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NameCoach – A new tool for Canvas

A man laughs while typing on his laptop

NameCoach for Canvas – a tool for building community in the classroom.

NameCoach is a new tool introduced in Canvas in Fall 2021. It allows students and instructors to record their preferred way to audibly speak their name, as well as provide a phonetic pronunciation.

In Canvas, NameCoach is automatically enabled on the left-hand navigation bar. Selecting it will bring up the list of students’ names and preferred pronunciations.

Being able to call students by their name, with the correct pronunciation is a powerful tool in both the online and face-to-face classroom. Research supports that even small measures, like calling students by name, builds rapport, may increase participation, and increases students’ feelings of engagement with the class.

For more information about NameCoach, see the ITS Teaching and Learning page.

Learn more about NameCoach and all the Canvas tools offered through ITS Teaching & Learning.

How this will help:

Identify ways that you might encourage active participation in web conferencing sessions.
Know where to find resources related to creating participatory environments.

The basics

When groups including classes meet in real-time online via a video conferencing tool, it’s tempting to just use the time for a presentation or a question and answer session. However, there are ways that you can deliberately use technology in these sessions to enable meaningful participation, deeper learning, and stronger connections.

There are two basic ways to encourage participation in this environment: 

  1. Utilize activities that can be completed by everyone at the same time. For example, you could post a question or prompt in the chat feature of your videoconference tool and then ask everyone to respond at the same time (called a “chatterfall” or “chatstream” or “backchannel”). Another easy technique is asking everyone to contribute simultaneously through an annotation feature or shared workspace such as a Google doc.
  2. Break the whole group up into smaller groups. In classes larger than 5, it helps to create pairs or smaller groups using breakout rooms. Depending on the size of your class, you can also easily scaffold a series of small group conversations (e.g. first as pairs, then as groups of four, etc) by combining breakout rooms.

When planning participatory synchronous sessions, feel free to keep the technology simple: we recommend using Zoom and a tool from the Google suite (such as docs or slides). Think about activities that you’ve run in-person and then work to adapt them in order to optimize the opportunities afforded in a remote environment. Consider the essence of that activity and build out from there rather than trying to translate it directly. Although technology can often help, sometimes activities just don’t work as well in a remote environment, and that’s okay. In this way, you’ll be using technology deliberately in the service of your goals rather than using technology for its own sake. 

Accessibility is another major consideration when running participatory virtual classes or meetings. Before meeting remotely, you’ll want to get a sense of any accommodations that your students may have and work to make sure that all shared materials are accessible and easy to use. In understanding the needs of your students before a meeting, you can choose the activities and/or the technologies that will work best for that particular group. Additionally, it’s important to combine synchronous meetings with robust asynchronous tools in order to maximize the accessibility of your course. 

For specific ideas and activities that you might try, check out our Facilitation Guide: Participatory Sessions in a Virtual Environment. This guide is designed for those new to teaching or facilitating remotely and is built around using Zoom and the Google suite to encourage participation. It includes sections covering general recommendations (such as those found below in the Practical Tips), ideas leveraging specific tech features such as chat and breakout rooms, and an appendix that walks you through how to use Zoom if you need help with the technology. 

The guide also includes full instructions for a number of activities. These activities are largely centered on Liberating Structures, a suite of activities designed to encourage better collaboration and full participation by all group members. However, these activities will feel very familiar for a teaching environment. For example, 1-2-4-All is a kind of think-pair-share, Carousel Brainstorm is a series of brainstorms that build upon one another, and Shift and Share is a set of rotations for small group presentations.

Practical Tips

If you’re looking to encourage more active participation in a remote class or meeting, here are a few of the general recommendations taken from the facilitation guide to get you started: 

  • Build an agenda with ample time for activities and breaks.  

Because there is so much to process when meeting remotely, you should be prepared for activities to take longer, and Zoom fatigue is real. You’ll want to create an agenda that includes plenty of time for all activities as well as breaks for classes longer than 60 minutes. 

