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Editor’s Note
: When Lincoln Steffans went to Stanford University in the late 19th century he was offended by the predominance of lecture and lack of discussion. He believed that as graduates and as adults, there should be much more exploration and sharing of knowledge between learners as well as between students and professor. Online discussions provide the opportunity for considered and detailed responses that is not constrained by time and where all class members can communicate. Research on specific learner characteristics, such as age and race, contribute to design and moderation of effective online discussions.

Exploring the Role of Age and Race
in Online Discussions

Katrina A. Meyer


Discussions on various controversial topics (e.g., diversity, affirmative action) in U.S. higher education among ten graduate students were held online during Fall 2005.  An earlier study (Meyer, 2006) had found differences in responses to post-discussion surveys based on the age or race of the student; this study analyzed transcripts of the online discussions using qualitative methods to identify possible reasons for those differences.  First, younger students posted fewer times to the online discussions but there were no differences between African-American and Caucasian students in their frequency of posts.  Content analysis of the online discussions identified four themes.  Theme One noted greater tentativeness in the written expressions of the younger students.  Theme Two found older students provided more postings that were also more complex.  Theme Three found inconsistent approaches to such topics as slavery, racism, and reparations based on the race of the student; on the other hand, the students treated such topics as affirmative action, poverty, and K-12 education in a consistent manner. Theme Four noted two differences in the level of thinking in the postings: institutional versus individual responsibility and practical versus transformative change.  Only older students mentioned the importance of individual responsibility and transformative change.  Theories on psychological and moral development are discussed in an attempt to explain these findings.  The relevance of these results for online education is also discussed.


Discussions held online by means of a course management system (CMS) such as WebCT, Blackboard, etc. have been the focus of numerous studies.  Why this may be so is probably the result of several factors, some practical and others theoretical.  On the practical side, CMS products capture the discussion in a printout that can be analyzed for a variety of characteristics and long after the class has completed. This printout is not a transcript, but the actual keystrokes and expressions of students produced by them and it does not require the extra time or cost of a transcription service.  On the theoretical side, these discussions allow faculty to assess student participation, growth, grasp of course content, or other outcome of interest, analyze why discussions went well or poorly, find ways of improving future discussions, or understand how students think about class content or life or themselves.

In an earlier study by the Author (2006), graduate students participated in face-to-face and online discussions on controversial topics and were asked to compare their responses in the two discussion settings (face-to-face versus online).   The goal was to determine whether discussions about controversial topics were perceived to be different in the two settings, in terms of their sense of discomfort, honesty, worry about hurting others, feeling the same as others, or willingness to disagree.  Faculty with experience working on controversial topics had advised the author that such discussions had to occur online or had to occur face-to-face; each point-of-view was stated firmly and confidently.  Gladwell (2002) in The Tipping Point referred to a study that stated that individuals who disagreed face-to-face were more credible because it was harder to do.  As often happens, the students indicated they felt there was “no difference” between settings, although a majority indicated a preference for discussing matters face-to-face while a minority preferred online discussions.

However, the mean responses for many items were different based on the age and race of the student (Table 1).  For example, after the face-to-face discussion, older students felt more uncomfortable but became more comfortable after the online discussions.  However, both races had the same discomfort levels after the face-to-face discussion, but the Caucasian students were a little more uncomfortable after the online discussions.  Since with such modest numbers it is impossible to conduct statistical tests, it is appropriate to conclude that the responses on how honest students felt they were was similar across age and race.  Younger or Caucasian students are more worried about hurting others’ feelings.  Older and Caucasian students think they feel the same as others, but these differences lessen somewhat after the online discussion. Older and African-American students feel more willing to disagree, and this is true to the same degree in both face-to-face and online discussions. There are differences between younger and older students and African-American and Caucasian students in their preference for having discussions online, but the differences lessen after the online discussion. These differences capture a particular set of students who are relatively comfortable talking about race and other controversial matters, partly due to many of the students being mature African-American professionals. In any case, they appear to have become more accepting of the online discussion setting over time.

