At its most basic definition, a discussion thread is any chain of written ideas linked together by a common theme. Discussion threads can be found all across the Internet, but are increasingly being utilized in online education. In general, each week the professor will post a specific topic for discussion, either for the entire class, or breaking the class into smaller groups.
Each participant is then expected to contribute some valid, academic point to the discussion, and then respond to the posts of other students. This back-and-forth, in an online educational setting, goes beyond simple communication. When posting to a discussion thread, students are expected to back their assertions with source material. These are not social occasions, but opportunities for learning. In many ways, the online discussion threat is the virtual classroom environment, with all students, and the instructor, contributing to meaningful exploration of topic.
Discussion threads are often organized with the original post at the top, and responding posts nested underneath. By scrolling down through the thread, a reader can follow the back-and-forth of the discussion, noting professor comments, and student responses. Discussion threads, it should be remembered, need to remain focused on the original question. These are not a forum for tangential discussions.