  • Create separate, shared workspaces for small groups that include all activity instructions. 

If you have small groups working in breakout rooms, create a dedicated workspace for each small group that includes all of the activity instructions and space for them to record notes (called a “harvest”). This workspace helps to keep small groups on track, allows you to monitor progress, and leaves documentation for everyone in the class to use—not just that small group. See the Template Slides and Template Text Collaboration Document in the Resources section below for examples of harvest spaces.  

  • Set clear expectations at the beginning. 

It helps to give students some expectations and guidelines so that you are creating a comfortable environment for participation. Some ideas include:  

  • Ask students to mute themselves unless speaking. Be clear that you’ll mute anyone who doesn’t abide by this expectation. 
  • Recommend that students configure their screens so that they can keep the chat window open during the entire class, rather than flipping back and forth. 
  • Encourage students to keep a piece of paper and writing utensil nearby.  
  • Let everyone know that video conference tools such as Zoom are strict facilitators; for instance, they will probably be whisked away from a breakout room while in the midst of a sentence. 
  • Acknowledge that a remote class will feel different than a face-to-face class, and that’s okay.
  • Enlist students to help with facilitation. 

There will be some additional responsibilities and considerations when meeting in a videoconference session, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. To help with this, consider having 1-2 students act as “backchannel” moderators for the class. These students could be responsible for keeping track of questions, making sure all activity instructions are posted in the chat, and/or possibly summarizing the session at the end.


University of Michigan

Other resources

How this will help:

Understand key principles of ethical community engagement and how to operationalize them when designing and teaching online community-engaged courses.
Learn concrete suggestions, resources, and strategies for addressing the needs of students and community partners during online community-engaged teaching.
Discover ways that Ginsberg Center staff can support your community-engaged course, from finding remote engagement opportunities for students to helping prepare your students to partner with communities and maximize their learning.

The basics

Community-engaged learning is when “students engage in activities that address human and community needs, together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes” (adapted from Jacoby, 1996). In your face-to-face classes, you may have experience working directly with community partners in various ways to integrate students into community-engaged learning.

But what does this look like in an online class? Or when the community engagement is virtual? When shifting to an online environment, many community-engaged instructors at the University of Michigan have expressed the difficulty of balancing students’ needs for accessible and empathetic virtual instruction, community partners’ rapidly-shifting needs and priorities, and general public health and safety concerns. However, online instruction does not mean isolated – instead, it is possible to leverage technology as well as use it as a lens to examine community engagement.

The Ginsberg Center is a community and civic engagement center with a mission to cultivate and steward equitable partnerships between communities and the University of Michigan in order to advance social change for the public good. Our Best Practices for Online Community Engaged Teaching and Learning provides tangible suggestions, resources, and strategies that are rooted in the 6 key principles that guide our work. The guide also synthesizes research on online service-learning and community engagement with a particular focus on the opportunities available at the University of Michigan. We offer highlights from our guide below:

1. Connecting Civic Learning Across Contexts:
We support students’ integrative learning across classroom, co-curricular, personal, and community settings. Reflection is a critical component of this integration throughout the partnership process.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Have students reflect on their assumptions about technology and how these assumptions may impact their work with community partners.
  • Use technology to allow students to reflect in multiple ways: online journals, group discussion boards, videos, and audio recording. 
  • Take time to reflect upon how using technology has affected your approach to teaching and community engagement.

2. Starting with Community: Our approach centers around community-identified priorities and how we can most effectively match University of Michigan resources and expertise to those of community partners working to address these priorities. It’s important to start with your community partners’ goals and priorities when deciding how and when to integrate technology into your engaged course.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • If community partners are co-creating the virtual course with you, ask about the partners’ technological preferences and capacity explicitly, and maintain a dialogue through the course.
  • Consider inviting community members to your virtual classroom as a guest speaker because community partners bring ideas, perspective, language, and knowledge to the table that can be inaccessible otherwise.
  • If the community members virtually “host” the students with their organization, communicate the roles of the community partner clearly and take an active role in managing your students’ participation.