Table 1
Age and Race, Over Topics

NOTES:   Very = 1, Moderately = 2, Somewhat = 3, A little = 4, Not at all = 5
Y=Young (20s); M=Mature (30s and above)    AA=African American; C=Caucasian
SOURCE: Author (2006)

It is impossible to explain in a definitive fashion why these differences occurred as they did.  The online discussions do not directly explain these differences, because the discussion topics were about diversity, affirmative action, gender, etc., in higher education, and not why they felt uncomfortable or did not worry about hurting others’ feelings.  However, these different responses certainly triggered an interest on the part of the researcher in exploring other differences and reasons for those differences.  Therefore, this research identifies differences in responses by age and/or race using qualitative analysis of the online discussions.  Certainly, a variety of methods and/or theories have been used to evaluate online discussions and there is a large literature based on this approach, including use of the Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001), the social construction of knowledge (Gunawardena, Lowe & Anderson, 1997), the use of content analysis (Newman, Webb & Cochrane, 1995), or Fahy’s (2003) Transcript Analysis Tool. Meyer (2006) has reviewed the numerous methods and theories used to analyze online discussions.  In this case, however, rather than use a prechosen theory or conceptual framework to evaluate these online discussions, the analysis used qualitative methods to uncover themes and then theories were sought to explain the findings.

It is important to note that while the earlier study (Author, 2006) compared face-to-face to online discussions, the current research focuses solely on analyzing the online discussions to explore age and race differences.  Several definitions also guide this research.  First, labeling an issue as controversial was based on the researcher’s experienced teaching this subject matter for several years.  These are topics that students may disagree on or they touch on one’s self-identify and may be difficult for the person to discuss. In this case, they are also topics that are essential to understanding higher education.  Second, the students self-identified with a particular race; while they may have actually been mixed race, the simplest way to settle this matter was to allow them to indicate their race.

Several questions guide this research.  First, does the age or race of students explain differences in responses posted to online discussions? Second, what cognitive or developmental theories might explain differences or consistencies? And finally, is this approach to analyzing online discussions useful?


In Fall 2005 during a graduate-level class on Historical and Policy Perspectives of Higher Education, ten students were asked to prepare for and participate in a series of discussions on controversial subjects in higher education.  The controversial subjects were 1) Diversity, 2) Academic Freedom, 3) Political Tolerance, 4) Affirmative Action, and 5) Gender.  These subjects were chosen because they are important policies to higher education and because students invariably have different views about them.  The instructor regularly modeled an open approach to discussions of controversial matter in the early weeks of the course, wherein the class would track the definition of “diversity” in different historical eras in American higher education or analyze data on the changing composition of higher education as regards class, race, and gender.

The instructor introduced the first controversial discussion in week six of a 15-week semester, after having given the students several weeks to become familiar with the instructor and their fellow students.  Students prepared for the discussions by reading four to five websites with research articles or data on the topic prior to coming to class for the face-to-face discussion.  Diversity focused on data on minorities in higher education as students, graduates, faculty, and institutional leaders.  Academic Freedom focused on the 1940 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Statement on Academic Freedom, the Ward Churchill controversy, and articles on academic freedom after September 11th.  Political Tolerance focused on readings about movements in the United States to impose a conservative Student Bill of Rights and other liberal versus conservative differences on U.S. higher education.  Affirmative Action required a reading of the two U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the University of Michigan admissions decisions and analyses of different approaches to college admissions not based on race.  Lastly, the Gender readings focused on various issues of female students and faculty, including sexual harassment and family-friendly work policies.

Based on their readings, students developed questions they felt would be worthwhile discussing with their peers and wrote them on 4 x 6 note cards.  This was done to maximize student interest in the discussion.  The instructor then categorized the questions into Bloom’s taxonomy, recently updated by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001): Know, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create.  This was done to make the two discussions as similar as possible in the level of questions asked.  One group of questions was posed in class; the other group was posted online after the class was dismissed and continued until the next weekly class meeting.  In the online setting, questions prepared by students were posted by the instructor on the class WebCT Discussion Board and students were asked to post responses two to three times during the remainder of the week.

The analysis follows standard procedures for a qualitative study.  The printout of the online discussions produced by WebCT form the data for the current analyses.  Each posting was identified by the student’s name, so answers could be easily separated by student age (young students were in their 20s and mature students were 30 and above) and race (African-American or Caucasian).

