Editor’s Note: Discussion and dialog play an important role in teaching and learning, whether in the classroom, distance learning, or study groups. Whatever asynchronous discussion lacks in spontaneity, it recovers by the opportunity to think through ideas and responses and do additional research. As a result, asynchronous discussions can be high in participation, quality of ideas expressed, and success in solving problems.
Faculty Use of Asynchronous Discussions
About the same
About the same
Neither connected nor detached
Statistical correlations that were conducted found that the higher the rated connectedness, the higher the quality of interaction (r = .77, p < .001), with a greater facilitation skill (r = .33, p < .001) and the degree of instructor posting (r = .20, p < .05).
Facilitation skill was also associated with degree of instructor posting (r = .30, p < .05), quality of interaction (r =. 29, p < .05) and the time commitment for scoring discussions (r = .28, p < .05).
The extent to which instructors believe that discussions are an important integrated part of their course, the greater the feel connected to the students (r = .75, p < .001). Rated importance is also associated with facilitation skill (r = .54, p < .001), and the quality of course interaction (r = .37, p < .001).
Faculty judged student learning to be related to connectedness (r = .56, p < .001), quality of interaction (r = .51, p < .001), facilitation skill (r = .40, p < .001). In contrast, but as one may expect, connectedness was negatively associated with class size (r = -.24, p < .05).
Comparisons between graduate and undergraduate courses revealed several differences. Given the respondents, the data compares SU undergraduate with combined SU and NE graduate courses and SU undergraduate with SU graduate. The best prompts used to launch online discussions reported were “complex statement/question framing the context for discussion of the topic” were similar for overall graduate (40), SU graduate (45) an SU undergraduate (46). However, selecting a “simple statement indicating what topic students should discuss” was much favored much more by overall graduate (32), SU graduate (38) compared to SU undergraduate (17).
Despite significant institutional differences, graded discussions with specified evaluative criteria are widely used at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Faculty are significantly involved within these discussions, expressing by their behavior that discussions are an integral means for integrated learning, connections between students, and connecting themselves to their students. They report being considerably skilled in using online discussions while acknowledging a significant demand upon their time.
Faculty teaching graduate courses believe that online discussions result in more and better interaction compared to face-to-face courses. In contrast, undergraduate faculty found online courses as having decreased interaction and quality of interaction compared to face-to-face courses.
Faculty teaching online courses regularly report the significant demands upon their time. Quite often, faculty consider online teaching much more demanding than face-to-face teaching. They wish to be effective and maintain their sustained commitment to online instruction. A central question is whether faculty should be posting within each or even most discussions or whether there is an alternative role that may improve student learning as well as reduce faculty time demands. Would both students and faculty be better served if courses were designed so that students learned how to facilitate discussions while faculty assumed the role of “guide on the side” throughout the discussions? There are several reasons why professor participation directly in the discussion may inhibit the discussion. Students undoubtedly will attend to the professor’s comments more readily than comments of their peers. Insertion of the professor’s comments, although unintended, may also communicate to those who have most recently posted their ideas that there are some problems with their postings.
This study demonstrated very similar discussion patterns between a university with a well-developed faculty development program and one without a program. It found that trial and error learning was a major source for all faculty. Future research should consider the quality and nature of faculty development related to online discussions. Of particular importance is recognizing that faculty teaching undergraduate courses may face a considerably different set of discussion challenges compared to faculty teaching graduate courses given the differences in social and career development between undergraduates and graduates.
Whereas the amount of interaction may be objectively assessed, the quality of interaction and the sense of connectedness is an affective perception that is integrally related to both one’s role and the nature of the students in the course. Faculty who have enjoyed working with undergraduate students face-to-face will presumably sense a loss of connection with online instruction. Traditional age undergraduate students are socially, psychologically and developmentally very different from the adult learners. Traditional undergraduates find value in the personal classroom interactions (even if it is before and after class), whereas adult learners are more likely to value the time and convenience of online learning over the missed opportunity to make new friends. This suggests that a future research study should compare faculty and student responses across undergraduate and graduate courses.
Clearly faculty development that focuses on ways to engage students is important at all levels of instruction. This study suggests that faculty teaching online undergraduate courses should receive a wide range of pedagogical instruction that fosters cohesion and student engagement. The range of cooperative learning strategies with documented positive affective and cognitive effects should be integrated into the online environment (Slavin, 1991). These include the Jigsaw II technique (Aronson, Blaney, Stephen, Sikes, & Snapp, 1978), and Reciprocal teaching (Palincsar, Ransom & Derber, 1988/1999). Additional suggestions are provided by Lynch (2010). Gerbic (2009) discusses the impact of adding online discussions to on-campus undergraduate classes.
