Discussion Forums in Online Teaching: Pros and Cons

An important advantage of online teaching is flexibility. Students can participate from almost any location around the world, and the use of asynchronous instructional techniques can increase temporal flexibility. People may have different schedules and time zones, so temporal flexibility is an important complement to geographic flexibility.

In this post, I discuss the use of discussion forums in online teaching. The idea of a discussion forum is that students engage in some kind of debate or discussion online. The instructor provides some instructors, such as a question to answer, and then students write responses within a time period.

Discussion forums have a number of advantages:

  • Because students can prepare responses at any time, they are far easier to organize than traditional discussion sessions with real-time interaction.
  • Because discussion forums allow students to prepare their responses, the quality of the discussion can be higher than in a real-time session. In my experience, it is not rare for students to include references in their discussion posts.
  • Discussion forums allow students to participate regardless of whether they feel comfortable speaking in public.

For these reasons, I find discussion forums an important backbone of an asynchronous online class. They offer an easy way for students to engage with each other on a regular basis.

That said, discussion forums also have their weaknesses. A discussion forum is still a remote way to communicate, and may not leave the same abiding impression that a rigorous debate in real time affords. Discussion forums also require some discipline, as both the students and the instructor must go through others’ posts and engage in a meaningful manner.

One good solution is to combine a discussion forum with a real-time, virtual session. The discussion forum leaves room for thoughtful, structured debate. The virtual session, in turn, allows students to continue the discussion with each other and the instructor. If some students cannot join the discussion forum, perhaps because of time zone differences, then they can watch a recording of the session and comment on it in the discussion forum.

This combination of asynchronous and synchronous discussion, in my experience, produces excellent learning outcomes without compromising the flexibility of online learning.


About the Author

Johannes Urpelainen is the Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Professor and Director of Energy, Resources and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (Washington DC, USA). He is the Founding Director of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy (ISEP). He serves as a senior advisor for ViaX Online Education, a a Beijing-based learning and education company.


Johannes Urpelainen works as a senior advisor for ViaX Online Education. The views presented in this blog are the author’s alone.