3. Centering on Equity: We strive for balanced impact in our partnerships, which means that students, faculty, university staff, and community partners all have the opportunity to share their interests, goals, and expectations. Leveraging technology may bring more opportunities to converge interest and goals but may also present added challenges to centering equity..

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Co-create course objectives with your community partners, and use these objectives to determine what technological tools are most appropriate and compatible with the goals and capacity of the community partner.
  • Give community partners access to all virtual components of the course, including discussion boards, course announcements, and readings.
  • Develop a plan to prepare students for both synchronous and asynchronous interaction with community partners.

4. Fostering long-term Partnership: We focus on stewarding long-term relationships with community partners that last beyond a particular project or engagement. 

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Work with Ginsberg to learn about what technological resources and supports are available to you and your community partners through the university.
  • Discuss with your partner how they can continue to have access to any online resources (readings, recordings, discussion boards, students’ work, etc.) that were created during your course. 

5. Acknowledging Power: Cultural humility requires a recognition of power differences and conscious attempts to balance these differences through reflection and learning (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998). Technology adds an additional layer of power and equity into the community conversation.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Consider how power imbalances might manifest in specific forms of virtual interactions (video meetings, phone meetings, email, discussion boards, etc.) and establish a plan for how issues will be identified and counteracted.
  • Invite your students to reflect on how technology can be used to decrease the negative effects of power and privilege and when it may exacerbate those effects.

6. Moving from Individual to Collective Action: We support coordination, collaboration, and increased coherence by bringing together parties with shared interests to amplify positive community impact.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Consider inviting community partners into the virtual classroom to share historical, political, organizational, and community contexts for the issues they are addressing and who else in the community is working on the issues.
  • Work with the Ginsberg Center to access our extensive network of partners so you can connect efficiently with partners ready and eager to collaborate.

Practical tips

  • Want some ways to get started in community-engaged learning right away?
    • Consider inviting community partners into the virtual classroom to share historical, political, organizational, and community contexts for the issues they are addressing and who else in the community is working on the issues.
    • Consider inviting community members to your virtual classroom as a guest speaker because community partners bring ideas, perspective, language, and knowledge to the table that can be inaccessible otherwise.
  • The Community Engagement: Collaborating for Change MOOC offers free, online modules to help you and your students prepare for community-engaged learning.
  • Ginsberg Center staff hold regular Community of Practice gatherings and workshops for instructors of community-engaged teaching. View our full calendar of events.
  • Read the full guide for Online Community Engaged Learning and the general guide for Community-Engaged Learning.


University of Michigan

How this will help:

Find online resources available from the University of Michigan Museums to include in your course

The Basics

The museums and special library collections of the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor support online teaching with a wide range of digital collection and exhibition resources. Many have educational staff dedicated to hosting and crafting synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences with their digital resources. By clicking on the links to specific museums below, you can learn more about each institution’s materials and support for online learning.

Please click on the link for resources from the various museums: 

University of Michigan Museum of Art

University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology

Papyrology Collection (University of Michigan Library)

Special Collections Research Center (University of Michigan Library)

University of Michigan Herbarium

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum

William L. Clements Library

Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments

University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry

Bentley Historical Library

University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

Clark Library of Maps and Atlases

How this will help:

Discover tools to help plan an online course using design strategies

The basics

If you do any search for “online course design” or read any book on online design, just about every resource emphasizes the importance of planning for online course design. However, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed if you are considering moving a course online, even if you have support from others. Many instructors new to online struggle to engage with the planning for an online course in the recommended timeline (several weeks or months in advance). 

If you need help planning, this comprehensive course planning blueprint tool can help you reflect and guide your design process (want something simpler? Keep reading for additional options).

The blueprint is a spreadsheet is rooted in a backward design process. While by no means comprehensive (meaning that you still may have more work to do if there are media or instructional designers involved), it can give you a structure for planning your online course. It can also be a place to have conversations with others with your strategy already mapped out, cutting down on orientation time to your course.  Feel free to make a copy of it for your own use.

