Teaching & Learning

Asynchronous Communication

Network of stick figures and computers


Email supports communication between the sender and one or more recipients.


  • norms and etiquette are familiar to most people
  • no scheduling is necessary


  • it is the participant's responsibility to organize and track course email
  • difficult to judge participation since you are not likely to see private conversations


  • Be aware that your email may be archived on other servers or may be forwarded to unintended recipients.
  • Users often have multiple email accounts. Make sure that students understand which account you will send mail to.


What are Wikis?

Wikis constitute an impressive presence on the World Wide Web, giving content producers and browsers alike a valuable resource for sharing information and collaborative editing. In it's simplest form, a wiki is simply a collection of pages that can be edited right in a web browser by anyone who has permission to do so. As of this writing (1/2011), the most popular wiki in use is Wikipedia, available at www.wikipedia.org, where over 91,000 active contributors world wide collaborate on more than 17 million Wikipedia articles, written in more than 270 languages.(1)

Another popular site, Wiki.com, allows users to search wikis all over the web, including Wikipedia, from one central location. Users can choose whether to search all wikis, only Wikipedia, or only independently run wikis.

Blog? Wiki? Bliki?

Web logs, commonly known as blogs, and wikis are often confused for one another. This confusion stems from the fact that wikis offer an easy-to-use markup and interface, putting Web development ideas within reach of even the least technology savvy users.

While wikis allow for collaboration, assuming a personality that varies as widely as that of the users participating, blogs are more like journals, with each entry reflecting the personality of its author. Blog entries are not intended for universal editing; rather they are intended to reflect the thought of one individual, or a small group of co-authors.

Why Wiki? Establishing Need

When infusing teaching with technology, it is important to first consider the motives and expectations for doing so. When considering implementation of a wiki, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the ultimate goals?
  • How will this change the student experience?
  • What is the intended finished product?

Establishing need and careful planning are crucial to success in the wiki world. As a tool, wikis are flexible and relatively easy to use. However, if used in the wrong context, they can make projects more tedious and harder to manage than is necessary.

Will Wikis Work?

Wikis tend to work best:

  • In collaborative work
  • In situations where roles and expectations are clearly defined
  • In a trusting environment

If these traits do not match your goals and environment, wikis are probably not the best choice. Perhaps a blog would work better, where less power is granted to fewer. Alternatively, a discussion forum or group web page might work better for the overarching goals set forth by the project.


Upon choosing to use wikis, consider the following during the project design phase:

  • Function
    • What will it be used for?
  • Access
    • Will everyone have access, or certain teams/users only?
  • Roles
    • Who will moderate, edit, write, research, etc?
  • Assessment
    • How will you determine if goals were met?

When using wikis, setting forth carefully considered, well-documented plans from the beginning will help avoid confusion and unnecessary stress.

Examples: Here are a few basic examples of how wikis could be implemented for project development, data collection and group authoring.

Project Development

  • Information repositories
  • Collaborative writing and editing
  • Timeline creation and upkeep
  • Role assignments and descriptions
  • Lists of resources

Data Collection

  • Lists of resources
  • Categorization of information

Group Authoring

  • Document authoring and editing
  • Listing resources
  • Categorization of information

References 1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:About#Wikipedia_statistics

Further Reading:

Mader, Stewart. (2007). Using Wiki in Education. Retrieved February 1, 2011, from: http://www.futurechanges.org/education/.

Lamb, Brian. Wide Open Spaces: Wikis, Ready or Not. Educause Review 39.5 (2004). February 1, 2011 from: http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume39/WideOpenSpacesWikisReadyorNot/157925.

Grant, Lyndsay. (2007)  Using wikis in schools: a case study. Retrieved February 1, 2011 from: http://rhazen.edublogs.org/files/2008/01/wikis_in_schools_futurelab.pdf.

Moody, G. (2004) Of blogs and wikis. Retrieved February 1, 2011 from: http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2004/03/26/of_blogs_and_wikis.html.

Discussion forum

Discussion forums, message boards and bulletin boards are examples of asynchronous communication tools. Participants post messages to a permanent page where they are preserved for others to read and comment at their convenience.


  • participants do not need to be online at the same time
  • conversations can be well articulated and detailed since time is not an issue
  • conversations are structured so that topics are visually distinct


  • large amounts of text are generated which can make grading for participation extremely time consuming (however strategies exist for minimizing instructor reading)
  • without explicit instructions, the quality and quantity of student responses will vary widely


When replying to a post, it is a good practice to quote a small section of the original post so new readers can see what you are responding to. Most forums have threaded views to indicate the order of posts and responses.

Expect different levels of participation. If participation is not mandatory, a small vocal group may naturally emerge as discussion leaders and consistently contribute. A second small group may be moderately active, while the remaining students will participate less frequently. Encourage discussion by responding to posts in a timely manner to show that student comments are being read, but make sure your comments don't inhibit further student responses.

Types of discussion forums

Discussion Formats and Activities

  • Post First: Use this format if your students typically feel like "everything has already been said" by the time it's their turn to post. When students enter the forum, they cannot see any other posts until they make a new post of their own. This way everyone is forced to post an original thought, even if it has already been generated in the discussion. Some course management systems have this format built in, but if yours doesn't then you'll have to set it up manually. Typically you can set up two "teams" or "groups" in your course and set them up as follows: Team One has only "write" permissions (meaning they can write a post, but not see any others), and Team Two has both "read and write" permissions in the forum . Initially, everyone is enrolled in Team One. Using your CMS's automation features, you can set up an "action" so when a student posts to the forum they are unenrolled from Team One and enrolled in Team Two.

