Connect the discussions to your course objectives.
Like any other teaching strategy, online discussions should not be used as an add-on to a course. You need to carefully consider what course objectives you expect discussions to fulfill and how you will integrate them into your course as a whole. What do you want your students to gain from the discussions? Use your answers as a guide in preparing the online discussion activities.
Set early deadlines for postings.
A large part of integrating online discussions into your course is using the ideas generated within them elsewhere in the course (i.e., bring interesting points from the discussion into your next lecture or have students use quotations from their discussion group in an assignment). The integration can only occur when enough time is left between the end of a discussion and the class or assignment. Check the timing of discussions against the timing of other course elements.
Use online discussions regularly.
To keep the momentum going, try to have a discussion every 1-2 weeks in your course. This kind of regular schedule will make checking the discussion board a habit for students and help to integrate the activity into the course.
Include online discussion participation in the course grade.
If grades are not given for participation, students typically do not use the discussion forum. Decide how much of the course grade to give to discussions and whether you will assess the quantity or quality of postings, or a combination of the two. Harasim (1995) suggests that you assign 10-50% of the course grade for participation, and either give a grade for each week or start at 100 and subtract an amount each week if minimum participation requirements are not met.
Make participation requirements explicit.
You cannot expect students to know automatically how to participate constructively in an online discussion. You need to give them clear guidelines and expectations, both for individual and group responsibilities, right from the beginning of the course. Typical individual minimum requirements include: 2-3 logons per week (1 to read question, 1 to make a contribution, and 1 to respond to peers) and 2-4 messages per week, with each message being up to 1-2 screens long (anything longer is hard to read online). Also try to provide time guidelines for each task to help students manage their time appropriately.