Our planning blueprint is made up of six parts:

  1. Course information
    Course name, number of students, etc.
  2. Course goals
    4-5 goals for the course overall – not specific to particular lessons. 
  3. Learner analysis
    Some questions to reflect on what your learners might be bringing to the class
  4. Learning Objectives and Content
    Breakdown of learning objectives by week, and what content is needed to support it
  5. Activities and assessments
    What are the assessments and activities that support your learning objectives?
  6. Instructor engagement plan
    What will your plan be to engage with students each week?

There are other tools available to help you plan, so feel free to find one that may align with your teaching. Ultimately, most design tools are going to walk you through a similar process, so what is most important is to find a tool that resonates with your teaching style.


University of Michigan

CAI – Online Blueprint Planning Guide

How this will help:

Describe the key features of an accessible course.
Identify ways to ensure a course you are teaching, is accessible for all learners.
Know where to find resources on accessible teaching at the University.

The basics

Although accessibility needs to be at the forefront of an instructor’s mind when designing a course, it is also important for instructors who are teaching a course. Even if it has not been designed to be intentional about making the learning experience accessible to all students, there are important checks and decisions an instructor should make before the first day of class as well as actions an instructor can take during a term to maximize the accessibility of a course. 

Some of these strategies will only be applicable if the instructor has autonomy to make changes to the curriculum, while others are generally applicable.

Prior to the first day

When preparing to teach an online course, creating a syllabus that demonstrates your teaching philosophy and values is one of the first steps you can make to build a connection between you and your students. Make sure that your syllabus includes language about 

  • How to obtain accommodations for disabilities (sample text available from the Services for Students with Disabilities),
  • Your willingness to hear students’ concerns about the accessibility of course content and the technology used in the course, and 
  • Clear descriptions of the kinds of assignments and assessments in the course so that students can anticipate what kinds of accommodations they may need.

Ideally, the accessibility of the course content was established by the team that designed the course, but you should review the content to make sure all readings/documents are screen reader accessible, all videos are captioned, and all visuals have audio descriptions or alt text. If you have flexibility in what readings/content to use in the curriculum, consider switching out content that is behind a paywall to open access/Creative Commons licensed resources. 

Similarly, if the technologies students are expected to use have a cost associated with them or are not accessible, identify alternative tools to use. Note that sometimes using a tool that has a cost is better than using a free application, especially when the company that owns the tools uses or sells student data in ways that students cannot opt out of.

If there is not one currently in your syllabus, adding a statement informing students that you are willing to accommodate their accessibility needs is a great first step to take. You can find a template to adapt for your course on the CRLT website. Besides the syllabus, you can also consider verbally telling your students about accommodation in the first class. Although students remain the right to not disclose their disabilities, please do remind students that the earlier they get in contact with the Services for Students with Disabilities, the earlier the accommodation can be put in place once requested. If students declare in advance of the start of the course that they will need accommodations to equitably participate in the course, make sure to connect with Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) to identify specific steps you need to take to make your course accessible. This might include setting your synchronous sessions up to be captioned or recording your synchronous sessions so students can access them later.

On the first day

The first day of an online course may or may not include a synchronous interaction; either way it is important to reinforce the messages around accessibility you put into your syllabus. If you aren’t meeting with students in the first week of the term, this might take the form of an email to students on the first day of the term or an audio or video recording of what you would say during a synchronous meeting.

Set norms, but be flexible. Create a plan that will likely need to iterate and evolve as you understand the needs of your learners better. 

  • One idea for making synchronous sessions more accessible, both to students with disabilities and to learners who aren’t using video to connect to the class session is to ask students to say their name every time they speak. For example, getting into the habit of saying “X speaking” helps everyone orient to a new voice in a videoconference call.
  • Instructors should also develop a clear plan for how students will ask questions and interact with one another, which needs to include considerations for students with hearing and/or visual impairments, who lack of access to broadband internet access, eliminating their ability to use video, and students who can’t or choose not to use video connections to synchronous sessions. 

