Cover Story

Web discussions are gaining popularity in academe as a way to spur intellectual exchange among students outside of regular class time. In fact, a recent survey by the Campus Computing Project finds at least a quarter of college courses have their own Web pages, many of them with discussion areas.

But, as convenient as it is to log on any time and discuss the latest course reading with classmates, students often find that the online world doesn't prompt the same kind of bonding, camaraderie or even conflict that face-to-face discussions do. Students respond less directly to one another on the Web because they can't see each other. Often they throw out random, isolated thoughts, and the discussion founders.

To make discussion more enticing and productive online, some psychology professors are developing ways to foster more bonding and social interaction over the Web. It's a matter of working in social cues that are otherwise missing online, says Indiana University psychology professor Curtis Bonk, PhD, a teacher and prolific researcher on students' interaction on the Web.

His advice to professors based on his research: Have students introduce themselves, find common interests, consciously build on others' comments and play out roles--for example, moderator, naysayer or optimist--that move discussion forward.

"The more shared knowledge students have about each other, the more sharing of social cues, the more motivated they'll be to participate in online discussion," Bonk says.

Forge social bonds

The first step toward a productive Web discussion is "just to say who you are," says Bonk.

This semester, students in his online discussions were asked to pick eight nouns to describe themselves--one student chose "computer," "music" and "professor," another "geek," "scientist" and "walker."

Also helpful, says Bonk, is setting up casual places for students to hang out and chat online--spots with inviting names such as "coffee station" or "café latte."

These online icebreakers help students discover common interests, say Bonk and others running Web discussions. For example, Lawrence Sherman, PhD, an educational psychology professor at Miami University in Ohio, finds that online introductions spawn breakout discussions among subgroups of students. Recently, three of his students--all full-time teachers--started their own discussion thread after realizing they shared an interest in working for equal education for African-American children.

"Online, students have the space and time to explore similar experiences," says Sherman. "They can't do that in a graduate class that meets once a week."

Professors can either let subgroups of students start discussions on their own, or they can assign them to groups and require them to discuss various readings. Ron Owston, PhD, a higher education professor and director of York University's Center for the Study of Computers in Education in Toronto, finds that smaller online groups focus better on discussion topics than do large groups.

Add context to messages

Even when students stay on topic, though, Owston is troubled by how little they interact and offer feedback. Bonk, who's been studying how to prompt more online student interaction, says students start providing more feedback when they shift from waiting for instructor guidance to instead guiding one another. To overcome lulls in online conversation, students need to tie their comments to others' comments, much as they do in face-to-face class discussions, he says.

Doing so gives their comments a sense of purpose and placement in the larger discussion, says Donald Winiecki, EdD, an assistant professor of instructional and performance technology at Boise State University. In research he reports in a chapter of the book, "Webtalk: Writing as conversation" (Lawrence Erlbaum, in press), he identifies several ways students can adapt techniques and practices from face-to-face conversation to online talk:

  • Reconstructed turn-taking. Students "snip" lines from others' messages, paste them into a new message and respond to them in turn.

  • Repair. Students correct, clarify or reorient comments made by other students by saying, for example, "I believe student X meant..." or "Building on student X's earlier comment...." They can also repair comments they themselves have made.

  • Formulations. Students summarize and assess where the conversation is headed based on previous messages--for example, someone might say, "The tone of recent postings has changed, signifying a shift in the class's thinking...." Sometimes students suggest new directions or topic shifts.

Some professors give students extra grade points for using such techniques. In fact, students in professor Richard Hall's psychology classes at the University of Missouri­Rolla lose points if they don't foster "positive interdependence." In a recent online discussion in Hall's undergraduate educational psychology class, for example, Hall required students to critique one another's proposed lesson plans for grade school classes. Students pointed out what they liked about others' proposals, and also what they'd suggest changing, as shown in the following exchange:

Student A: "I will be doing my lesson on phobias...a short lecture followed by group discussion...."

Student B: "'A,' I like the lesson plan that you have...I would just be careful not to go into too much detail as it might confuse or bore some students."

Student A: "Thanks 'B,' I plan on limiting the discussion to a certain number of phobias...."

Bonk also suggests that students identify the type of message being posted. Messages tagged "quibble," "addendum," "joke," "opinion," "evidence" or "question" tend to spark reaction from other participants because they know how to interpret the message, and therefore how to respond, he says. Students can also add visual cues to their messages, such as a cannon firing to indicate dissent, or a thumbs-up to express agreement.

Assign roles

Yet another way to stir lively online discussion is role-playing, says Bonk. To do this, online discussion participants sign up to take the part of, say, eternal optimist, pessimist, devil's advocate, trouble-shooter or discussion moderator. When taking on roles, students feel freer to express themselves, disagree with one another and debate, says Bonk.

"Students tend to be too nice to each other on the Web, and role-playing gives them license to be critical," he says. "Humorous quips, or sometimes even some mild flaming, add intrigue to discussion."

But he notes that in such cases, the discussion moderator or coach must ensure that conflict is thought-provoking and issue-oriented, not personal.

Similarly, students in Bonk's classes take turns starting and "wrapping" discussions on different topics. When participants' enthusiasm and insight wane, the student ends the discussion. Bonk also notes that the next generation of Web discussion tools will begin to "add an emotional side"--allowing users to post symbols for a wink, frown or smile, or to choose from a variety of message tags.

This technology is headed in the right direction, he says, "because anything you can do to foster peer responsiveness will make for a better, livelier online discussion."

Further reading

To visit the online discussion from Richard Hall's educational psychology class, go to To visit the discussion from Lawrence Sherman's class go to To access discussions from Curtis Bonk's classes go to

  • Bonk, C.J. & Cummings, J.A. (1998). A dozen recommendations for placing the student at the center of Web-based instruction. Educational Media International, 35(2), 82-89.

  • Bonk, C.J. & Dennen, V.P. (1999). Teaching on the Web: With a little help from my pedagogical friends. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 11(1), 3-28.

  • Hara, N., Bonk, C.J. & Angeli, C. (2000). Content analyses of online discussion in an applied educational psychology course. Instructional Science, 28(2), 115-152.