Bridging the gap between written and oral communication

As you consider how to move your classes online, you may be wondering how to move discussions to a mediated format. Blackboard’s discussion boards will be your best bet for the technical side of things. However, first and foremost, think about why you include discussion in your course. Your goals should help guide the decisions you make about how discussion might function in an online format.

Differences between oral and written discussions

A common way to take discussions online is through discussion boards, which serve as a holding ground for the interactions that would happen face to face. As you think about moving discussions online from speaking to writing, there are a few differences to note:

  • Writing and speaking often differ in terms of formality, with speaking being less formal. For example, contractions and more casual language are common in spoken language, but we expect them less in academic writing.
  • Discussion boards provide fewer clues because they have limited nonverbal cues. It can be harder to read into a person’s reactions, and it may be easier to misinterpret comments. In person, you not only get the person’s words, but also their tone and other nonverbals.
  • Face-to-face discussions are often a generative activity. As a way for students to try out ideas, discussions are typically not intended to be a final, polished response.

Preparing students for success

Model what you want

Engage with the class at various points during the timeframe you’ve set forth. Don’t feel you need to sit by your computer and reply to each post, but you certainly can participate regularly and with a broad cross section of the students as you would in the classroom. 


When it’s time to change topics, make sure there is something tying together the threads of the discussion. You don’t need to do the summary! One way to actively engage students in the discussion is to rotate turns summarizing or synthesizing it. 

Show and require respect

Even though you are not physically present with students, you should model a respectful discussion environment. Likewise, you should make a point to intervene in any behaviors that are disrespectful, just as you would in person.


Discussion in the classroom is one way for students to connect with each other. As students navigate discussion from a distance, allow them room to go off-topic or to ask questions about non-content things. Many faculty will create a lounge space within their Blackboard discussions so that students can post those types of messages that are less on-topic.

Logistical Issues

Set up clear expectations

What do you want from students? What should they expect from themselves and others? Written discussion is not going to directly replicate face-to-face communication, so what should it look/sound like? Be kind to yourself and to your students in setting up realistic expectations.

Set up structure

For example, you may have multiple discrete discussions to allow for the development of different ideas. Blackboard’s help has additional details about the technical side of setting things up. 

Consider dividing the work

If each student does not need to verbally participate in a face-to-face class, they don’t need to participate in each discussion topic. You can divide up topics amongst students or tell them to choose the one or two topics within a given week that speak most to them. 

Consider discussion groups

The whole class may not need to participate in one discussion topic. They can still read the material for multiple topics, but they can be assigned a discussion group with whom they primarily interact. Students can be given access to all of the discussions so they can review the conversation as it happened elsewhere.

Give timelines

How often do you expect students to contribute? Are they all expected to start new ideas/pose new questions? Respond to others? Is responding once within a discussion enough? Sometimes faculty will provide a midweek deadline for an initial post and then a secondary deadline for responding. Doing so ensures there are student comments to spark discussion and limits last-minute contributions. Some faculty will spread out a set of topics over 2 weeks to allow the first week to focus on initial thoughts and then the second week to provide a deeper dive into elements of the topic.

Evaluation: How do you grade these contributions?

  • Default to (approximately) how you evaluate in-class participation.
  • Consider simple approaches:
  • Decide how much you care about the writing and how much you care about the message. Usually in class discussion, it’s more the latter: if a student stumbles somewhat in answering a discussion question, it’s ok. Likewise, in discussion boards, the language may be casual or a student may talk themselves in circles, but if they get to an important point, is that enough? Be clear with students about the extent to which you are evaluating them on grammar, etc. If you wouldn’t evaluate students on grammar in face-to-face discussions, skipping it here makes sense.
  • Give feedback about how the class is doing. This could be individual, especially if there is a problematic situation, but could also be a more general “Hey, we’re a week into this experiment. I really like how we’ve been able to X. In this next discussion, let’s put more effort into Y.”
  • Grade after the end of a unit/topic so that you are not shutting down the discussion. If students see a grade associated with a response before a topic is supposed to be finished, they may not continue to engage.

Help us provide an accessible education, offer innovative resources and programs, and foster intellectual exploration.

Site Search