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Implementing online conversation groups

Consider using discussion boards, breakout groups, and other strategies to build more conversation and connection into online interaction. Promoting interaction between students during class can help them construct and negotiate understanding, as well as develop more of a sense of community in online courses.


A common complaint about online instruction is that it can feel less “human” than being in a physical classroom together. While an online learning environment can never match a physical classroom for the ability to connect, communicate, and share ideas, there are several different tools and strategies that can be used to humanize online courses and foster more conversation. If your course has traditionally been more lecture-based, you may want to pivot your course design and share recorded chunks of lecture content asynchronously. You can then use synchronous meeting times with students to be less about content acquisition and instead be more conversational or collaboratively task-oriented. Three good ways to do this are through the use of chat, discussion boards, and breakout groups.


Using the chat box in your synchronous online classes can be a quick, easy, and low-stakes way to encourage student conversation. Many teachers have found it nice to ask an icebreaker question at the beginning of class, or after breaks in a session, to help students feel comfortable responding in the chat tool. Once the class begins, students can be encouraged to use the chat as a type of backchannel, where they can ask questions (and answer each other), request clarification, make connections to other content, and more. The chat can be used for content checks where students are asked to provide answers (in emoji or text) to questions, or take short, formative-style quizzes with yes/no or a/b answers. Take time to build specific content questions throughout your presentation. This often is more effective than general ones such as ‘’Any questions?”

If you plan to use the chat as a back channel conversation tool for students, if teaching a large class, you may want to ask a colleague or student assistant to monitor the chat. Additionally, you may want to disable notifications so that you are less distracted while presenting.

Discussion Boards

Discussion boards are a versatile, and often overlooked, feature for creating opportunities for conversation in an online learning environment. They can be used for everything from introductions of class participants, to metacognitive activities and reflections, to thoughts about a specific question or topic, and more. 

Encourage students to respond to one another in the forums. This can be offered as a suggested activity, or it can also be more of a required assignment if written into assessment as a small portion of a final grade. Ensure that you have established norms with students for expectations around respectful interaction with each other in the forums prior to using them.

Good practices to encourage from students when responding to others in discussion forums are to do one or more of the following:

  • Compliment the writer about their post in a specific way.

  • Contribute new information to what has already been shared.

  • Make a connection to something else you've read, heard, seen, learned, experienced, etc.

  • Ask a question to get more details or clarification.

For more detailed or structured arguments or responses in discussion threads, it may be helpful to provide some suggestions such as the following: (deBoer, 2020)

Instead of saying...


‘In this segment the author

connects to theory X’

‘I would like to argue that the author connects to theory X or Y, because...’

‘I am struggling to understand

X or Y.....’

‘Can anyone help me understand what the author means with X or Y? I struggle to understand this because...’

‘This is a good/ bad argument

the author is making.’

‘ I feel the author is making a good/bad argument here,


Discussion boards can be used with an entire class where everyone has the opportunity to post and/or respond to each other. There are many different ways to adjust settings, depending on what you prefer as an instructor, including allowing students to edit their posts (or not) after publishing, moderation of posts (this could be done by the instructor, assigned to a teaching assistant, or even made a role that rotates between students in your course), and more. If you use the group feature in your course, then discussion boards can be created and enabled that are only for the use of the members of that particular group. This helps facilitate small group conversations and may make discussions, and the use of discussion forums, more manageable in a course with large numbers of students.

If you want to monitor the discussion forums without remembering to check them for new responses on a regular basis, consider subscribing to email notifications so that you are alerted when new items are posted.

Breakout Groups

A useful way of allowing students to have more conversations during synchronous class time together is by using breakout groups for smaller group conversations. These groups can easily be created randomly “on the fly” during Collaborate sessions, or you can place students in custom groups and/or allow them to move themselves into or between groups. If desired, the instructor can visit individual groups to check-in and interact with the participants.

Similar to discussion forums, if you use the group feature in your course, breakout rooms can be created and enabled that are only for the use of the members of that particular group. This helps facilitate small group conversations and may make discussions more manageable in a course with large numbers of students.

Breakout groups are flexible, and just like the group discussions and conversations that you can have in a physical classroom, can be used in a variety of ways. Some ideas:

  • Have students discuss their thoughts or answers to a discussion prompt or question.

  • Pair students for close reading activities around articles, posts, or other print media.

  • Have students work on group assignments during synchronous time.

  • Think - Pair - Share

  • Have students interact with resources in advance of class, then meet in breakout rooms to do a jigsaw-style activity.

  • Allow students to have conversations about their thinking while working together in another digital tool on a collaborative assignment (ie: Jamboard, Google Slides, etc.)

  • Allow small groups of students to negotiate understanding and take a collaborative quiz where they must have consensus on the answers prior to submitting.

To eliminate the uncomfortable, jarring sensation of “teleporting” back to the main Collaborate room mid-discussion, consider asking one student per group to take on the role of timer and to alert their team members when time is running out. Additionally, as the instructor, you may want to post reminders of how much time is left before returning to the main room in the “Everyone” chat to keep them alerted.

Whom to contact?

Contact EDU Support or your faculty's Embedded Expert from ESI for tailored didactic advice in using these suggestions in your teaching. For technical assistance please contact Nestorsupport.

Last modified: 22 December 10:29 AM
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