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The Guide to Fostering Asynchronous Online Discussion in Higher Education

1. Outcome oriented task design

Introduction

In this section we discuss the principles for designing an engaging task for asynchronous online discussion. The purpose of the discussion task is twofold:

  • to reinforce and extend learning outcomes
  • to create a joint point of reference for a group of students to focus on and to shape their interactions

At the end of this section, we include two examples of tasks and explain the ways that they were designed in relation to the outlined principles.

Designing a task for asynchronous online discussion

Creating a stimulating task is an essential part of successful online discussion. We look for tasks which can intrinsically motivate students’ participation but also meaningfully link their discussion to learning outcomes.

Tasks that are engaging are designed around a problem where students are set to achieve a common goal such as searching for missing information and finding a solution to the problem. To stimulate a debate and provoke the expression of different, or even contradictory points of view, the task needs to include an element of controversy, such as in a case where a disagreement between the characters is presented. The authenticity of the case would allow students to draw on insights from relevant prior experience, e.g. life, work and education (Herrington, Reeves & Oliver, 2010). The aim is to invite collective and cumulative contributions which co-construct knowledge and are clearly aligned to learning outcomes (Delahunty, Jones & Verenikina, 2014).

Online discussion forums will be productive in relation to students’ learning if they are integrated into the subject learning outcomes, rather than simply designed as an ‘add-on’ for student engagement. The motivation to participate will be stronger for students as adult learners if connections between their participation in the discussion and learning goals are clear, and if the task is meaningfully aligned to these goals.

An important distinction to make is that what an online discussion task should not be is one that an individual can do independently of others. For example, ‘Read your lecture notes and answer the following questions’. Even if the answers to such questions are posted to a public discussion space, such a task is designed for ‘viewing’ rather than for encouraging ‘reciprocity’.

A useful approach to consider when designing meaningful discussion tasks is to begin with the end in mind, such as ‘constructive alignment’ (Biggs & Tang, 2011; Nightingale et al, 2007). This involves working back from a particular learning outcome and, at each point, thinking about what students will need to understand in order to arrive there. When designing the task, consider:

  • the kinds of concepts, issues or ideas that students will need to become familiar with – this links the task to the learning outcomes
  • the resources they will need access to, including the lecture notes or reading(s)
  • how you will build these into a discussion task (such as a case) so it is purposeful and related both to the course content and the students’ prior experience

In a nutshell, tasks which have been successful for engaging students in productive online discussion, included the following components:

  • an authentic issue to consider, such as a case study linked to current professional context
  • a focus on solving some kind of problem
  • a controversial element
  • knowledge or skills drawn from those taught in the course

Additionally, successful tasks include clear instructions (addressed further in this Guide under Clear expectations for student participation) and are explicitly linked to communicative skills and strategies, which enable students to effectively make use of the discussions (more about this in the section Explicit communicative strategies)

Task examples

Below we present two examples of tasks which were designed for asynchronous online discussion in an Education postgraduate course. Each task is first presented in the way that it appeared on the discussion forum and then the design components are explained and analysed.

Example 1

This task was designed for an online discussion forum in a flexibly delivered postgraduate Early Childhood Education course. It was linked to a course learning outcome, ‘Understanding the role of children’s talk in their learning and development’. It is framed through explicit instructions for participation in the discussion (further explained in Clear expectations for student participation) and linked to the communicative strategies that students are asked to use (further explained under Explicit communicative strategies).

Table 1 exemplifies the task as it appeared on the Learning Management System (LMS) for the students to respond.

Table 1 Example 1 - Task in a Postgraduate Early Childhood Education subject

Task:
Read the case and the statement, and respond with at least two posts (50-70 words), using the following communicative strategies (and not forgetting the previous strategies):

  • Justifying your position through explanation: “perhaps what I’m trying to say is that ...”; “I’m not sure I agree with this idea because...”
  • Presenting alternatives: “you commented that ... but another way of putting it might be...”
  • Challenging the idea(s): “while you made the observation that xxx, in my experience this may not work because ...”