The goal of the analysis was to review the postings across multiple readings and identify possible differences by age or race of the student.  As stated previously, no particular theory or set of theories guided the analysis, nor was the analysis intended to evaluate the content of the discussion to determine whether the students answered questions correctly, completely, or reflected the extant research literature.  The analytical process was based on the guidance given by Maxwell (1996) for qualitative researchers.

To begin the analysis, each posting was analyzed for how ideas were expressed. The discussions were then reviewed carefully for themes in each posting and then consistency or differences in themes between students and groups of students.  Themes could occur in a variety of ways, through written expression, the discussion of certain topics, or level of thinking implied by the words or ideas used.  Once a possible theme arose, other postings would be reviewed to see if it were consistent across a group of students (for example, all young students or all African-American students).  If a theme appeared to identify a difference between groups, all postings were reviewed to confirm or disconfirm the difference.  Only those themes that were confirmed over several postings would be included in the final analysis.

To augment this process, the instructor/researcher had prepared notes on the weekly discussions and insights into what was happening.  These notes provided additional insight into the themes and modify or expand upon the findings.

In the final stage, explanations for the themes were sought in various cognitive or developmental theories in the existing theoretical and research literature.  These theories were developed and tested in the pre-Internet world, so they may be applicable to individuals participating in online discussions or not.  However, to the extent that such earlier theories seem to explain what happens during an online discussion, we may find support for their continued usefulness in assessing, evaluating, and understanding what happens in online learning.


Description of Sample and Postings

The discussions resulted in 246 total postings by the ten graduate students in five discussions held over five weeks.  To explore whether there were any differences based on age or race in the number of postings, both the total and average number of postings were calculated (Table 2).  The older students outposted the younger ones (5.5 average posts to 3.5 average posts, respectively), but there was no difference in the average number of posts for African Americans and Caucasians (4.8 versus 4.9, respectively). Of the five discussion topics, Affirmative Action had the highest average number of posts (6.4), Academic Freedom the next highest (5.2), then Diversity (4.7), Political Tolerance (4.5), and Gender (3.8).  It also appears that students exceeded the guideline of the instructor to post “two to three” times to the discussion (the lower number of posts for the last discussion is due as much to having final papers due the same week as any other cause). Because this research includes only ten students, the results are tentative until further replications of the study can be made.

Table 2
Mean Number of Postings to Discussions by Age and Race

NOTE:  Young (20s); Mature (30s and above)


Based on the analysis of the online discussions, four themes arose.  They can be classified into themes related to written expression (tentativeness), nature of thinking (complexity), controversial topics that are treated inconsistently (slavery and reparations) and consistently (affirmative action, poverty, K-12 education) by different groups, and level of thinking (individual versus institutional; practical versus transformative).  In the discussion that follows, each theme is discussed, examples provided, and consistencies or inconsistencies in the themes described.

Theme One:  Tentativeness of Written Expression

The postings made by younger students were frequently expressed in a more tentative manner.  In response to the question, “Why is African American college enrollment increasing at a lower rate than other groups?” one of the younger students wrote (the italics have been added), “It would seem to me that African-American students are not matriculating as much as other groups first because some African-American students may not be encouraged as much as other students to attend college.”

While it is not unusual for graduate students to learn that academic writing stresses a more cautious style, a sentence with two or more instances of this type of cautious expression is notable.  This may capture the younger students’ lack of self-confidence which in turn contributes to the discomfort with disagreements that may occur in class.  This situation may actually be exacerbated in a graduate-level class, where younger students are outnumbered by older ones or may be at an earlier stage of their graduate study. Certainly, some of the older students’ postings contained instances of caution, but not in the number or multiple occurrences in a single posting as these examples contain.

Another example of tentativeness as applied to reasoning is this posting, also by a younger student:

Great article.  In a way it makes me think about my own ideas about freedom of speech and thought. I believe that everyone has the right to believe what they believe as long as it causes no harm to another.  But where does the line get drawn? I think [the author] is prejudiced, but as a person who agrees with freedom of thought, I must respect his right to his opinion. But . . . he can easily persuade young minds to his thinking . . . what right do I have to stop this man?  It’s a dilemma I have struggled with long and hard and have not yet come to a conclusion.

