Promoting (quality) participation in online forums:
"Shall we discuss the concept of interaction?"
"Do you know how to change the diagram below?
"What about a swim this afternoon?"
"Interaction means :responding to each other"
"I mean that you can integrate information of someone else in your reply"
"I don’t think that's a suitable description because the interaction
also means interaction with computers or materials, see Laurillard definition"
Veerman (2001) focuses on task-related messages that he categorize as “New Idea”, “Explanation” and “Evaluation”. A “New idea” is described as a task-related message, focused on relevant content which is not mentioned before. An “explanation” is a message in which information is refined or elaborated that was already stated before, but elsewhere in the discussion. An “Evaluation” is a message in which an earlier contribution is critically discussed on strength and relevance in the light of the task. An evaluation is more than a short posting like “Yes, you are right” and often involves reasoning processes or justifications.
In addition, Veerman & Veldhuis-Diermanse (2001) state messages could contain information about planning the task, technical problems considering the system, conversational rules and reference to other facts, issues, summaries or remarks elsewhere in the discussion. Moreover some messages only referred to non-task related issues such as weather, joke etc.
Two modules have been selected to form the subjects of the study. Case 1, ILT6010 - Cognitive Sciences and Learning and Case 2, ILT1020 – Educational Technologies and Computer-Based Learning Environments, were analyzed based whether the forum messages posted were task on non-task related. The subject of each message with the number of replies to the topic/message was computed to have a quantitative insight. Then the replies to the messages were further classified according to the type of task-related or non-task related messages. The messages posted for the various batches were tabulated to have an overview of the nature of its content, which was analyzed based on a classification of Veerman et al. (1999).
Cognitive Sciences and Learning - ILT6010
Setting and participants:
This module was first given in August 2004 as part of a Postgraduate Programme in “Computer-Mediated Communication and Pedagogies”. The module was given fully online (Web-site + CD-ROM) to part-time (working) students and forums were used for different purposes in this module. Furthermore, for this module, the virtual learning platform was not used and thus forum systems that were used were open-source software from phpBB (http://www.phpbb.com). Sixteen students were enrolled on this module.
This module was again delivered in following academic year, August 2005, as part of the same course to the next cohort of student embarked on the same Postgraduate program in “Computer-Mediated Communication and Pedagogies”. However, the module was delivered on a virtual learning platform, Moodle was used and it has an integrated forum systems, so it differed slightly from the previous delivery. Thirteen students were enrolled on this module.
The last cohort, August 2006, on the same postgraduate program in “Computer-Mediated Communication and Pedagogies” followed this module in the similar manner as the previous batch. The same Moodle platform was used but with a slight change in versioning, Odel (http://vcampus.uom.ac.mu/odel) was used. Ten students were enrolled in this module. The three batches form part of the population of this study.
The various activities and tasks were:
§ Activity1: A knowledge model using MOT.
§ Activity 2: Guide for a cognitively engineered pedagogy.
§ Activity 3: Evaluation of an e-Learning Environment.
§ Task: Reflection on the course and learning experience.
Educational Technology and Computer-Based Learning Environments
ILT 1020 Setting and participant:
It took place for a General Elective Module (GEM) offered by the University of Mauritius (UOM). The module ILT 1020 is open to all students of the University across faculty, irrespective of level or year of study.
The module (ILT 1020) has already been prototyped over 3 version changes. The first version, Version 1.0, was released in Semester 1 of academic year 2005/06 while version 2.0 was released the following semester, Semester 2 of academic year 2005/06. The last updated version, Version 3.0, was released in Semester 1 of academic year 2006/07. This case study is based on the forum discussion of participants, tutor as well as learners, of Version 3.0.
The module was delivered over one academic semester. There was no face-to-face interaction except for one start-up meeting to introduce the students
to the learning environment and help a few with the online registration procedures.
The module consists of five activities that need to be carried out in sequence all the way through the semester. There is also a continuous assessment activity, which count as 40 % of total marks. It consists of forum participation that is transversal to every other activity included in this module.
The module is therefore delivered neither through the traditional classroom-based delivery nor through the classic e-learning approach (first and second generations). The belief is that classic e-learning through well-structured platforms, diffusion of contents online with structured chapters and classic activities such as open-ended questions and Multiple Choice Questions defeat the purpose of using e-learning technologies to foster innovative pedagogies and to promote knowledge construction and autonomous development of the student (Santally & Senteni, 2004). The occurrence of successful learning in this module is therefore defined as a three-phased activity: (a) Knowledge Acquisition Phase; (b) Knowledge Application Phase; (b) Knowledge Construction through Sharing and Reflexive Practice.