The Case:
A four-and-a-half-year old girl Masha was asked to get a candy from a cupboard shelf. A couple of stools and a stick were offered to her as possible tools to reach the candy. Researcher's description of the process of her problem solving reads as follows: (Masha stands up on a stool, quietly looking, holding the stick). "On the stool "(Glances at the researcher. Puts stick in the other hand.) "Is that really the candy?" (Hesitates.) "I can get it from that other stool, stand and get it." (Puts the stick down and gets the second stool.) "No, that doesn't get it. I could use the stick!" (Takes the stick and knocks at the candy.) "It will move now." (Knocks the candy). "It moved, I couldn't get it with the stool, but the... but the stick worked." (Adapted from Vygotsky, 1978, p. 25)

Please discuss the following statement made by Ivan, a student assistant:
“Masha finally solved the problem, but it took her a long time. Of course, the task was not easy for a four year old, but she could have solved this problem much quicker if she didn’t waste her time talking so much!”


In Table 2 below we analyse the task in relation to its interrelated components. The left column shows the task components, and the right column provides the rationale for their design.

Table 2 Annotated task: Example 1

The task, as it was presented to the students on the Forum

Analysis of the task components

Read the case as well as the statement, and respond with at least two posts (50-70 words)

An explicit and straightforward instruction to set the parameters for the length of the required post

...using the following communicative strategies (and not forgetting the previous strategies – see the guide to forum 4 for more detail):

Justifying your position through explanation (“perhaps what I’m trying to say... “

Presenting alternatives (“you commented that ... but”)

Challenging the idea/s (“while you made...”)

Explicit instructions for the use of communicative strategies, including a link to an additional resource - guide for forum 4.

Specific communicative strategies that the students need to use. The instructions also include brief examples of wordings that can be used for each strategy.

A four-and-a-half-year old girl Masha was asked to get a candy from a cupboard shelf. A couple of stools and a stick were offered to her as possible tools to reach the candy. Researcher's description of the process of her problem solving reads as follows: (Masha stands up on a stool, quietly looking, holding the stick). "On the stool "(Glances at the researcher. Puts stick in the other hand.) "Is that really the candy?" (Hesitates.) "I can get it from that other stool, stand and get it." (Puts the stick down and gets the second stool.) "No, that doesn't get it. I could use the stick!" (Takes the stick and knocks at the candy.) "It will move now." (Knocks the candy). "It moved, I couldn't get it with the stool, but the... but the stick worked."

The case is intentionally linked to the learning outcome related to the important role of children’s talk in their learning and development. In the case, Masha, 4, is talking to herself aloud while trying to reach a candy. Her talk closely relates to what she is doing as she guides her problem solving. Talking aloud is an essential and inextricable part of young children’s learning and development. This topic was also covered in the lecture.

The case resembles an authentic activity which early childhood educators often observe in their everyday work with young children.

The case was adapted from the book of Vygotsky (1978) which was on the list of recommended reading for the course.

Please discuss the following statement made by Ivan, a student assistant: “Masha finally solved the problem, but it took her a long time. Of course, the task was not easy for a four year old, but she could have solved this problem much quicker if she didn’t waste her time talking so much!”

The discussion statement adds a ‘controversial element’ and frames it as a dilemma: Ivan’s statement contradicts the view that students need to understand. Ivan’s view has to be challenged by the students in their discussion to achieve the learning outcome.

Example 2

The second example of a discussion task based on the same principles is presented in Table 3 below. The task example presented below was designed for an online discussion forum in a flexibly delivered postgraduate Teacher education course in Educational psychology. It was linked to the learning outcome, ‘Understanding student motivation in the classroom’. Similar to the task presented in the previous example, it was accompanied by specific instructions and linked to specific communication strategies. It appears here as it was presented to the students on the Learning Management System (LMS).

Table 3 Example 2 - Task in a Postgraduate Educational Psychology subject

Read the case below:
Jessica is an experienced year 4 teacher. In conversation with a new teacher, Matt, who just joined the school, she is saying: “Kids these days don't listen as well as they used to. They spend less time attending to things and we have to do a lot more to engage them”.

She then asks Matt’s opinion on a couple of strategies that she wants to use. She explains that students might be more motivated if they accept responsibility for their learning. Her class is currently doing a unit on kites, and she is going to give students freedom to form their own groups and to choose a topic for their research (e.g. how to make kites or how they are used in festivals). She also wants to use verbal presentations, claiming they are motivating because students feel “proud of doing well in front of their peers”. For example, her students are asked to give a verbal presentation on their current unit on kites.

However, Matt suggests that she could motivate her students more effectively if she uses a system of rewards. For example, she could divide the class into groups and award points for good behaviour or correct answers, but deduct points when students don’t behave or are off task. He suggests using the Interactive Whiteboard to display the points for everyone to see.

Whose ideas would you support, Matt’s or Jessica’s?