One can be sympathetic to this student’s plight of resolving conflicting values: stopping harm to young students versus protecting freedom of speech.  This quandary is a good example of a reasoning that is tentative, moving back and forth between opposing values, and ending with an unresolved quandary.

Theme Two:  Complexity

An example of a posting that was different due to its acknowledgement of complexity is the one below:

A good foundation has to be established with solid reading, writing, and arithmetic skills from K-6 . . . part of this foundation is caring parents, teachers, mentors, and a solid curriculum . . . When we get better schools in our neighborhoods and better teachers, our drop-out rates will go down . . . active parental involvement is part of the solution. The importance of an education is going to have to be emphasized [with parents] . . . when your poverty level is higher than everyone else’s and you live payday to payday, it’s hard to imagine trying to afford sending your child to college . . . [education] is a luxury that you cannot afford . . . Some parents if educated on 529’s [the U.S. tax code designation for a college savings plan] probably would make the sacrifice . . . parents need to see education as a necessity and not a luxury.

This posting was long (33 lines), and the student does not settle for one explanation but identifies several causes or reasons (schools, parents, poverty) for why African Americans are not increasing their college-going rate.  This student was older and perhaps had a fuller, more complex grasp of the many causes for various social conditions.

Another example of this same complexity is this partial posting:  “African-American college enrollment is increasing at a lower rate than other minority groups because of socio-economic factors, such as poverty, lack of family support, and indifference towards African-American students in K-12.”  The entire posting was also long (34 lines) and focused on more fully justifying this introductory sentence with data; in its entirety, the posting is a good example of this older students’ grasp of the several and complex factors influencing minority enrollment in U.S. higher education.

Theme Three:  Differences in Topic (Slavery and Reparations)

An interesting difference in the treatments of topics of the postings occurred along racial lines.  In the postings to the discussions on diversity and affirmative action, the African American students mentioned slavery or racial prejudice four times and the issue of reparations for slavery twice. One student wrote, “Nothing is as significant as the baggage that African Americans still carry from slavery.  . . . We have made some great strides, but we have failed to truly overcome some of the socio-economic issues that still plague our race.”   On the topic of reparations, an African-American student wrote, “I do not think that anything besides reparations would truly remedy past discrimination.”  Another African-American student disagreed:  “I also don’t believe reparations are the answer . . . I just don’t believe you can place a figure on hundreds of years of ‘constitutional human suffering’.”

Caucasian students did not address these topics.  Such issues might be a source of discomfort to the Caucasian students and may explain why they avoided these topics.  The Caucasian students were probably not insensitive to issues of slavery or prejudice, but more likely were uncomfortable discussing such sensitive issues with their classmates. On the other hand, in response to one African-American student’s posting about the long-term effects of slavery, one Caucasian student wrote the following post about oppression, and its effect on oppressed and oppressor alike:

Oppression for certain minorities has been brutally severe … Once the physical overt oppression is stopped, covert psychological oppression lingers for generations.  . . . It takes a tremendous amount of courage and effort to change the mentality of the oppressors and the oppressed.

This posting certainly recognizes the effects of slavery, but also notes the impact on “the oppressors.”  What is interesting is that no African-American student responded to this idea of the mutual, deleterious effects of slavery. Slavery and the effects of slavery were clearly sensitive topics to these students raised in the southern United States.

Theme Three:  Consistency in Topics (Affirmative Action, Poverty, K-12 Education)

In contrast to the differences in attention paid to slavery and reparations, an entire week’s discussion was devoted to affirmative action, with largely consistent results.   “I don’t think affirmative action will remedy past discrimination.  Although it’s a scary thought if we totally abolish it at this point.  I don’t think our country is ready to view minorities as being on an equal playing field,” wrote an African-American student.  A Caucasian student wrote, “I do not think affirmative action will solve the problem with past or current discrimination . . . a law or a policy does not change a person’s beliefs . . . I do think things have improved, but they are anything but perfect.  We need to continue making progress.”  These postings capture two consistent qualities to the discussion:  affirmative action is not, in itself, perfectly effective at remedying past discriminations, but something still needs to be done to achieve equal opportunity for all.