Throughout the term

Much of what you need to do during the term is remain consistent with the values and practices you set up at the beginning of the course – enforce best practices for introducing oneself before speaking, monitoring the channels set up for discussion to make sure they are accessible to all, and being responsive when a student needs an accommodation. Other things you can try to include:

  • Using explicit verbal cues as to how to use tools to orient learners who may not be looking at a video demonstration
  • Using descriptive language to describe visuals you might be using in a presentation
  • Provide guidelines to any guest speakers about maximizing their audience’s engagement with their  lecture(s)
  • When possible, provide lecture slides and course materials in advance of a synchronous session.  This practice allows learners to adapt and process materials in a way that meets their needs, as well as providing an opportunity for learners to surface needs.
  • After synchronous sessions, post both the text transcript and recording, if possible.

Practical tips

  • First day – inform students about SSD and requesting accommodations
  • Be responsive to accommodation requests; students may encounter changes in their circumstances that impact what they need to fully participate, and their requests may not all appear at the start of the term
  • Add captions and/or transcripts to existing videos and audio from the course
  • If possible, replace scanned copies of documents with online versions of the text (library resources, online journals, etc) or versions that have been appropriately OCRed 
  • Make sure the smallest font size in your documents is at least larger than 10 pt. 12+ is preferred. 
  • Ensure high color contrast between text and the background color 
  • Offering additional office hours/student visiting hours can provide space for students to discuss accessibility issues and difficulties navigating the online learning environment


University of Michigan

Accessibility- Resources & guides

  –Access to remote instruction

ITS- Adaptive technologies

       – Instructional accessibility tips

Library- Describing visual resources toolkit

Other Resources

Center for Applied Special Technology – Information on universal design for learning (UDL)

Microsoft Office- Making word documents accessible

How this will help:

Understand the importance of chunking information, minimizing cognitive overload, instructor affect and effective visuals for student learning in online lectures.

The basics

Although there are many skills used in delivering face-to-face lectures that are equally important in an online context, there are important unique features of teaching and learning online that, when taken into consideration, can set your course up for success.

As instructors begin teaching online, they often have a gut instinct to try to replicate what is done in a face-to-face course as closely as possible.  Face-to-face learning environments and online learning experiences each have their own unique advantages and need to be designed with those features in mind. For example, when designed well, online teaching offers learners opportunities to learn at their own pace and at times of the day that work for them. Lecturing is a technique used in both face-to-face and online contexts, but the lectures themselves are likely going to be very different depending on the context. This module will provide insights from scholarship on multimedia learning and online learner preferences to help you develop engaging and effective lectures for your online course.

There are a couple of obvious differences between lecturing in a face-to-face course and lecturing online: You aren’t in the same physical room as your audience when you lecture online, and you don’t actually have to be engaging with the content at the same time as your learners in an online course. Online lectures are described as asynchronous, where each learner downloads (or streams) the lecture at a time of their choosing, or as synchronous, where the class community is all meeting at the same time via phone and/or web conferencing.

Asynchronous lectures have many advantages for learners:

  • For learners with non-optimal internet access, videos can be downloaded and watched on a device rather than trying to simultaneously stream audio and video via web conferencing applications.
  • Learners can increase or decrease the speed of the video playback as suits their preferences.
  • Students can focus on learning from the lectures at times that work for them personally, as opposed to at the time that works for the largest percentage of their classmates and the instructor.
  • Students can pause, rewind, fast forward, and rewatch videos based on their own level of understanding of and comfort with the content of the lecture.

Asynchronous lectures also have advantages for instructors:

  • The style of the video (e.g. those described in Choe, et al., 2019) can be varied based on the nature of the content of the lecture and the learning objectives.
  • The instructor has flexibility around when they deliver the lecture.
  • Depending on the content of the lecture, many lecture videos can be used in future iterations of a course.

