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The Guide to Fostering Asynchronous Online Discussion in Higher Education

4. Clear expectations for participation

Explicit, clear, unambiguous instructions

Students need to have a clear understanding of the expectations for participating in discussion. From our research, we have found that getting learners to engage in online discussion forums can be difficult. Furthermore, it does not always result in actual discussion. Using extrinsic incentives - such as assessing (grading) the postings might have an impact on the kind of contributions learners make and may result in more of a ‘display’ of individual postings rather than in reciprocal interactions. While this kind of public display is useful for showing what individuals have done or how they have responded, it does not harness the pedagogical benefits which come from learning through interacting with others.

The instructions need to be expressed in a simple, clear and unambiguous way and need to address:

  • the participation requirements, e.g. compulsory and are counted towards participation requirements, but not assessed
  • the number of messages required to be posted for each discussion
  • the genre of writing - to encourage reciprocity (e.g. spoken-like style; no references and quotes; not lengthy, leaving space for others’ to contribute ideas/opinions)

Developing clear expectations for student participation in online discussion also requires consideration of the audience, as this will influence the nature of interactions. Be explicit about who the students are writing for e.g. if the task is not to be assessed, point out that the audience - even though you are monitoring their learning and may respond - is their peers.

In our research, participation in the forums was not assessed but instead was counted as ‘an attendance requirement’. In keeping with the institutional requirement of 80% attendance, student participation was compulsory in at least 80% of online discussion forums. While mandatory participation tied to assessment might increase the number of posts, students may just post in a formal way to meet the requirements. Quality, in terms of collective knowledge building, can be sacrificed if the nature of responses is more akin to ‘show and tell’ rather than collaboration. Thus, we argue that effective participation in online discussion forums relies on explicit instruction about how to engage with the online learning community.

However, because the discussions were not assessed, the students in our research needed extra motivation for participation. This included regular reminders about participation requirements, posted to the announcement board.

Enhancing student motivation

Additionally, a reflective assessment task was offered for students to reflect upon their participation in the forums. This proved to be useful, as it added ‘credibility’ to the forums, i.e. students linked participation in the forums to assessment, increasing the motivation for ‘quality’ participation.

You can find excerpts from students’ reflective essays under Student reflections.

An example of a reflective assessment task from a Postgraduate Educational Psychology subject is presented in Table 7 below.

Table 7 Example of an assessment task linked to participation in online discussion

Assessment Task 2: Reflective Essay, 30%:

Social constructivist theorists believe that

[e]very function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first on the social level and later on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological)

(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57).

Discuss the idea that social interactions play a fundamental role in effective learning and teaching. Reflect on your participation in this subject and particularly in the Online Discussion Forums. You should consider the ways in which your interactions with others in these forums influenced your learning in the subject. In your reflection, provide specific examples to support your argument. Then, using your reflection and relevant reading, consider what this means in your practice as an educator.

To complete this assignment you will need to participate in online discussion forums, using the Discussion Guides provided on Moodle. Note: while the quality of your actual participation in online discussion forums is not assessed, the quality of your reflection on your participation is included in the assessment criteria

The online discussion forums were regulated by the request for students to make posts of between 50-70 words each, written in a spoken-like manner of communication with no quotes from, or references to, academic sources. This was to allow space for everyone to contribute (i.e. to prevent long, monologic posts which say ‘everything’ and requires time to read and comprehend); to keep the ‘conversational’ style of the discussion; and to reduce the time and preparation for participation (respecting the busy schedules and competing demands of other commitments of our students).

Based on our research, and as illustrated in the above example, we recommend that:

  • Instructions for participation are made explicit, clear, and unambiguous: when there is a lack of opportunity for immediate clarification, learners need to know what you mean so they don’t spend time trying to interpret.

  • Word limits are specified: this encourages students to be concise, acknowledges that most people are busy and avoids participants having to write lengthy responses as well as reading others’ lengthy posts in order to respond. It also leaves room for others to contribute, as no individual should be telling it all – the aim is for all to have opportunities to collectively fill in the gaps.

  • The style of writing needs to be interactive, written in an informal, conversation-like manner, with no references or quotes: formal academic style of writing (i.e. impersonal, inclusion of quotes, references and technical terms) is not really appropriate for online discussion, especially where ideas are being collectively explored and unpacked in order for students to gain new understandings. Writing to interact is focused on communicating effectively and appropriately – we recommend students reserve using academic styles of writing for written assignments such as essays and literature reviews where it is more appropriate.

  • While participation in online discussion is not assessed, it is compulsory for the students and is marked as their ‘attendance’. Expectations for participation need to be made clear to the students, e.g. they are required to make at least two contributions to each online discussion forum – responding to the case and/or responding to the post of another student.

Designing Asynchronous Discussion (Worksheet) 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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