The Guide

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The Guide to Fostering Asynchronous Online Discussion in Higher Education

2. Explicit communicative strategies

Skills for effective academic online discussion

Learning how to communicate effectively in an online educational environment requires a skill-set, which is different to those required in the face-to-face environment.

Effective engagement in a productive online discussion requires the learner to master a particular set of language-based academic communication skills. These skills are not often explicitly taught. Even though it may be fair to assume that modern students are quite experienced in everyday social media interactions, this does not necessarily mean that they possess the skills for participating effectively in academic online discussion, which leads to creating new meaning in a particular discipline area. These strategies need to be made explicit to students, to support their participation in online discussion forums.

The online communicative strategies detailed in this section have been drawn from literature on knowledge construction (e.g. Hendriks & Maor, 2004) and authentic language examples from detailed linguistic analyses of a variety of forum discussions in higher education (Delahunty, Jones & Verenikina, 2014)

Based upon the analyses in conjunction with interviews with students and lecturers, these explicit communicative strategies make visible the language choices suitable for engaging students effectively in online discussion, and include rationales so that the benefits of engagement are understood. These strategies go hand in hand with well-designed tasks (addressed in the section Outcome oriented task design) and are not meant to be used in isolation.

Online Communicative Strategies

The three sets of communicative strategies suggested in this Guide aim at gradually guiding the students’ discussion from creating a sense of belonging to joint knowledge construction.

  1. The purpose of the first set of communicative strategies is to foster a positive social space and encourage interpersonal relations. The introductory discussion is suitable for this first set of strategies and is good pedagogic practice for setting up a ‘culture of discussion’.

  2. The second set is for building a collective understanding of the ideas from diverse perspectives.

  3. The third set is aimed at moving towards critical discussion to co-construct new knowledge.

The three sets of communicative strategies are detailed in Table 5.

Table 5 Online Communicative Strategies


Establishing a positive social space

In the first forum introducing yourself is a good opportunity to tell us a bit about your background and experience – you could also upload a photo (in My Profile) so we can all ‘see’ each other.

We also ask that you read and respond to others because in online discussion this is how we demonstrate ‘listening’ and being ‘listened to’ (this can help prevent feeling like an ‘outsider’ to the group).

When responding to others it is good to address the person (or persons) by naming them (e.g. Hi Steven).

You may also want to acknowledge something they’ve said by complimenting (e.g. you made a great point about ...) or support/agree with something they mentioned (e.g. I had a similar experience ... or Like you, I love my job!)


Building collective understandings

These communicative strategies will help us as a group to build a collective understanding of the topic or concept. It would be surprising in such a diverse group if everyone has the same ideas about the task, so forum discussion provides the opportunity for all of us to see and appreciate the range of perspectives that each person brings. Building a collective understanding not only helps broaden our individual knowledge but assists others to develop their understandings as well.

Based on this rationale, the communicative strategies you can use are:

  • Re-stating: rephrase, clarify or refine an idea which may also reflect your perspective (i.e. using different terminology to say something similar), underlined in the following:
    • I do like the idea you said children’s speech allows educators to understand how they think ... to observe children's thinking by listening to their talk will allow us to analyse their developing strengths and abilities ...;
    • Hi (name)... I'm in agreement with you that private speech is important for young children to solve problems ...
  • Extending ideas: this adds some more information to what someone has said, or to what you have previously mentioned
    • adding a related perspective e.g. I agree with your reaction to XXX and I think the issue is also to do with Y ...
    • adding more information e.g. It’s surprising to see the range of technology children have access to ... In my class we have two iPads, three desktops and three laptops ...
  • Presenting alternatives: this allows for a broader discussion of an idea by proposing a different perspective e.g. I agree with what you said ... but another point of view might be ...


Constructing new knowledge

The purpose of this strategy is to begin to engage in some critical discussion of ideas and issues, by considering alternative views, presenting challenges, and (if necessary) justifying your position or viewpoint

  • Presenting alternatives: this allows for a broader discussion of an idea by proposing a different perspective, e.g. you commented that xxx, but another way of looking at it might be yyy
  • Challenging the idea(s): this is a good way to stimulate the discussion towards new understandings BUT can be tricky in online discussion. The key is to make sure you are challenging the idea and not the person, e.g. you made the observation that xxx, but in my experience this may not work because yyy
  • Justifying your position: giving reasons to explain your ideas. This might be necessary to make your point clearer if there is some misinterpretation, or if it seems that others don’t seem to understand your meaning, e.g. I’m not sure I agree / disagree with this idea because ...; what I’m trying to say is that ...

The communicative strategies are introduced gradually, from Set 1 to Set 3 but can be presented to the students in different ways. For example, we found it useful to create a short version of each set of the strategies and attach them directly to the discussion tasks for students to use (as exemplified in Tables 2 and 3 in the previous section). Extended versions including the rationale and explanation of the strategies were provided as a complementary resource for students to read at their own pace.

3. Interactional scaffolding 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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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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