All of these advantages aren’t to say that synchronous interactions aren’t valuable in an online course – it behooves instructors and course designers, though, to mindfully decide what the best use of time “together” is.

Guidelines for engaging lectures

  • Don’t recreate your classroom lecture

Or at least, don’t feel compelled to. This is a different format, so you are free to be different. Maybe instead of a video, you try a podcast? Maybe you don’t lecture, and instead provide a written commentary on someone else’s lecture.

  • Think about who your learners are

Knowing your audience is essential to producing any good lecture, but it’s especially important when you won’t be able to ‘read the room.’ When possible, gather data on what courses your students have already taken (like in Atlas), identify current events that relate to course content, and articulate how the knowledge and skills learners are gaining can support their goals for the future.

  • Keep them short

Shorter lectures make it easier for an audience to maintain their attention and align closely with what we know about how learning works. Breaking long lectures into a library of shorter ones, where each lecture focuses on just one, or maybe two, concepts decreases the cognitive burden on learners, enabling them to focus on learning what you want them to learn. There is no magic length for an asynchronous lecture, but aiming for 7-10 minutes is a reasonable rule of thumb. There are resources for ideas on how to create a concise framing for your lectures, such as our page on Half-Life Your Message.

  • Be yourself

Feeling a sense of belonging is a human need, and research indicates that a sense of belonging promotes learning. This is true regardless of the type of classroom a course uses. In online contexts one of the key components to building a sense of belonging is helping learners “feel that they relate, as real people, to those with whom they interact online to develop feelings of trust, being valued, and mattering.” (Peacock, et al. 2019) Being yourself, including not worrying too much about the “umms” and “uhhs,” is one way to help learners feel connected to other real people in the course community. When using video, having your face on-screen for times when you don’t need other visuals to explain content can also help students engage with you and the lecture.

  • Keep it interactive

Video or audio recordings can be used for more than explaining concepts. Using recordings to remind students of upcoming events or due dates, explain the instructions or details of an assignment or task, or respond to student work can ensure that some of your recorded content is very up to date, even if you are re-using recorded content from previous runs of the course. Some software tools also allow quizzes to be embedded in videos so that there can be a close connection between the lecture and student reflection on the content. Pair a lecture with a low-stakes self-assessment quiz through Canvas as a knowledge check to see if students are understanding the material.

  • Use visuals strategically

If asynchronous video lectures are used visual aids can greatly enhance the learning experience, so long as they are aligned with the message of the lecture. It is important to keep in mind the accessibility of the images used – make sure the video includes a verbal description of the image.

One model for slide design, the assertion-evidence model, is useful for helping identify when visuals might be useful for learning and for designing effective slides to deliver the message. If creating an assertion-evidence slide is proving to be particularly challenging for a particular point in a lecture, it is better to have a “talking head” than to have a slide with only words. Most presenters, when using text-only slides, end up reading the text or summarizing it, which actually can create “cognitive overload” for learners. When presented with spoken words and written words, the human brain struggles to take in information from both channels; it can only focus on one set of words at a time. Images are processed differently than words, though, so there is less burden on the learner when they are presented with an image and spoken words. If there are visuals that illustrate a point, using them in a lecture increases both the engagement of learners and the effectiveness of the lecture.


Check out this infographic on keeping students engaged during online lectures.


University of Michigan

Home Recording Accessibility Considerations

Other Resources

Temple University: 6 Tips for creating engaging video lectures that students will actually watch

Rethinking Presentations in Science and Engineering


Choe, R.C., Scuric, Z., Eshkol, E., Cruser, S., Arndt, A., & Cox, R. (2019). Student satisfaction and learning outcomes in asynchronous online lecture videos. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 18(4).

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Peacock, S. & Cowan, J. (2019). Promoting sense of belonging in online learning communities of inquiry at accredited courses. Online Learning, 23(2), 67-81. doi:10.24059/olj.v23i2.1488

How this will help:

Describe four principles for productive online discussion board facilitation.
Identify when the discussion needs instructor support.