The module, “Educational Technology and Computer-Based Learning Environments”, ILT 1020 comprises various activities or tasks, namely:
§ Introduction of the learners
§ Activity1: Designing a knowledge model of a course using MOT
§ Activity 2: A presentation of model for a website
§ Activity 3: Implementation of a website using the software Macromedia Dreamweaver
§ Reflection on the course and learning experience
For a few who were late for registration, there was no face-to-face meeting because there was no request made and also the need was not felt. Those students pick up as they had classmates who were enrolled in the same module and guided them. However, those students seem to rush through Activity 1 and in general, scored less than the average mark for Activity 1 and some even failed to score 50% in Activity1.
It was also noted, by the tutor, that some students took a lot of time to get use to the learning environment. For example, in certain cases, they were not able to recognize that messages should be posted appropriately on discussion forum.
1. The different webpage has common features:
2. Name of the activity
3. Aim of the activity
5. Activity overview
6. Learning outcomes
7. Activity plan
8. Links to resources
Online participation of the learner counts as 15 % of the mark for continuous assessment, which is 60% of the total marks. The replies to forum discussions, number of messages posted and discussion initiated are the areas where the students are assessed. This forms part of their contribution to the virtual classroom community.
The number of messages posted on the different forums amount to a total of 2268 messages. Out of which 1903 messages were posted by under-graduate students (a total of 78 students) for module delivered for 2 different cohorts. The remaining 365 messages which were analyzed are posted by graduate students (a total of 39 students) for 3 different cohorts.
The average number of message posted by a student at the under-graduate level is 24. This was found to be higher, as compared to post-graduate level of 9 per student. This shows that there is greater need to show virtual presence by under-graduate students. It was observed that there is a high percentage of social messages sent by the latter.
Non-task related vs. task related messages
The total number of messages that met the criteria to be considered as task related messages was higher, for all the batches, at undergraduate as well as post-graduate level, as compared to those considered as non-task related messages.
However, there are marked differences between the peak percentage of task related messages at undergraduate and post-graduate level. Postings, to forums, at undergraduate level, on average (75%) with a peak of 82%., attain task related message is lower as compared to post-graduate level posting, on average (84 %) with a peak of 94%.This suggests that postings, at post-graduate level, achieve higher quality as compared to postgraduate level postings’.
ILT 6010_ 2
ILT 6010 _3
At undergraduate level, there are high proportions of non-task related messages which can be categorized as social type messages. (See table 4). An average of 83 % of all non-task related messages are of social type messages
% Non-task related message
% Social messages
For Batch1 of ILT1020, the percentage of social message is 75% of the total non-task related messages. Messages posted as part of a forum space dedicated to introducing the student do not form part of social messages as it is considered part of the activity. All other messages posted on the different discussion thread amount, for socializing purposes, amount of 24% of messages posted by students
For Batch 2 of ILT1020, 18% of all messages posted were non-task related: out of which 90% were social messages. This shows a higher proportion, as compared to Batch 1, of non-task related messages can be classified as of type social messages.
It can be observed that the number of message posted in Batch 2 is lower than Batch 1, 1239 as compared to 664. This shows that fewer messages posted, the smaller is the proportion of non-task related messages. However, the lesser is the proportion of non-task related message, there is a significant proportion of social type messages, 90% as compared to 75%
At post-graduate level, the percentage of social messages sent form, on average, around 20 % of the non-task related messages. For Batch 1, only 14% of non-task related message are of a social type. Batch 2 has 15% of social type messages out of all non-task related messages. And Batch 3 has a total of 30% of social type messages for all non-task related messages
Out of all non-task related messages, posted on forums at the post-graduate level, there is a significantly higher number of technical types messages for Batches 1 and 3 and a higher proportion of planning type messages for Batch 2 (8). Table 5 summarizes the percentage of the non-task related message in the different types
The percentage of task related postings which were made for the various batches is on average around 80 %. The distribution percentage for the various type of classification (New idea, Explanation and Evaluation) for task related messages is tabulated below.
Of the postings participants sent, a higher proportion can be classified as “New Idea” and “Explanation”. For undergraduate students, on average 3% of the task related message, are of “Evaluation” type. This demonstrates that while commenting on the topic participants mainly appeared to answer each other’s questions or to provide more information for fellow students’ inquiry. Very few, 3 out of every 100, postings were elaborate enough to be classified as “Evaluation”
Similarly, at postgraduate level, a minor proportion, on average around 13% of task-related postings, were lengthy enough to provide in-depth analysis of the topic. Of those comments that were task-related, a slightly higher percentage, 49 % were providing information and explanations, and 38% were asking questions or creating new topics.
The figure below shows clearly that the student, irrespective of level of study, participated much more than the tutor. It can be noted that the highest percentage participation of tutor is only 29%.
