Discussion and chat tools for teaching and learning

Choosing the right discussion tool for your teaching context

There are numerous discussion and chat tools available, and depending on your purpose, cohort size, and content under discussion, some may be more or less appropriate for the learning outcomes you have in mind.


The table outlines an evaluation of centrally available tools and their broad suitability for particular teaching scenarios.

Discussion board table – discussion/chat tool vs teaching context
Discussion/ chat tool At scale Discussion forum Question and answer forum Live chat/back channel Hybrid discussion Automatic feeding into Gradebook Hurdle discussion Assignment collaboration Student created and led hang and chat STEM
Canvas Discussion
If Groups feature used

If Groups feature used
Ed Discussion
Analytic options

Manual entry into Gradebook

If enabled
Microsoft Teams
Small classes only

Small classes only

Small classes only
Zoom Chat
Canvas Chat  


Does the task very well
Does the task moderately well
Does not do the task or does not do well

Example uses for discussion/chat tools

  • Use case 1: Announcements

    Subject communication to whole cohort or formal groups within a single subject.​


    Share essential subject, assessment, and administrative information with students.​


    • Introduce teaching team and key contacts​
    • Pre-schedule topic introductions​
    • Advise changes to published content, schedule, location​
    • Provide an assessment overview and due dates​.
  • Use case 2: Discussion forum (asynchronous)

    Reflective discussion based on learning materials and concepts within a subject that can be used as a learning activity and/or assessment task.​


    Provide students with a mechanism for a moderated, reflective discussion based on their engagement with learning materials, peers and teachers.​


    • Schedule periodic discussions on learning materials/topics​
    • Assess student participation​
    • Assess student engagement with course materials, teachers, peers​
    • Welcome and introductions​

    Resource pages

  • Use case 3: Q&A Forum (asynchronous)

    Question and answer forum in relation to a subject.​


    Provide a mechanism for students to ask questions and find answers about assessment, learning activities, course materials from teachers (and sometimes peers).​

    Example(s) or outcome(s)

    • Knowledge base Q&A activity​
    • Assessment task Q&A​
    • Subject content/activity Q&A​.
  • Use case 4: Live chat/back channel (synchronous)

    Supports a real-time discussion around a topic and/or learning material(s). ​


    A live chat that sits alongside in person and/or blended synchronous delivery.​

    Generate a sense of connectedness and engagement within the cohort around a learning topic.​

    Provide an alternative means to access support from the subject coordinator or tutor.​


    Supports engagement between students in-place and those attended virtually.​

    • Live chat brainstorming activity during timetabled class​
    • Live chat during timetabled class that connects local and remote cohort​
    • Live chat during timetabled class in response to provocation and/or pre-recorded media (watch-party).​
    • Office hours drop-in chat​
    • Back channel provides mechanism for co-teacher to clarify any points of confusion during delivery​
    • Back channel provides a mechanism for co-teacher to queue questions​
    • Back channel provides a mechanism to have an audit trail of items causing confusing​.
  • Use case 5: Hybrid discussion

    A discussion that shifts between asynchronous, synchronous and asynchronous​


    Framing/background discussion for a synchronous timetabled discussion, with immediate responses.​


    Keeping the conversation going following a synchronous discussion​:

    • Lecture has a live back channel that then continues after the class asynchronously.​
  • Use case 6: Automatic feeding into Gradebook (Graded discussion)

    An assessed discussion that when marked in Canvas automatically feeds back the result into Gradebook.


    Efficient grading and collation of results.


    How do I assess students for meaningful participation in online discussions?

  • Use case 7: Hurdle discussion

    A discussion in which participation is a hurdle requirement.​


    To capture students 'participation in a discussion.


    A discussion in which students do not get a grade but need to respond to a discussion as a hurdle in a subject.

  • Use case 8: Assignment collaboration

    Asynchronous or synchronous discussion or chat and updates around the production of an assignment/assessment task.


    Provide a private discussion space for group collaboration on group assessment tasks.

    • Brainstorm ideas
    • Advise content updates
    • Schedule synchronous meetings.


    Setting project milestones.

  • Use case 9: Student created and led private chat

    Student initiated and administered informal communication channel.


    Private back-channel.

    Example(s) or outcome(s)

    • Private interest group chat/discussion
    • Private space for discussing group assignment.

Considerations when choosing the right discussion tool for your context

The following considerations provide indicators that may guide you toward choosing a general or specific discussion and chat tool from the approved centrally supported edtech suite.

Consideration 1: Size of your cohort

There is a big difference between a discussion tool that works well for small classes, and one that needs to function well with a subject of 2000 undergraduates students.

Large discussion boards are easier to use with features such as:

  • Categorising and tagging posts
  • Filtering and sorting functions for most recent, unanswered or most popular/useful posts
  • Levels of threading support deeper exploration and conversations can be contained in their own sub-thread without effecting the flow and organisation of the broader discussion.

Which tool is best for very large enrolments?

This table lists capabilities useful in managing large enrolments in discussion boards and a rating of which tools have the capability.