There were also some consistent treatments of the role of poverty.  Twelve postings (eight African American; four Caucasian) indicated that poverty caused a number of problems for improving minority recruitment and achievement in college, which is remarkable for its consistency across postings and groups of students.  In four cases (three African American; one Caucasian), the poster went on to conclude that problems facing African Americans were similar to other groups, including other minority groups but also individuals in lower socio-economic classes.  This was meant not to ignore or belittle the experiences of African Americans but to broaden the discussion to include more individuals from additional minority groups who are experiencing similar problems. This may be an instance of trying to find “common cause” with other minority groups or classes rather than claiming that only African Americans had this problem.

Another topic that appeared to receive consistent treatment across groups was the need to focus time and resources on improving K-12 education.  Fourteen postings include a reference to improving K-12 schools, including ten postings by African-Americans and four postings by Caucasians.  An example of such a posting that is similar to many others is this one:  “I think the reason for [African-American] college enrollment increasing at a slower rate depends upon how prepared they are [by] high school” and “I think the only way to remedy past discrimination is to improve our public school system.”  Both of these comments are from the younger students.  The younger students were more likely to suggest improving K-12 education as their only or main thoughts for improving the issue under discussion (be it gender, diversity, or political tolerance).  While the older students were just as likely to mention improving K-12 education as the younger ones, they also had many more suggestions for places or tactics to begin improving matters.  For example, as one older African-American student wrote, “I think everyone has a role to play, from families, media, local and national government, schools, and others.”

Theme Four:  Level of Thinking (Institutional versus Individual Responsibility)

Two different themes as they relate to level of thinking became evident after repeated readings of the discussions.  The first theme of this kind was a difference based on age relating to institutional versus individual responsibility.  In the discussions on diversity, gender, academic freedom, and political tolerance, many students suggested ways that higher education could contribute to solving various problems (such as, improving minority representation among students, faculty, and administration; improving conditions for female faculty; modeling tolerance and understanding in the classroom or campus interactions).  As the question was phrased (“What should higher education do to solve this problem?”), it is not surprising that many students responded with suggestions for ameliorative actions to be implemented by higher education institutions.  One younger student suggested offering programming that would draw students from all races together to improve understanding of other groups.  An older student suggested, “Some of the literature I have been reading indicate that using GPAs, class rank, a lottery system (all qualified individuals go in a pool and names are drawn), and socioeconomic status” may improve the likelihood that higher education would enroll a diverse student population.  Another older student wrote “Higher education’s role . . .  should be to create more programs that bring people together.” Similar to the earlier theme of complexity, younger students were more likely to offer one or two suggestions while older students had a longer list of ideas for institutional action.  In any case, emphasis in these discussions was on what higher education institutions should do.

But what was most intriguing was the progression of the discussion into issues of individual or personal responsibility by the older students.  As one older African-American student wrote, “We must each be a point of light to make a change.  It may seem too big of a task, but no one said we had to do it by ourselves.  Just one small voice makes a difference.  You have to Mean It and Want It for it to happen.”  Another older student wrote the following in a different discussion, “My parents taught that it takes one small voice to get others to join and we can make a change in our office, department, family, home, church, and schools.” This same student would add later in her posting a comment relating her spiritual beliefs to taking personal responsibility:  “To coin a line from a familiar gospel song, ‘If I can help somebody, as I travel along the way, then my living shall not be in vain’.” This emphasis on individual responsibility was exclusively the province of the older students in the class. Of the older students who mentioned taking personal responsibility for changing themselves and/or the area (unit, department, organization) for which they could claim some influence, five postings were from African-American students and two came from a Caucasian student.

Theme Four:  Level of Thinking (Practical versus Transformative)

Suggestions for improving situations for minorities, women, or individuals with different political points-of-view could also be distinguished by their nature, being either practical or transformative.  This difference parallels the earlier one focusing on what institutions or individuals can do, but is different in its quality or nature.  For example, in a discussion on how to achieve equal representation of all groups in higher education, most suggestions were practical:  such as using recruiting methods that focused on grade point average, class rank, socioeconomic status, inner-city schools, or K-12 schools with higher enrollment of different groups.  These are all ideas that have been or are being implemented by higher education institutions in their efforts to enroll diverse college students in the absence of traditional affirmative action tools.  They are concrete, practical actions intended to achieve a particular aim.