Listed below are examples of a few in-person discussion models that could be adapted for sychronous online discussion use.

  • Jigsaw: Generate a short list of topics within the concept you are teaching. Each student becomes an 'expert' on one of those topics, first by themselves and then in discussion with other experts. Later these student experts become responsible, through dialogue, for helping non-experts to become as knowledgeable as they are. For example, a class of 25 students works on five topics. Each student decides which of these 5 topics they wish to become expert about. They spend time before or during class studying thier topic in order to develop the required expertise. Students who have selected the same topic gather in a small group to raise questions, explore misunderstandings and discuss what they have learned. When students feel they have finished pooling the insights they have gained in the course of becoming expert, new small groups are formed that include expert representatives from each of the original topics groups. Each student expert takes a turn in leading the others in a discussion of their particular area of expertise. These small groups end when all members of the group express satisfaction with their knowledge and understanding of all of the topics covered. Sometimes the exercise ends there - other times it extends to a large group summing up.
  • Hot-seat: This format calls for the moderator to be well informed about the subject being covered in the discussion. It usually helps to be prepared ahead of time with source materials covering the main points or issues that might help steer the discussion in the preferred or pre-agreed direction. They keep the discussion on track by asking the questions that they feel will cover the important aspects of the subject while still encouraging free thought and discussion from the other participants.
  • Round Robins: For example, if there were 10 participants, and 7 issues that will be addressed, the moderator would ask the first participant a question about the first issue and limit the response to perhaps 2 minutes, then allow another to volunteer to address the same issue for a minute or so, and so on, until all 10 participants have had a chance to respond at least once before the second topic is introduced. It would be up to the moderator to continue the discussion until they believe that the interest or all the points that they wished to cover in the issue have been exhausted.

Links to articles about the use of online discussion

  • Extending the Classroom into Cyberspace: The Discussion Board
    If you are new to online discussions, this paper will describe how to motivate and orient students to this form of communication. You will also find some great insights on what kinds of participation you can expect from your students. http://users.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/extendclass.html
  • Penn State: Creative Use of On-line Discussion Areas
    An informative paper covering the many uses of discussion as a tool in education for instrumental and tranformative purposes. Through the use of technology, its online application can facilitate and support it via the Internet. http://tlt.its.psu.edu/suggestions/communication.html

Tips on asynchronous discussions

Just as a classroom instructor needs to work to create an atmosphere in which students participate in class discussion, it takes effort to establish the student behavior of participating in online discussions. The "Communication guidelines" section outline starts you out with some habits which you may choose to establish early in the course.

There are many ways of keeping track of what students have discussed - manual and automatic. Some instructors check discussions frequently, perhaps every day or more, in order to keep abreast of what students are saying. Certain LMSs can give instructors automatic updates of new posts or count each student's number of posts, particularly useful for large classes. The additional help of automated systems can identify students who are reticent in participating so that corrective actions may be taken early in the course.

Ways to use discussions

Weekly discussion questions

Many online courses require weekly class participation in the form of responding to a weekly discussion topic or question. Students read the discussion question of the week. They can read (and reply to) any comments posted so far and then add their own response to the question. The instructors periodically respond to selected posts helping to guide the discussion, also indicating their presence and attention.

The nature of the question and the number of students in the class will impact student responses. An open-ended question asking students to describe their own experiences as they relate to a topic or issue will illicit a lot more unique responses than a question expecting a standard answer, where students who respond later may have a hard time coming up with something new to add.

Required weekly discussions with a large class can result in long conversations, perhaps too long to maintain interest or focus. Instructors may want to consider breaking a large class into smaller discussion groups.

Intersperse discussions within content

Requesting student input or feedback while they are exploring course content results in active learning. In some cases embedded discussions can be the equivalent of asking a question during a lecture, with the benefit that all students can participate rather than just the vocal ones.

Instructors can place a discuss/comment box in the midst of other course content, enabling students to enter and submit their post from within the context of that lesson. This integrates participation with content, helps the course feel interactive and engages the student with the material.

Synthesize and summarize

Besides just asking for direct student comments, add another dimension to student learning by asking them to summarize, synthesize and even elaborate on a selection of individual posts. They can also be asked to review or critique the other students' works. This requires careful reading and reflection by the students.


A discussion need not necessarily focus on the course content. Some courses set up an online "Student Lounge," to give students a space for informally chatting with each other.

Feedback and help

Dicussions of technical problems, confusion over content and adjustments of schedule can also be set up. Students can feed off each other's knowledge even before the instructor gets to their emails. The commonly asked question can also be extracted for a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) in subsequent semester.

Learning activities to foster participation

Here are some techniques to help elicit student participation:

  • pose questions which invite participation and have more than one right answer
  • structure topics and conversations so it is clear where and when to participate
  • frame the discussion so that it relates closely to course content
  • if the class is large, break students into discussion groups of about 6 to 10 (or even smaller) so that it doesn't seem there is 'nothing new to say' on the topic because 20 people have already answered
  • require discussion (class participation) as part of the grade in the course
  • early in the course, nag students who don't participate in order to establish active participation behavior
  • use discussion regularly throughout the class, not sporadically
  • respond to posts in a timely manner to show that student comments are being read, but make sure your comments don't inhibit further student responses
  • vparticipation in discussion should be rewarded (give credit for posting) but not graded (grading the quality of each post may discourage participation)
  • praise a good response, particularly if it's one you did not anticipate