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:
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.
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.
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:
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.Learn More
Here we present students’ perspectives on their experience of online discussion, in which the teacher used the Guide.
These vignettes capture the essence of how the FOLD strategies have influenced lecturers’ experiences of facilitating online discussion.
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.Learn More