But contrast these practical methods with the transformation proposed by some of the older students.  Several postings (by both African-American and Caucasian students) spoke to the importance of developing, teaching, and practicing compassion:  “We must teach compassion and the need to support those who are helpless and do not have a voice in society,” wrote an older African-American student.  “Compassion,” wrote an older Caucasian student, “is a powerful skill.”  A third older student, quoting Martin Luther King, wrote “I agree with my classmates about compassion . . . MLK was very smart in realizing that he had to appeal to the moral conscience of people in order to reach them.  By tapping into a person’s moral conscience, he was able to convince SOME to change their hearts and beliefs.”  A different older African-American student wrote, “I know, I’m crazy but I am going to take the simplistic view.  And that is to say that . . . the bottom line is mandates will never change what is in the hearts of many.  We need a change . . . a cultural change . . . not just in education but the world.”  Of course, attempting to change people’s hearts is neither simplistic nor easy, but it does capture some of the older students’ stress on changing hearts and minds and values.

These latter responses are different from the more practical suggestions:  they emphasize a change in consciousness or a movement toward “the upper level of mental life” (Merriam Webster, n.d.) or a personal transformation of values, beliefs, emotions, and thoughts that can contribute to a more aware and equitable human being.  Such a change in individuals goes well beyond modifying recruitment methods or admission criteria, but gets at the very core of personal transformation and social change that can lead to a more equitable and aware society.  These are clearly ideal statements, but ones that resonated with some of the older students in the online discussions.


Several theories may explain the differences mentioned in a posting’s tentativeness, complexity, topic, or level of thinking.  First, let us consider cognitive development and the instance of tentativeness or caution.  Kohlberg (in Crain, 1985) has proposed that an individual’s moral development passes through a conventional stage where conformity and maintaining interpersonal accord is critical.  The hesitation in expression by the young student noted above may be due to the need to avoid strong statements that could generate discord.  It may also be evidence of Loevinger’s (1976) conformist stage of ego development where the disapproval of others is to be avoided, which might encourage tentativeness in expression.

The second posting (that begins “Great article”) can perhaps be explained by Perry’s (1998) schema of cognitive and ethical development.  It is a good example of someone at the multiplicity stage (positions 3 and 4), which allows for accepting or allowing multiple points of view without evaluation or criticism.  This student seems to be at this stage, struggling between two values, one which values freedom of speech and the other that seeks to protect youth from harmful points of view.  Clearly, with the evidence made possible from the online discussions, these insights are merely suggestive and not conclusive, but they are interesting as an example of pre-Internet developmental theories being used to understand the quandary expressed online by this student.

Second, let us focus on the postings that used more complex thinking or comprehensive views of moral and social situations. King and Kitchener (1994) might place the individual who prepared the first long posting on the reasons for declining African American college enrollments at stage 5 thinking.  This stage of thinking describes an individual who recognizes different theories and evidence for those theories, but is unable to coordinate or integrate these theories into a single, abstract position.  This particular posting might also be usefully analyzed by use of Perry’s (1998) scheme of intellectual development as a good example of contextual relativism, where solutions are supported by reasons and the student is attempting to evaluate which solutions may work best to solve the problem of declining African American college enrollments.  It is important to note that these classifications have not been made by the preferred methods outlined by King and Kitchener (1994) or Perry (1998), which require more information on the student’s thinking and greater in-depth analysis of various artifacts of their reasoning.  A posting to an online discussion may not be of sufficient length, depth, or focus to be appropriate for a reliable analysis of the student, but these developmental theories can still be helpful to instructors who want to better understand how and at what level their online students are thinking.

Third, let us consider the postings where there were differences based on race.  Table 1 noted that younger students and Caucasians were more worried about hurting others’ feelings; African Americans in this class were more willing to disagree.  Perhaps the African Americans – six of seven of the mature students – were operating at higher ego development levels such as the individualistic (Loevinger, 1976) level, which includes greater tolerance of self and others and awareness of conflict. Certainly this is difficult to know, but it may be that the African-American students were also exercising an opportunity to speak out about matters that concern them rather than hold back to avoid discomfort in others.  Many of these students held advanced positions at their higher education institutions and were likely experienced with handling any number of difficult or uncomfortable matters on the job.  Also, it is important to remember that all of these students will be enrolled in future classes together, and maintaining respectful and honest relations is to the benefit of all.