The basics

Group dynamics are a key part of facilitating meaningful discussions with students, both face to face and online. For this collaborative space to exist online, the instructor must know how to read the group using only written communication. Large and small group discussions are possible to conduct in distance education and they require a skilled facilitator.

In a face-to-face class, group discussions are frequently used to encourage students to encourage connection and critical thinking. Asynchronous discussions are used similarly in online courses. The goal of any discussion is for learners to engage in reflection, investigation, and application of core course concepts. Discussions are also an excellent way to build a classroom community through interaction with peers and you as the instructor. In addition, they act as a way to assess how well students are progressing in the content. Tools to host asynchronous discussions may include Canvas, Piazza, Annotate and more. If you aren’t familiar with the mechanics of a discussion board, we’d recommend you start with some technical resources.

Depending on how the course was designed, discussions can take different forms. Some courses have a single weekly discussion topic, or multiple topics. These discussions can be organized in forums for better management and to keep learners focused on a particular subject. If you are working in this course as a facilitator, it’s likely that your discussion prompts have already been designed prior to the course starting. If this is a new course for you, a great place to start is to familiarize yourself with the overall structure and cadence of how discussions may be used in the course.

Discussions can be used for various instructional purposes and formats, such as:

  • Small breakout discussions where students work together to answer a critical question as a group assignment.
  • Students posting their individual responses to a question, and in turn responding to two or three other students.
  • Using an annotation tool, students collaboratively read an article. They can then collaboratively comment on areas of the article.
  • You have created a thread in the discussion board where you answer frequently asked questions for the week.
  • There is a guest speaker this week! They join your discussion board to interact with the students in a Q&A format.
  • Each student has a private discussion thread that they use as a journal for the course.

Facilitating meaningful online discussions is rooted in creating a climate of respect, encouraging student exploration, and instructor presence. The four major principles below outline how to foster an online environment that is supportive of meaningful discussions.

Principles for cultivating successful discussions

  • Create cultural norms (netiquette, rubrics, introductions): In a face-to-face setting, you may use a combination of explicit techniques to create a climate in your classroom (statements in your syllabus, in-class verbal descriptions), but there are also implicit norms that are shaped through interpersonal interaction both between students and between student-instructor. Because the implicit norms are harder to capture in the beginning of an online course, it’s a good idea to find ways to make all expectations clear at the start of the course. Social norms can also be crowd-sourced with students – this can be a great way to build a community and help give participants a sense of ownership in the course. Model the type of behavior you want students to demonstrate – if you are looking for students to be reflective in their posts, demonstrate what that should look like in a post of your own.

Some tips:

  • Be explicit about your expectations for the learning environment you are hoping to create. This includes formal and informal communications. What title should students use for you? How will you refer to students?
  • Specify spaces and forms for formal and informal communications. Create a discussion forum for off-topic conversations for (and with) students, and direct conversations there if necessary.
  • Model the behavior you want students to exhibit.
  • Encourage participation (constructive, positive, active, and inclusive):An online discussion frequently benefits from frequent instructor participation – at first.  However, over time, it is important to slowly ease back and allow the students to co-facilitate and broaden the conversations. For example, if you have students introduce themselves, try to comment on every learner’s post, even if it is a simple welcome message connecting yourself to the student in some way. However, as students gain comfort with the medium and with the norms, it’s important to scaffold students to be communicating with each other, rather than dominating the conversation. Your role can become more of a guide particularly for times when a conversation requires intervention. Some research suggests that student participation actually decreases as faculty involvement increases after the first few discussions (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2003). The goal is to shift communication patterns from instructor-led to a free flowing conversation amongst students. Discussion boards can become large time investments. It’s easy to get drawn into an engaging conversation with students. The best instructors create a strategy for facilitation, set clear expectations and review ways to make facilitating good discussions more efficient.Some tips:
    • While we frequently jump to critique when reading others’ writing, keep in mind that particularly in a discussion, critique alone can disrupt the flow of a conversation. In addition, discussion boards are public to all students. Save strong critiques for private correspondence. 
    • Use students’ names. It may seem like a small thing, but referring to a learner by name can help build community and establish your presence in a course.
    • While you find that you enjoy an active participation in a discussion thread, consider your role as a facilitator to connect students to each other, rather than you as the expert voice.
  • Awareness & intervention: Inevitably, there are going to be times where there are conversation lulls or one person dominates. While as the facilitator, you do not need to actively participate in every discussion thread, but rather monitor the discussion. You can use the conversations as a way to monitor student progress and learning [link to formative assessment], build community in the class, and encourage critical thinking. It is helpful to be able to step into an online discussion to redirect conversations and/or connect students as necessary. It does not mean that you have to be reading and commenting on every post, but keeping in touch with the conversations as they are taking place.
    • See more in Discussion Board Challenges.
  • Create interactions to encourage critical thought: Like a face-to-face discussion, the purpose of discussions are often to push students’ thinking deeper and more critically about a topic. As the facilitator of an online discussion, you will have access to every participating student’s written thoughts on a topic.

