Online learning environments offer great potential as powerful mediums for promoting meaningful interaction and critical thinking.

Effective assignments using discussion forums are fundamental vehicles for facilitating such interaction. Attributes of discussion forum assignments are presented by which their effectiveness may be assessed from a design perspective.

Every learning environment needs quality learning materials. Attributes of online learning environments, including its predominant asynchronous nature, its lack of face-to-face interaction, and the lack of academic control over anytime access to course content, require instructors and course designers to adapt online learning pedagogy appropriately. The predominant traditional courseroom model has emphasized knowledge transfer from teacher to student and high control by the instructor over access to content. Online environments, in contrast, emphasize a constructivist approach that features learner control over access to content and meaningful interaction with other students and the instructor in a learning process that yields deeper understanding through critical thinking. Discussion boards are primary tools for facilitating meaningful interaction in online learning environments.

Graham et al. (2001) has identified seven attributes of effective online discussion assignments for use by instructors and online course designers:

  1. clear guidelines for instructor/student interaction,
  2. guidelines for ensuring meaningful discussion,
  3. students should present course projects,
  4. two types of feedback from students: information feedback and acknowledgment feedback,
  5. deadlines,
  6. challenging tasks, sample cases, and praise for quality work, and
  7. allowing students choice to accommodate individual differences.

Discussions should be designed to promote the inclusion in the course of learners’ individual backgrounds and experiences. By purposefully designing online discussions to include these attributes, motivation and achievement is increased. “To achieve pedagogical improvements in interactive web environments for assisting teaching and promoting learning, faculty can empower themselves by effectively using components such as discussion forums in web course tools” (Hazari, 2004).

Hazari, S. (2004). Strategy for assessment of online course discussions. Journal of Information Systems Education, 15(4), 349-355.