For a different view on the role of differences resulting from race, Chang, Astin, and Kim (2004) found that cross-racial interaction enhanced cognitive functioning by stimulating critical and analytical thinking, or put more simply, when students are exposed to ideas different from their own, it creates cognitive dissonance that requires them to reassess their current set of beliefs (Chang et al., 2004, p. 545).  Mejías (2005) would likely put this process into the language of praxis, whereby online discussions can be a tool for moving individuals from communication about to communication with, which also collapses epistemological distance from what is far and unknowable to what is near and knowable.  Discussing topics about race need not generate epistemological distance but can bridge distances when the races engage in online discourse about important but uncomfortable issues.  These theories seem to imply that it is important for students to be presented with different views and to be placed in a condition where they might disagree with what is said or have their own points-of-view disagreed with.  Feeling discomfort and experiencing differences may be essential to learning.

One theory that might help explain why the older students emphasized individual responsibility is Loevinger’s (1976) stages of ego development. Both age groups offered examples of actions that higher education institutions could do to improve a variety of problems (e.g., diversity, affirmative action, to name a few).  This focus on institutional responsibility may be an example of Loevinger’s stage of self-protectiveness, which emphasizes blaming others.  While the students’ comments did not always seem to blame higher education institutions (a few postings did but the majority of comments did not), what is important here is their willingness to focus on colleges and universities having the main responsibility for improving matters.  As mentioned earlier, because the question was phrased, “What should higher education do about __ [diversity, affirmative action, etc.]?” perhaps the predominance of this type of answer reflects less on the students’ ego development than on the nature of the initiating question.

However, the older students progressed to posting comments that stressed the importance of individual responsibility, which may capture the next higher stage, or the conscientious stage of Loevinger (1976).  The conscientious stage stresses a sense of responsibility and the perception that the self is different from the group.  This last is important because personal responsibility cannot be developed until there is a unique individual – one who is motivated by his/her own ideals rather than a group’s – to claim (or see a need for) a role or responsibility in the world.

Two theories may illuminate the difference, also based on the age of the student, between practical and transformative thinking.  All of the students, regardless of age, were capable of suggesting practical solutions to problems focusing on rules, policies, and practices.  It was only a few of the older students who suggested solutions that stressed changing people’s perspectives, values, beliefs, or as one student put it, their “hearts.”  Such a judgment perhaps reflects advancement beyond Kohlberg’s (see Crain 1985) post-conventional stage five thinking, which views others’ as holding different opinions and values that must be respected and honored.  They may be at stage six, which emphasizes using reasoning to possibly change another, although there is less evidence in the discussions for this placement.

Another useful approach to understanding the difference between persons who propose practical or transformative solutions may be the students’ view of how change happens in the world.  To some extent, all of the students see problems as open to analysis and understanding and an almost technical solution.  To increase diversity in higher education, one needs to understand where to recruit and how to recruit diverse students, and go there and recruit those students.  But the comments labeled “transformative” imply a different level of understanding of how change happens, that true diversity requires a change of heart and mind, not just a change in policy or practice.  As one student phrased the problem, “Changing a law or policy does not change a person’s beliefs.”  This perspective recognizes that people are not as pliable or responsive to changes in rules or policies as some practical approaches assume, but real change requires a deeper psychological transformation.  It is not simply that people are complex, but that people are beings comprised of feelings and values that are difficult to change.  Such feelings and values are integral to their selves and they may be unaware of them or find them too confusing or frightening to their old sense of self to change. Transformation is no simple process, but it is clearly a different process and outcome than those brought about by more simple or practical changes which may result in compliance to the new policy or rule but no change in consciousness.

Perhaps Theory U (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, and Flowers, 2004) can explain this movement toward transformation.  Theory U recognizes that profound change -- whether it occurs in personal, organizational, or social settings -- can bring about deep, fundamental change by going through the U process.  Beginning at the upper left point of the “U,” one begins with “sensing” one’s perception of present reality.  By descending the left side of the U, one comes to “presencing,” or becoming open to new ways of thinking and doing.  Then, one ascends the right side of the U up to “realizing,” where one’s change of heart becomes implemented in new actions.   The comments from the online discussions do not capture every step of this process, but the level of understanding of the comments seems to imply that a process much like that described by Theory U has occurred.  What is probably most critical about the practical and transformation approaches – compared to the other stage theories of development discussed earlier – is that students can understand and recognize the value of both approaches at the same time.  But it was only a few of the older students who recognized that the problem would be solved by going deeper into the individual and touching and changing their the heart.