In addition, for the course to engage undergraduates, faculty and course designers may wish to develop sections of courses that are case study based, or utilize problem based learning. Both practices have been shown to foster high levels of motivation and engagement with face-to-face instruction. There are numerous issues that call for further investigation. Issues addressed here are the nature and use of discussion instructions and evaluation rubrics, instructional efficacy of faculty posting, and implications for online faculty development. All three issues should be considered from the perspective that what matters most is to optimize student learning and engagement while supporting faculty so that they have the personal and institutional resources to become more effective instructors.
The quality of online discussions is significantly affected by posted expectations as well as evaluative feedback. Further investigation should identify whether there are essential elements of guidelines, samples of effective questions, examples of cohesive, in-depth discussions that may be provided before discussions start to foster high quality online conversations (see Al-Shalchi, 2009; Scott, 2010; Vonderwall, Liang & Alderman, 2007). Similarly, are there evaluative criteria or elements of rubrics that help students and faculty alike to recognize different discussion qualities with reliable and valid judgment? For example, there has been some research concerning analytical versus wholistic approaches to grading discussion postings (Grant, 2007; Spatariu, Hartley, & Bendixen, 2004). Such criteria should provide formative feedback that results in improved future discussions and enhanced learning.
Whereas the most immediate implications of this research relate to program and faculty development, the study presents some implications for empirical and theoretical discussions associated with the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model of asynchronous learning.
Garrison and Arbaugh (2007) reviewed the CoI approach that was initially presented by Garrison, Anderson, & Archer (2000). The model suggests that three essential interrelated factors that influence the quality of asynchronous learning are social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. Social presence refers to the students’ sense of social and emotional safety online, being seen as “real people” within a cohesive environment (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Richardson & Swan, 2003; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, and Archer, 2001; Walther, 1992). Social presence is also closely associated satisfaction with an online learning environment (Arbaugh & Benbunan-Fich, 2006; Benbunan-Fich & Hiltz, 2003).
Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001) described cognitive presence as “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse.” (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007, p. 161). The CoI model identifies cognitive presence in diverse ways as the levels of thinking, understanding, and constructing meaning throughout the course. Cognitive presence has many dimensions with varied levels of cognitive processing (e.g. recall to critical and creative thinking), private compared to shared communication, and metacognitive reflection. Walker (2005) and Wickersham & Dooley (2006) discuss critical thinking in discussion forums.
Garrison et al (2001) “described teaching presence as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes.” (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007, p. 163.)
Anderson, Rourke, Garrison and Archer (2001) postulated three teaching components 1) instructional design and organization, 2) facilitating discourse (originally called building understanding, and 3) direct instruction. The study reported here relates directly to facilitating discourse, certainly a challenging role for faculty. Garrison and Arbaugh (2007, p. 164) emphasize this major teaching role: “Facilitating discourse requires the instructor to review and comment upon student responses, raise questions and make observation to move discussions in a desired direction, keep discussions moving efficiently, draw out inactive students and limit the activities of dominating posters when they become detrimental to the learning of the group.”
It is suggested that the CoI model may be a useful framework to conduct further studies of how faculty make use of discussions in online courses and the factors that influence effectiveness of student learning. This study has identified a number of issues that could be investigated further in this context.
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Douglas Lynch is Chair and Professor of Education at the University of New England in Maine. His online research interests focus upon effective ways to engage students in online discussions. Current and previous work with F2F students have focused on motivational beliefs and learning strategies of college students. He received his Ph. D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst .
Greg Kearsley is currently the director of online graduate programs in Education at the University of New England. He has been involved with online programs at a number of institutions including the George Washington University, the University of Maryland, Nova Southeastern University, the University of Wisconsin, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He has written extensively about technology in education and is the coauthor of the text, Distance education: A systems approach. He received his PhD from the University of Alberta in 1978. firstname.lastname@example.org
Kelvin Thompson is an assistant director for University of Central Florida’s Course Development & Web Services (CDWS), is a practicing online instructor, and has assisted with the design of hundreds of online courses. Thompson's personal research interests include qualitative evaluation of instructional environments such as his Online Course Criticism Model. email@example.com