Write at least two short posts of approximately 50-70 words: one in response to the case and one to another person in the group or you can choose instead to make two posts in response to at least two people in the group.

Use the following communicative strategies in your responses to other students:

  • Re-stating: to clarify or refine ideas - repeat in your own words (“as you said, ...”)
  • Extending ideas of others: to add more information or a new perspective (“you said ..., and...”)
  • Presenting alternatives: to propose a different perspective (“you said...but on the other hand...”)

Don’t forget to use the strategies from the Introductory Forum (Forum 1):

  • Addressing people by name
  • Acknowledging their ideas by complimenting and supporting them
  • Agreeing or respectfully disagreeing with their point of view


The above case was designed to encourage the students to think about different approaches to motivating children’s learning in the classroom – either extrinsic motivation (Matt) or intrinsic motivation (Jessica). This case was relevant to the students in the teacher education course as it represented a case from an authentic classroom which education students could relate to.

Table 4 provides an analysis of the task in relation to its interrelated components. The left column shows the task components, and the right column provides the rationale for their design.

Table 4 Annotated task: Example 2

The task, as it was presented to the students on the Forum

Analysis of the task components

Read the case below

Explicit instruction

Jessica is an experienced year 4 teacher. In conversation with a new teacher, Matt, who just joined the school, she is saying: “Kids these days don't listen as well as they used to. They spend less time attending to things and we have to do a lot more to engage them”.

Jessica is an experienced year 4 teacher. In conversation with a new teacher, Matt, who just joined the school, she is saying: “Kids these days don't listen as well as they used to. They spend less time attending to things and we have to do a lot more to engage them”.

She then asks Matt’s opinion on a couple of strategies that she wants to use. She explains that students might be more motivated if they accept responsibility for their learning. Her class is currently doing a unit on kites, and she is going to give students freedom to form their own groups and to choose a topic for their research (e.g. how to make kites or how they are used in festivals). She also wants to use verbal presentations, claiming they are motivating because students feel “proud of doing well in front of their peers”. For example, her students are asked to give a verbal presentation on their current unit on kites.

The case is explicitly linked to the learning outcomes related to children’s motivation, however the terms ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ motivation were not made explicit to the students - they had to identify those types of motivation themselves by linking their theoretical knowledge to this practical example.

The authentic activity is well familiar to postgraduate students in the teaching profession which they can relate to and therefore connect to their prior experiences.

However, Matt suggests that she could motivate her students more effectively if she uses a system of rewards. For example, she could divide the class into groups and award points for good behaviour or correct answers, but deduct points when students don’t behave or are off task. He suggests using the Interactive Whiteboard to display the points for everyone to see.

A controversial element: including an alternative view which is different to the previous one. The case is set up as a dialogue between the two teachers who had different views on motivation in the classroom. Jessica’s view supports intrinsic motivation, while Matt’s – extrinsic motivation. Understanding the difference and complementary nature of extrinsic motivation is the learning outcome.

Whose ideas would you support, Matt’s or Jessica’s?

Explicit instruction directing the students to attend to the controversy

Write at least two short posts of approximately 50-70 words: one in response to the case and one to another person in the group or you can choose instead to make two posts in response to at least two people in the group. Use the following communicative strategies in your responses to other students... [as listed in Table 3]

An explicit and straightforward instruction to set the parameters for the length of the required post.

Explicit instructions for the use of specific communicative strategies, including a link to an additional resource - guide for forum 4.

The instructions include brief examples of wordings that can be used for each strategy.


To conclude, this section provided the steps and detailed examples on the design of discussion tasks, which will focus the students’ interaction around solving an authentic problem relevant to their profession. The link to learning outcomes is essential to make the discussion task relevant to the students’ professional learning - a motivating feature for adult learners.

Examples of how these tasks were designed are included under Designing asynchronous discussion (worksheet) in this Guide (Tables 9 and 10).



2. Explicit communicative strategies next




The Guide

Articulates a set of principles for fostering online discussion in higher education, based on theory, the literature and evidence from postgraduate and undergraduate flexibly delivered courses.

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Student Perspectives

Here we present students’ perspectives on their experience of online discussion, in which the teacher used the Guide.


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Lecturer Vignettes

These vignettes capture the essence of how the FOLD strategies have influenced lecturers’ experiences of facilitating online discussion.

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Resources

The resources in this section are the literature used to inform the Guide as well as presentations made by the Project Team. These will be added to as we continue to disseminate.

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