Discussion board table – at scale capability vs discussion/chat tool
At scale capabilityCanvas Ed Discussion Microsoft TeamsZoom
Manage students and groups of students
Organising posts
Searching, sorting and filtering
Auto setup and easily linked in LMS
Data retention, persistence, storage


Does the task very well
Does the task moderately well
Does not do the task or does not do well

Consideration 2 - Discipline specific content and context

Do you have certain disciplinary needs about what you or your students need to be able to efficiently post on the discussion forum?

For instance, your subject may have mathematical and scientific notation, or the sharing of code snippets in different programming languages. Discussion forums designed specifically with these disciplines in mind provide better support than the standard discussion forums in the LMS.

Moreover, if you or your students need to hand-draw or annotate using a touch screen and/or stylus this might steer you towards a particular tool.

Comparison between the tools
Canvas Ed DiscussionTeams
Mathematics notation
Has basic equation editor and can enter LaTeX

Has richer equation editor, better LaTeX support (including delimiters and preview function)

Does not support LaTeX. There is an optional ‘Maths app’. that has handwriting to maths feature.
Coding language
Will render code as a code snippet, can also do manually using <code> and <pre> tags in HTML view.

Ed allows you to embed code snippets. The code snippets are runnable and are syntax highlighted.

Will render code as a code snippet.
Hand-drawing or annotate using stylus
Cannot do directly into Discussion board.

You can use the image annotation tool with a blank canvas to simply handwrite or draw a diagram (if using a device with a stylus)

Cannot do directly.


Does the task very well
Does the task moderately well
Does not do the task or does not do well

Consideration 3 - Your purpose

What you are going to use a discussion for in terms of learning and teaching will steer you towards particular tools that suit your learning goal.

  • Will the discussion be asynchronous or synchronous (live)?
  • What expectations do you have around peer learning? Posting, responses, engagement?
  • Are student discussions assessed? Are they a hurdle task?
  • Is your discussion centred specifically on a text resource? *

*Some of these tools, such as Perusall and Feedback Fruits, are not specifically designed as discussion tools, yet provide this capability for the specific purpose of generating cognitive engagement and peer learning around a text or other media.

Example purposes for discussion/chat tools

Purpose 1: Synchronous (live) chat

The advent of hybrid learning and the opportunity to integrate high-quality media into timetabled teaching as a stimulus for learning activities leads to a need for tools capable of mediating a dynamic, reflexive, real-time discussion. Depending on the purpose of this discussion you may need to consider, as noted above, the ease to which this discussion might be seeded (prior to class) and/or continued (after class). Further, if the discussion itself is intended to become a learning resource, then its permanence, shared access, and/or ease of saving and sharing need to be thought through.

Purpose 2: Hybrid conversations

Consider whether students need to be able to engage in a discussion or chat in real-time during timetabled online, face-to-face, or hybrid classes. If so, the tool must support (synchronous) instant posting and publishing without the need to refresh a browser. Building on this, if you would like these discussions to continue in-between classes, then the tool must support a dynamic discussion and deeper reflective responses. Features such notifications in browser, instant update, and the ability to conduct short chat messages in channels and discuss in more considered longer form within the same tool will be important.

Purpose 3: Question and answer forums

The scale, scope, and nature of the questions and the duration of the Q&A forum need to be considered in concert with capability to moderate them efficiently and in ways that improve the reliability of the answers provided – particularly when answered are provided by the students themselves. These capabilities include the ability for the teaching team to edit, upvote, and endorse answers. Further, pre-configured responses to common questions, ability to flag existing answers, and preempt the need for a new question by suggesting a likely existing answer all help manage these forums as scale and complexity increase. Finally, Q&A can be designed as a learning activity where students co-construct knowledge and/or where contributions might also be assessed either as a hurdle or graded task.

Purpose 4: Reflective forums

A reflective asynchronous discussion is a mainstay for generating social and cognitive engagement and in terms of discussion tools most will support this scenario reasonably well.

If the discussion is conducted at scale, or is designed to facilitate a deep and ongoing conversation then consider:

  • Capabilities that support managing at-scale discussions (eg organising, filtering, and moderation)
  • Capabilities that allow complex conversations to evolve (eg threading and tagging).

Purpose 5: Assessment and grading

The ability to assess a discussion is an important consideration, and depending on what you want to assess:

  • Participation as an ungraded hurdle
  • The quality of the discussion post in relation to a defined rubric.

Again, scale plays an important role in terms of the ability of the tool to automatically assess behavioural or cognitive engagement, which is useful for low stakes hurdle tasks. Further, the ability to construct a rubric and provide feedback is crucial to graded assessment where demonstration of higher-order learning outcomes is measured.

Summarising considerations

The considerations outlined are a starting point for deciding which discussion tool(s) are appropriate for a broad range of teaching scenarios. The considerations, and the overview table below, are a useful starting point for conversations you might undertake within your teaching team(s).

Discussion board capability and tools mapping – pedagogical capabilities
CapabilityCanvas Ed Discussion Microsoft TeamsZoom
Content and media
Instant posting
Combined discussion & chat
Engagement tools
Group collaboration - student led
If Groups used
Academic integrity
Diversity and inclusion  


Does the task very well
Does the task moderately well
Does not do the task or does not do well

Given the diversity of teaching undertaken within the University you may like to engage in a conversation with a learning designer or educational technologist to discuss your specific needs.

This guide was last updated 05 May 2023.
Please report any errors or omissions in this guide by submitting an LMS support request.

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