Figure 1: Tutor vs. student participation
The module ILT 6010 has produced higher student participation compared to tutor participation. Seventy-four percent of all messages were posted by students. The students of Batch 2 were relatively more active than Batch 1. 146 messages were posted by Batch 2 as compared to 119 by Batch 1. There was an increase in participation of about 23%, while number of student enrolled decreased by 19 %.
It should be noted that despite the ratio of tutor to student participation remained constant (29:100), there was more messages posted on the forum. Thus, the despite the percentage of tutor intervention did not change, the number of messages posted by students increased. The number of messages posted by tutor increased for a decreasing number of students. This observation might imply that the students were more active in Batch 2.
The reduced tutor intervention in Batch 3, 20% as compared to 29% for previous Batch, showed a reduction of 32% of messages posted. This result can be interpreted as decreasing tutor participation induced less motivation for the students to send their posting.
The two Batches for module ILT1020 were delivered by two different tutors. Since the content and teaching strategy remained more or less constant, it can be noted that there is quantitative and most probably qualitative differences in the postings. The number of messages posted on the forums by the tutor of Batch 1 of ILT1020 was twice that of the tutor for Batch 2 for the same course.
Black (2005) urged that instructors should structure asynchronous discussions in a way to encourage critical thinking. In a traditional classroom setting, discussion is often teacher-centered and dominated by a handful of students. Asynchronous discussions, on the other hand, are more evenly distributed because students have to respond and feel little or no social pressure against voicing their opinions.
Despite the number of student being constant (39), in the successive cohort, the number of posted message was reduced by more than 50 %, from 1239 to 664. This shows a clear indication that the total number of posted messages is considerable less when the tutor intervention increased. The 13 % increase in tutor participation generated a 46 % decrease in the total number of messages.
Consequently, there was a higher percentage (82%) of task-related posting, for Batch 1, as compared to 68%, for Batch 2. This can imply that the higher the participation rate of tutor, the higher is the percentage of on-task posting by the participant.
However, it should be noted that even if the participation rate of tutor is higher for Batch 2, there is an equal number of in-depth analysis (“Evaluation”) types posting for both Batch 1 and Batch 2. Higher level learning, in reference to Solo taxonomy, is not affected by the high participation rate of tutor participation.
Quality of posting is considered here as an indication of the level of learning achieved. Considering the different level of learning outcome, in reference to Solo Taxonomy, the higher level will be considered as high quality posting. Consequently, an analysis of quality of posting will involve only posting which fall under the category of “Task related messages”.
There is one feature in the quality of participants’ discourse that merits discussion. There were rarely, on average 3 out of 100 task related postings for undergraduate and on average around 13 out of 100 task related postings at post-graduate level, that were in-depth analysis discussions with participants genuinely exposing at length issues or debating meaning. A high proportion of a posting were of “Explanation” type, more than 57% at undergraduate level and around 48% at post-graduate level. From a quantitative analysis, it can be observed that the percentage of “new idea” type message is less than 40%, at both levels, which imply that ,on average every topic got at least one reply.
At the end of semester for module ILT 1020, a feedback open-ended questionnaire is sent to the students.
For both the batches, a persistent observation was that many of the student commented lengthier questions focused on the social aspect of the module rather than technical skills acquired. Some of the students were proud to have been able to communicate exclusively online with students they did not meet throughout the whole semester
There were complaints about students who set questions, addressed to lecturers only. Forums should have been open questions and not addressed to only one person, so that anyone could reply these questions Forum participation was also very useful and enjoyable interaction.
There was a need for synchronous interaction:
Request to introduce e-classroom
There was a general request for Chat Rooms to be incorporated in this module.
Many students complained yhat some notes and tutorials were available in French, which was very difficult as they had always been studying in an English medium. These French terms were really confusing for them. An English version would have been appropriate for most of the students.
Accessibility problem: “whenever we have to submit our assignments, there are some problems with the platform.”
“I learnt a lot only by viewing the discussions and many times, I did not feel the need to intervene.”
Others felt that they were too slow to interact/ react. From the students’ feedback obtained, Batch 2 IlT1020, the general viewpoint was that, the forums were, as pointed out by Batch 1, very helpful and this helped many to post their queries without hesitation. Some of the participants indeed showed much more responsibility and their concern for the whole batch by sharing their knowledge to other in terms of sharing notes, giving guidelines to solve problems related to the platform and software. One of the main deceptions was that there was a lack of interaction or less participation of some students on forum.
From a few students, who devote time by writing lengthier feedback, it should be noted some common benefits such as:
Forum discussion provides beneficial means to meet the needs of diverse student population at the University. Some of them mention that:
Those who are on placement and find it difficult to attend lectures especially during work time.
Those who find that there is less attention on each individual’s problem by the lecturer during lectures as there are too many students in a GEM class.
