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January 30 2007 (Refreshed September 28, 2012)

eCoaching Tip 34:  Threaded Discussions and Knowledge Construction

If someone were to ask you to list the top two best learning characteristics of online experiences, you would probably mention characteristics such as connections, collaboration, and community. This tip describes the types of interactions that support making this happen.

A previous tip (#33) tip looked at ways we can encourage thoughtful and reflective postings as opposed to learners simply taking their turn at posting based on their own thinking and not integrating or responding to others.

This tip examines discussions from two perspectives.   First it examines threaded discussions in more detail. Secondly, this tip describes a five phase Interaction Analysis Model for promoting community discussion (Gunawardena, Lowe and Anderson, 1997).

Communities and Shared Beliefs in Threaded Discussions

Let’s continue our thinking on how communities in general develop and then apply our thinking to learning communities in particular.

It is worth noting that a primary characteristic of a community is shared perceptions, experiences and beliefs. It is important to observe that community members do not have to agree fully with the specific beliefs of other members of the community; but it is necessary that community members share and develop awareness of what their fellow members believe…  and how their beliefs converge, merge, and overlap. Obviously, there must be some sharing of attitudes and beliefs or a member will not feel part of the community.

In the online world of discussion forums, we often simply focus on completing our forum postings as required, taking our turn in saying what I believe or have learned. But due to time and other pressures, there is little discussion about how my beliefs merge, converge and diverge from the thinking of my peers.

One image that can help students reflect on how their beliefs and perceptions are shared - or not - with their peers is to have the students think of their beliefs as Venn diagrams, overlapping in some areas but quite singular in other areas.

Threaded Discussions — Definition and Images

The goal of discussion forums is more than reading postings by individual learners. The goal of discussion forums is rich and meaningful threaded discussions that promote learning of core content and the development of expertise. Let’s examine the characteristics of threaded discussions more closely.

Threaded discussions have a rich history that pre-dates our now ubiquitous course management systems. Some of this older research on threaded discussions provides some insights into threaded discussions and their particular features and how these types of discussions can contribute to developing a learning community.

In a 2005 article Swan defines a threaded discussion as “ an asynchronous online dialog or conversation that takes the form of a series of linked messages organized around a common subject or theme.” She goes on to suggest an image of how discussions evolve and grow. “They (threaded discussions) grow like crystals, with multiple threads expanding simultaneously rather than evolving linearly.”

I like the image of the crystal as I think it captures how our store of knowledge grows, node-by-node and link-by-link. In fact, this is a question that you might want to pose to your students, asking them to describe or map the structure of a particular threaded discussion.

Some of the singular power of threaded discussions to build community comes from these three characteristics: asynchronous-providing time for reflection; democratic- all students have a voice and dominating the discussion is not easy; and personal-students tend to reveal almost “hyperpersonal” information about themselves (Swan, 2005).

Interaction Analysis Model - Five Phases of Knowledge Construction

Promoting effective learning discussions takes skill that we might not have readily at hand as we begin teaching online. Researchers (Gunawardena, Lowe and Anderson (1997) have developed an Interaction Analysis Model that can be helpful. This model posits that knowledge construction proceeds in five phases:

  • Sharing/comparing of information,
  • Discovering/exploring dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concepts or statements
  • Negotiating meaning and co-constructing of knowledge
  • Testing and modifying of proposed synthesis or co-construction
  • Agreeing on final statement and applications of newly constructed meaning or insights

This model suggests a process that might contribute to community building in the threaded discussion space.
The first phase in this model is the “sharing/comparing of information.” This phase is similar to the first part of stating “what I know” in the three-part post described in Tip 33.
Stating what one knows requires that learners pause, and reach inside their knowledge structure and express what it is they know about something.  Once learners express what they know about a core concept, the discussion can flow into phase two of identifying inconsistencies or partial knowledge statements.

Then learners can proceed to phase three to “negotiate meaning” by researching with the aid of experts and other resources just what might be true, possible, or unknown. Phase four then focuses on a testing of the hypothesis and/or preparing summary.

Phase five is the point at which learners can agree on a statement or agree on the new hypotheses that might need to be tested or verified.

Using this model encourages community-building that overcomes the all too-common turn-taking of simply stating “what I know” and “here is my answer.”  Another benefit of this model is that it helps us to get closer to knowing each learners’ zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978).


Boettcher, J. V. (2007, 2012) eCoaching Tip 33: What Makes a Good Discussion Post? Retrieved September 27 2012 from http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip33.html

Gunawardena, C. N., Lowe, C. A. & Anderson, T. (1997). Analysis of a global online debate and the development of an interaction analysis model for examining social construction of knowledge in computer conferencing. Journal of Educational Computing Research 17(4), 397-431. Retrieved September 27 2012 from auspace.athabascau.ca/bitstream/2149/772/1/ANALYSIS_OF_A_GLOBAL.pdf

Swan, K. (2010). Threaded Discussion.  Research Center for Educational Technology, Kent State University.  Retrieved September 27 2012 from http://www.mdecgateway.org/olms/data/resource/6355/Threaded Discussion.pdf.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society:  The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wenger, E. (2010) Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Blackmore, C. (Editor) Social Learning Systems and communities of practice. Springer Verlag and the Open University. Retrieved September 27, 2012 from http://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/09-10-27-CoPs-and-systems-v2.01.pdf.

Weisstein, Eric W. "Venn Diagram." From MathWorld--A Wolfram Web Resource. Retrieved September 27, 2012 http://mathworld.wolfram.com/VennDiagram.html

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.



Ecoaching Table of Contents



Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013