Give students a chance to connect with each other and be heard.

5 Online Discussion Tools to Fuel Student Engagement

Creating a classroom community where meaningful conversations can happen isn't easy—it's an ongoing process that takes time. But using online discussion tools can be one great way to help your students build these skills. Plus, the ability to engage in online discussions responsibly is a great 21st-century skill in and of itself.

Online discussions often lead to better in-class discussions afterward—you know, the kind where students raise their hands and speak out loud. With online discussions, students have a chance to engage with each other virtually, often having their thoughts and opinions validated. Afterward, they're typically much more willing to share out loud in class and often share in thoughtful ways.

Still not convinced? Here are a few more reasons to consider using online discussions:

  • Because comments are more permanent, students tend to think a bit more critically about what they say. 
  • Especially for more introverted students, online discussions can be less intimidating than speaking in front of the class.
  • It's easier for students to share dissenting opinions or "outside-the-box" ideas. 
  • As students type responses, they often share more nuanced and compelling points. Plus, typed reponses are easier to use as formative assessments!
  • Anonymous posting (though still teacher-moderated), a key feature with some discussion tools, can help erase the fear of public judgment or ridicule.
  • Everyone has ample opportunities to be heard and connect with other classmates, ensuring equity among all voices in your classroom. 

If you're looking for an online discussion tool, you've got a variety of options. Here are a few top picks and teacher favorites:


Showbie screenshot

Backchannel Chat

Price: $15/year/class; $299/year/school
Platforms: Android, iOS, and web
Grades: 6-12

Backchannel Chat's moderated online discussions are intended to engage students and encourage them to share. Think of it as a teacher-moderated, private version of Twitter, where students can discuss topics that might just transcend the virtual space. Setup is quick and easy: Teachers sign up, name their chat, and give students the URL. Students can join with only a name; no other personal information is required. Teachers can moderate discussions, remove messages, and "lock" the chat at any time.



Flip site page about using as discussion tool.


Price: Free
Platforms: Android, iOS
Grades: K-12

Though "online discussion" may mean text responses to most, Flip's video-based responses also invite discussion. It's also a great way to involve students who are less comfortable with written language, and younger kids may especially love participating in Flip's playful video features. Depending on the purpose of the discussion, the combination of videos and comments might not be the format you're looking for, but between the cost (free!) and the accessibility features, it's definitely a tool to consider.




Kialo Edu

Price: Free
Platforms: Web
Grades: 7–12

Kialo Edu is a free platform designed to foster thoughtful debate and discussion. Students can browse for and participate in existing discussions or create their own. Once they've chosen a discussion, students then choose their side—pro or con—and add their own opinions via "claims." Kialo Edu is a good platform for teaching the importance of reasoned, respectful arguments when trying to persuade others. Most teachers likely will want to create private discussions limited to their students to focus on a curriculum- or class-related topic.


NowComment screenshot


Price: Free
Platforms: Web
Grades: 4-12

NowComment is a document-annotation and -discussion platform that allows students to mark up and discuss texts. Upload a document (in any number of formats) to create an online discussion area. Paragraphs for text are numbered, with the document shown on the left and the comment panel on the right. You can control when students can comment on a document and when they can see each others' comments. For group projects or peer-reviewed activities, you can have students upload their own documents.


Classkick screenshot


Price: Contact for pricing
Platforms: iOS and web
Grades: 3-12

Known mostly as an online plagiarism detector, Turnitin has some lesser-known tools, too, including a built-in discussion platform. While the discussion tool may not be as robust as some other choices, Turnitin's tool does offer anonymous posting and teacher-moderation options. Plus, if your students are already signed up and have accounts, getting started will be a cinch.



YO Teach!

Price: Free
Platforms: Web
Grades: 6–12

YO Teach! is a backchannel web app teachers can use to create and moderate chat rooms for real-time student interaction. The admin features allow teachers to delete posts, mute students, control room access, and use the interactive features. Students can interact with teacher and peer posts by sharing text messages, replying to others' posts, voting, responding to polls, sharing and annotating pictures, and submitting drawings. YO Teach! can be an engaging way to encourage collaboration and social interaction among students.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

Jeff Knutson

As Senior Producer and Content Strategist for Common Sense Education, Jeff helps creates and publish content for teachers aimed at helping them learn new, innovative, and effective ways to use edtech in the classroom. Prior to his work at Common Sense, Jeff was an editor and classroom teacher. He's an advocate for the creative, thoughtful, and responsible use of technology, and he thrives on sharing his knowledge, experience, and perspectives with others.