This qualitative study explored evidence for age or race differences in online discussions.  By carefully analyzing the transcripts of the online discussions, several themes emerged that could be explained in terms of age or race.  While some of the themes related to consistent topics that appeared in several of the discussions, others concerned how they tentatively they expressed ideas, how complex those ideas were, and the level of thinking captured by their posting to the online discussion. Because of the small number of students in the analysis, these results cannot be generalized to all students online.  But these insights are suggestive of differences that are worthy of further study by others who teach online and that teachers need to recognize as they create, conduct, and assess their students’ online discussions.

Online discussions can be useful for analyzing various phenomena, including student thinking and interactions as well as their grasp of course content.  However, they may not be the optimal tool for determining a student’s developmental stage.  And yet several pre-Internet theories can be very helpful for explaining student responses in the online setting.  While exact placement in a stage theory may not be the goal of an analysis, such theories may well be useful for instructors to understand what may be going on in the online discussion and whether they should modify their approach to the discussion and interrupt, explain, summarize, or introduce a new topic.  For example, younger students may need to be encouraged to develop more complex and sure responses in subsequent online postings.  Older students may need to be pushed to deepen and broaden their understanding of issues.  And students of different races may need to be encouraged to discuss difficult topics directly and with sensitivity, if they are not already doing so.

Based on these results, there is modest support for the assertion that we take ourselves online, including warts, virtues, and thought processes.  Although the phenomenon of individuals adopting new persona in online contexts is intriguing (see Turkle, 1997), it appears that individuals entering into an educational context do not change themselves in some fashion when they go online.  Their personalities, values, beliefs, and sense of humor become evident through their emails and discussions online.

Therefore, faculty teaching online cannot avoid becoming aware of students’ beliefs and values.  They also need to be aware of students’ cognitive and/or developmental levels before entering into controversial discussions.  One reassuring insight to this study is that racial or other controversial issues need not be avoided in online discussions, especially if students are older and more mature.  This is fortunate since many controversial issues are essential for understanding various disciplines or professional studies.  Controversy is also valuable in creating the cognitive dissonance that encourages further thought about these topics, but faculty may need to encourage younger students to not avoid or fear controversy and help them process various points-of-view.  But clearly, these discussions can occur online to great benefit.

There does not appear to be any evidence so far that discussion boards are either good or bad by themselves.  Their value seems to depend on characteristics of students as well as the skill of the facilitator or instructor, the rules of conducting a discussion, and the initiating conditions of the discussion.  In other words, they are a tool and can be used poorly and without a clear learning objective, or they can be designed to support and encourage valuable learning.  In any case, online discussions can be a window into students’ thinking, and offer faculty an important way to impact the further development of their thought, increase student learning, and improve online courses.

What is perhaps most important about online discussions is that they enable the “exchanging of ideas with other scholars [so that] we are constantly learning about new points of view and looking at issues in a richer way” (Bacalarski, n.d., p. 5).  This is based on Vygotsky’s (1986) theory of the development of human thought, which Bacalarski (n.d.) argues is particularly applicable to computer-mediated or online learning.  This theoretical foundation makes online discussions an essential tool in the development of new and richer thought through the exchange of ideas among students and faculty. The fact the exchange happened in the context of a discussion held online is perhaps less relevant.  What is important is the nature of the exchange.  Perhaps someday, we can ignore the setting of the discussion – whether it happened face-to-face or online – and focus on the quality of the exchange and the learning that occurred.


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About the Author

Dr. Katrina A.Meyer is associate professor of higher and adult education at the University of Memphis and her research interests include online learning and virtual universities.  She is author of Cost-Efficiencies in Online Learning, a 2006 publication of the ASHE Higher Education Report Series.  She can be reached by email at kmeyer@memphis.edu and by regular mail at the University of Memphis, 310 Browning Hall, Memphis, TN 38152

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