Some tips:

  • Find ways to connect students in the forum. If you notice that two students had complementary or conflicting points, connect them to spark conversation. For example: “B, I noticed that your perspective on Vygotsky’s learning theory highlights a different area than W’s. How would you respond to W’s critique of the theory?”

Practical tips

  • Technical concerns
    • This could be a first-time online experience for many participants. Make sure that both you and your students are comfortable using the discussion board. It can be really helpful to have a practice post. An introductory post from students at the beginning of the course can help troubleshoot technical issues in a low-stakes format. 
  • Set expectations
    • Be clear with students about how much interaction you as the instructor will provide each week. Responding to every student posting in every discussion is oftentimes unrealistic. In a face-to-face class you wouldn’t be able to monitor every small group discussion. Instead, come up with a predictable strategy for participants. It may be to respond to one third of the class each week, or to engage with 2-3 small groups.
    • Create a rubric for students so they understand what you expect from their weekly posts. Rubrics and requirements help guide students’ work and give an outline for what best practices are. Are these posts formal and require a specific citation style? Are students allowed (and/or encouraged) to contribute their less formal thoughts as well? Include a rubric for student responses as well.
  • Time management
    • Online discussions can involve a significant time investment. Since the nature of distance learning is to be ‘on’ 24/7, it is important to structure time dedicated to participating in the discussion board. See more information on time management for facilitation.
    • Save in a separate document common responses you might give – you can personalize them later, but will save you the time of re-writing common pieces of text.
    • If time constraints are great a particular week, email a weekly summary or use office hours to acknowledge and comment on the discussion more broadly.
  • Build community
    • In posts to participants, use their names and requested pronouns.
    • Create a discussion section for off-topic conversations. Encourage learners to talk about non-classroom topics or even post a weekly off-topic conversation to connect students.
    • In a weekly email or announcement, summarize highlights from the previous week’s discussion and preview what is coming up. You might even consider noting interesting threads to encourage students to visit.
    • Be creative and personable in responses to students.
  • Create good questions!
    • This may seem obvious, but good questions can make a big difference. See Crafting Discussion Questions for more.
    • Check out this infographic on the roles of a facilitator!


University of Michigan

LSA- Engaging students in online discussion

Other Resources

Carlton College – Activities to set classroom discussion environment

Educause- 10 tips for effective online discussions

University of Maine Systems- Facilitating online discussions


Alrushiedat, N., & Olfman, L. (2012). Anchored asynchronous online discussions: Facilitating participation and engagement in a blended environment. Proceedings of the Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, S. (2003). Sage, guide or ghost? the effect of instructor intervention on student participation in online discussion forums. Computers and Education, 40(3), 237–253.

Richardson, J. C., Caskurlu, S., & Ashby, I. (2018). Facilitating your own discussions [PDF file]. Retrieved from

Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively. Internet and Higher Education.