There are those who are too shy to raise their hands to ask questions.
The communication mode, using discussion forum, has enabled student to study without the need to leave other commitments such as work placement. This means that the students have been able to learn at their own pace. Moreover, this also implies that students could spend longer hours on difficult areas and keep repeating a lesson, until they could understand it, without slowing down other students.
This online module communication channel, used by discussion forum, has enabled learners to access a tutorial whenever they wanted, at a convenient time. This flexibility allows participants to learn anytime, anywhere, according to their preferred learning styles.
Contrary to traditional classroom setting, this way of delivery was more interactive as those who may have been uncomfortable in asking questions in class can communicate more comfortably in the online forum. Moreover, there were learners who can take their own time to formulate their query which is not always possible, with the time restricted, limited period of a lecture.
The findings of this study are consistent with results of previous studies concerning students' participation rates, (Guzdial & Turns, 2000; Hewitt and Tevlops, 1999). These studies indicate that students do not participate very intensively in discussion forums. The findings show that the task-related postings are less of “Evaluation” type.
Generally, the discussion threads in on-line forums appear to be quite short (Guzdial & Turns, 2000; Hewitt & Tevlops, 1999). The results of the present study confirm these results. There was a high number of short discussion, one or two lines (“New Idea” and “Explanation” type) messages.
The value of threaded discussions was confirmed by Wang and Woo (2007). Based on the empirical evidence of this study, forums, due to their asynchronous nature, might be an appropriate tool to promote equal, (irrespective of time and location) and high participation. Whether these possibilities are ever exploited depends on factors such as educators themselves and also on institutionalized practice.
This study also shows that students find it important to socialize on the forum. A high proportion of non-task related discussion was of “Social” type message. This was irrespective of level of studies and applied to undergraduate as well as postgraduate. A quantitative and qualitative analysis of the postings indicates that around 80% of the all postings were task-related.
Now, the question is, “Would a discussion focusing entirely on learning topics be a realistic goal?”. In fact, the optimal ratio of “task related” posting to “non-task related” posting for effective learning and collaboration is yet to be defined. Furthermore, a closer look at the data reveals that most of the postings received at least one reply. Of those that were attended, some were of reflection type, for example the forum on reflection on the activity where each participant created a topic on their personal experience, thereby leaving almost no opportunity of getting a reply or some were of informative type, again with no expectation of a reply.
Students dominated the discussion, not the tutor. This finding indicates that the online modules offered, both at graduate and post-graduate level, were student-centered. The instructor was purposefully creating a learning environment wherein students were in charge of their own learning and responsive to each other. In ‘forcing’ students to assume the roles of facilitator, it was hypothesized that the students would become more engaged and comfortable with the conferencing system.
Another finding was, at the beginning of the modules, most students posted a strict minimum, just one message to introduce themselves in order to satisfy the minimum course requirement.
Answering questions or commenting on others’ postings by providing information and analysis is evidently an important part of effective communication. Moreover, with a high-quality expectation, students should not only be seeking understanding by offering answers and elaborate replies, but should also request clarifications concerning other participants’ postings. In order to represent genuine high quality, participants should be more daring, rather than being neutral or abstaining from giving their opinion. They should be asking more clarifications online rather than choosing the alternative of face-to-face meeting with peers or using telecommunication channels which would be to the detriment of the batch.
Furthermore, in a high-quality communication, the length of posting should definitely be longer. There is little hope for quality if the average length of the postings is only one or two sentences. The “non-task related” postings were mostly focused on social issues, which is important considering the social interactions needed to overcome the physical absence of the participants; and on technical problems, which were faced by users who were new to learning platforms technologies.
The purpose of the study was to analyze the patterns of participation and quality of students’ posting in discussion forum from two modules delivered by VCILT over a period of two years. If educators, researchers, and technologists (software developers) are going to implement discussion forums on a large scale, for a varied population at different level, they definitely need more information on patterns of participation and quantity as well as quality of discussions on discussion forums in realistic educational settings. By combining quantitative and qualitative content analysis, the present study gives insights on how discussion forums are used and a few patterns, of student as well as tutor, participation. A framework, based on instructional design perspective on how discussion forums can be implemented, was derived from the various patterns observed. Discussions were rather Task Related, which means that some learning and new understanding might have occurred. On the other hand, for Non-Task Related posting, the social interchange was pre-dominant. Although social exchange is not probably very valuable for learning academic subjects, it might serve some other functions, like activating participation in discourse by building a sense of community.
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Virtual Centre for Innovative Learning Technologies
University of Mauritius, Reduit, Mauritius.
Mohammad Issack Santally
Virtual Centre for Innovative Learning Technologies
University of Mauritius, Reduit, Mauritius.