In-Person, Online Discussion: The Best of Both Learning Worlds?

photo of a group of people working on laptops

by Kristen Mosley

With the onset of the pandemic nearly two years ago, instructors and students experienced abrupt shifts in teaching and learning. Zoom became our new classroom and with it a host of new technological tools. Fast forward to the present, though, and we find ourselves feeling nimbler in the many settings and ways we’ve taught and learned since 2020. So, as we look ahead, how might we consider bridging the gap between what was and what is by incorporating computer-based tools in the in-person classroom?

Discussion has been conceptualized as the “externalization of thinking”,1 with student-to-student discussion noted as an effective facilitator of inquiry and critical thinking.2 A common barrier to student-led discussion, though, involves the willingness and comfortability of students in the physical space.3 Add the modern-day elements of masking and social distancing, and you may find yourself with additional hurdles to pass. However, the use of computer-mediated discussion for in-person learning may offer a unique solution.

Online-based discussion, while once reserved for virtual courses and asynchronous interactions, holds great potential for synchronous, in-person learning, too (Williams et al., 2016). This type of student-to-student interaction is frequently incorporated asynchronously* (e.g., Canvas discussion board assignments), yet less frequently incorporated synchronously** (e.g., Canvas chat feature or the OI2 Chat App). The use of computer-mediated discussion for synchronous, in-person learning affords many benefits to you and your students.

In a recently published review of online discussion in the classroom, three recommendations for implementing synchronous, online discussion were forwarded:4

1. Let students in on the purpose of the online discussion. It’s important to be sure students know that the purpose of the online discussion space is to learn, as opposed to perform. A key benefit to synchronous online discussion is the affordance of more voices than would otherwise be possible in a vocalized discussion. Encourage students to ask questions and collaborate as they develop their ideas together.

2. Model the type of language allowed. Synchronous discussion should provide informal and friendly opportunities for students to elaborate their thinking. Help students see and hear the difference that this type of forum provides. Whereas a submitted assignment often necessitates formal language, synchronous discussion is all about formulating and expanding ideas without worrying about vocabulary and syntax.

3. Support students’ sense of belonging in the online discussion space. While computer-based, synchronous discussions may feel more welcoming for some students, they may intimidate many others. To keep conversation flowing and promote student response, the instructor should plan for group sizes of 4-10 students that remain the same for several weeks. Group size and stability will help students develop relationships with others, deepen their sense of belonging in the classroom, and more readily vocalize their learning uncertainties.

Two Canvas tools can help you implement synchronous, computer-mediated discussion in your in-person classroom: Canvas’ Chat App and the OI2 Chat App (which is integrated with Canvas). Of note, the built-in Canvas chat app does not allow for student grouping, and the OI2 chat app does allow for student grouping. If interested in adding the OI2 chat app to your course, be sure to contact us: We’re always happy to help.

*Asynchronous discussion includes discussion that occurs over the course of several hours/days in which students can visit and revisit the discussion at their leisure. For example, assigning a Canvas discussion assignment in which students must post and respond to other students’ posts over the course of the week. 

**Synchronous discussion includes discussion that occurs at one point in time. Students are all present for the discussion at the same time and can respond to one another in real-time. For example, reserving the last ten minutes of in-person class for students to access the Canvas/OI2 chat app and discuss any lingering questions or thoughts from the day’s learning.

1. Arends, R. I. (2004). Learning To Teach. New York: McGraw Hill.

2. Hunkins, F. (1995). Teaching Thinking Through Effective Questioning. 2nd Edition. Boston: Christopher-Gordon.

3. Peterson, A. T., Beymer, P. N., & Putnam, R. (2018). Synchronous and asynchronous discussions: Effects on cooperation, belonging, and affect. Online Learning, 22(4), 7–25.

4. Zengilowski, A., & Schallert, D. L. (2020). Using “Plain Vanilla” Online Discussions to Foster Students’ Learning: From Research to Practice. In Handbook of Research on Online Discussion-Based Teaching Methods (pp. 26-54). IGI Global.

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