussion?
  2. What is the value of asynchronous discussion?
  3. Can you think of other ways fir students to take greater ownership of discussion forums, making them much more likely to engage with the learning content?
  4. How can you enhance YOUR engagement so that your students’ engagement is strengthened?


Bloomberg, L. D. (2021). Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners. Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Learninghouse (June, 2019). Online College Students 2019: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences. Retrieved from

Picciano, A. G. (2019). Online education: Foundations, planning, and pedagogy. Routledge.

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