Primer for Online Discussion Formats

Prepared for ACRL’s Instruction Section Discussion Group Steering Committee

By Patrick Wohlmut, MLS, Linfield College

This document is intended to assist librarians who propose virtual discussions around the time of the ALA Midwinter and Annual conferences in thinking about and planning for their program. Online discussion presents unique challenges, and so the question of what format to use to facilitate discussion deserves a different set of considerations when planning an online presentation.

In her book, Discussion-Based Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning, Tisha Bender ([2003] 2012) talks about the tension between space and place. If space is bounded by physical considerations such as matter, distance, and time, then place is defined more by relationships and connections happening within an arbitrary boundary. This boundary can be physical or virtual, and it is the tension between these two concepts that defines online discussion and learning: “…it is not physical distance that is our concern, but the relational distance between teacher and student” (Bender [2003] 2012, 9). This suggests that effective online discussion should decrease the relational distance between participants – should increase the sense of belonging to the discussion or class. This can be difficult when groups can’t be defined by physical proximity to each other, and when technologies like chat or Twitter sometimes allow everyone to, in effect, speak at once.

One important choice to make is how to engage the audience in a virtual discussion.

Chat Applications and Twitter

Advantages: One advantage of using chat is that moderators and discussion leaders have the opportunity to address participants immediately and in real time (Lin and Overbaugh 2007, 400). This can help reduce feelings of disconnectedness. Another, similar forum is the Twitter chat, which uses a hashtag to organize tweets into a single conversation (Spinks 2009). One example of this is the long-running Twitter conversation series, #critlib (, which fosters regular online discussion on the intersections of librarianship, diversity, and social justice.

Disadvantages: Lin and Overbaugh (2007, 400) note that chat applications are ill suited to conversations with a large number of participants. This is due to problems coordinating and moderating the resulting conversation. Other problems can arise when you have participants who have a lack of typing skills, or for whom the language in which the conversation is being held is a second language. For this reason, having a strong moderator is essential to holding a valuable synchronous discussion and making sure that participants get heard.

Applications: Consider how focused you want this discussion to be, and set that expectation at the beginning of that chat in an introductory message. Spinks (2009) makes some suggestions for specific discussion formats that, though specific to Twitter chats, could be used in other chat applications as well:

Single Topic, Question Based – Choose a particular topic, and have several, numbered questions for participants to respond to throughout the chat. Encourage them to include the question number in their response.

Multiple Topic, Question Based – Same as above, but the questions could be on multiple topics.

Single Topic, Freeflow – Set the topic, and then let the conversation grow a life of its own.

Q & A – Have a guest respond to a set of questions. These questions can be created ahead of time by the moderator, or submitted ahead of time by participants.

Another possibility is the use of a Twitter or chat “backchannel.” This is more of a free-for-all approach, where you set the topic but let people converse in more of a free-range manner about what’s being presented. This method is used on Twitter frequently during librarian conferences, where conference goers will have a pre-set hashtag assigned to the conference, and will tweet about what sessions they’ve attended: their questions, disagreements, and moments of inspiration and more are all sent out and tracked via the hashtag. This can be a way for a conversation to grow organically around the subject matter of the presentation.

Overall Considerations

West Virginia University (n.d.) has some great overall recommendations for planning for online discussions. The first four of this list are suggested by them; the last one is suggested by me.

Set a Moderator: whether you choose a discussion forum, chat room, or Twitter, you need a moderator who can stay on top of the conversation, participating in it but also steering it, pulling out notable responses, and exerting control when it gets off-topic or inappropriate.

Make Clear Expectations for Engagement: set policies and guidelines for appropriate behavior ahead of time. Encourage focus on the topic and respect for fellow participants, and let people know that “flaming” or inappropriate behavior will not be welcomed. Prepare to redirect conversation and enforce your guidelines if they are not followed.

Plan Ahead to Structure the Conversation: have a set of questions and/or topics ahead of time that you want to ask about. Know how you want things to go, and plan for it. If you want participants to send in questions, have them do it ahead of time and pick ones that you want to focus on; or, plan to stay on top of questions as they come in and answer them quickly. Post the questions and (if you have them) any suggested reading ahead of time where people can easily find them. Get familiar with the software and tools that are available to you, and find out what their capabilities are.

Be Encouraging, Supportive, and Timely: engage with your audience, and do so in a way that encourages them to participate in the discussion. Connect with them; don’t increase the relational distance between you and your participants.

Adapt a Face-to-Face Format: think about how, given the above considerations, you might adapt a discussion format that seems more suited to physical conversation. How might you structure a Think-Pair-Share activity using Twitter? How might a Hotseat discussion work in a discussion forum? Be creative!

Document created: April 23, 2016.
Document revised: June 23, 2016.
Document revised: February 28, 2019

References and Further Reading

Bender, Tisha. (2003) 2012. Discussion-Based Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning: Theory, Practice, and Assessment. Sterling: Stylys. Citations refer to second edition.

Kelly, Rob. 2014. “Discussion Board Assignments: Alternatives to the Question-and-Answer Format.” Faculty Focus. Accessed June 23rd.

Lin, ShinYi, and Richard C. Overbaugh. 2007. “The Effect of Student Choice of Online Discussion Format on Tiered Achievement and Student Satisfaction.” Journal of Research on Technology in Education 39 (4): 399-415.

Spinks, David. 2009. “HOW TO: Start and Run a Successful Twitter Chat.” Mashable. Accessed June 23rd.

Teacherstream, LLC. 2009. “Mastering Online Discussion Board Facilitation: Resource Guide.” Edutopia. Accessed June 23rd.