How do you get students to talk?
It's as much a challenge in a virtual course as in a live course. The difference is that in a live course they have to talk with what they have in their brains at the time, whereas in an asynchronous environment, they can look things up and can discourse more intelligently.
This can have a negative effect, though. The better students, able to consult with their texts, can post detailed and intelligent comments that can intimidate other students. Those other students might be shy, or they might be late starters, or they might simply be the sort that bristles at learned discourse. Whatever their reasons, they clam up.
The only way I know to get them to talk is with both the carrot and the stick. The stick is the requirement. They must post N number of messages every week and their discussion counts for a significant portion of their final grade (I usually do around 40%). Not talking hurts. The carrot comes in the form of progress reports where I can ask the non-participators how they are doing, if they're having problems, etc. Language that is supportive and inviting.
Responses tend to fall into two piles. One is of the "yeah, I know" sort. They apologize and say they'll try harder. Sometimes they give reasons, sometimes not. The other type are those who say they can't find anything to say, or that they're intimidated, or confused as to what to say.
For them, I've learned to provide aids. These come in the form of "study questions" tied to the source readings. Some day I may get ambitious and add study questions for the lectures and textbooks as well. I'd rather not, as I don't want to steer the conversation. I also encourage the student to ask questions, even if it's merely about a word or phrase they don't understand. I also encourage them to read the posts of others and to respond to those.
After all that, there are still those who under-participate. A second progress report, stating bluntly that they're failing the discussion portion of the course, can help. But in the end, there are a handful who post 25 of the 45 required messages. Or 30 or 35. Well short. They of course get what they have earned.