Student-to-student and student-to-instructor connection and interaction are identified as two key factors in online student success and retention. As such, it is important to be looking for and constantly implementing new ways to help students interact with one another and with you as the instructor. Discussion board topics are a great starting point for these interactions, but we don't want the interactions to stop there.
Looking back on my own education, I remember that some of the most impacting and fruitful interactions I had were the off-the-cuff debates and dialogues where grading didn't necessarily come into play. It was these interactions that then helped me to critically analyze, reflect upon, and implement the course material more effectively for the graded requirements.
Obviously in the online classroom the "hallway chats" aren't as easily accessible as in the traditional classroom, but that doesn't mean they cannot still occur. Adjunct instructor Craig Morris hosts instant message chat sessions with this exact purpose and intent in mind. He shares with his students that he will be online to "chat" about a specific topic, a current event, or some other issue he presents and then invites students to join him. He has had great success and participation with this.
I could see this idea successfully translating to other mediums too. Google groups/chat is a great option, as could be Elluminate. Or why not set something up right in CampusConnect using a blog or a Wiki, that might attract even more students who might not be able to participate synchronously.
These topics shouldn't be graded but rather can serve as another connection point for students and another opportunity to learn from each other and from you. They might even be quarter long dialogues that could then further prepare students for their final projects or exam for example.
Give this idea a try and let me know what you think.
Online Instructional Specialist