The Guide

I absolutely love this guide – when I think of all the online teachers/academics I spoke with for my research, this is exactly what so many of them would love to have.
Dr Cathy Stone
2016 Equity Fellow and
2017 Visiting Research Fellow, NCSEHE
Conjoint Senior Lecturer,
The University of Newcastle

The Guide ... provides a model of four essential principles that can guide the design and implementation of online forums, to truly maximise the benefits for students. As such, it provides guidelines that go beyond the types of advice frequently found, such as ideas and tips for ‘ice-breakers’ ... [and] far exceeds these low level approaches, to systematically take the designer/lecturer to facilitate deeper levels of communication.
Professor Jan Herrington
Murdoch University

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The Guide to Fostering Asynchronous Online Discussion in Higher Education

Introduction to the Guide

Purpose of this guide

This guide articulates a set of principles to help University lecturers, and other teaching academics in the Higher Education sector, to set up and conduct successful asynchronous online discussions for the students in their distance or flexible delivery courses. These principles are based on theory, a review of the literature and research trials conducted in our postgraduate and undergraduate courses at University of Wollongong (2013-2016), and subsequently in postgraduate and other courses at Victoria University, Central Queensland University and University of the Sunshine Coast (2016).

Specifically, we aim to assist educators in conducting what we have labelled ‘productive online discussion’ – discussion where the students are engaging in a meaningful exchange of ideas in an attempt to solve a ‘problem’ aligned to the course learning outcomes. The mode of communication in such discussion is a mixed one of written texts with spoken-like characteristics, described as “a cross between writing and speech” (Wegerif, 1998, p. 40). The conversational written style of the posts collectively produces a sustained, coherent dialogue, as opposed to a simple ‘display’ of ideas. For interaction to be meaningful it should include “responding, negotiating internally and socially, arguing against points, adding to evolving ideas, and offering alternative perspectives with one another while solving some authentic tasks” (Woo & Reeves, 2007, p. 23).

The Guide provides principles which, rather than being prescriptive, are intended for lecturers to use creatively when guiding their own online teaching.

Advantages and challenges of asynchronous online communication

Without doubt, productive discussion is easier to conduct in face-to-face situations - where individuals are collaborating around a task for the purpose of learning. Face-to-face discussion has a number of benefits including the opportunity for immediate, on-the-spot clarification and the presence of real meaning-making cues such as gesture, voice tone, facial expressions, body language. Participants can listen to one another, interrupt, gesture, roll their eyes, negotiate, come to agreement (or not), give explanations to immediately justify their choices or opinions, smile, raise or lower their voice and draw on a myriad of other ways to convey their meaning. These, and many other meaning-making cues, comprise the social space of face-to-face interactions. As we know, however, face-to-face discussion is not always available and increasingly universities are offering more flexible course delivery for students. So, how might the success we can achieve in face-to-face discussion be replicated in the online teaching space and, in particular, in an asynchronous online discussion forum?

A number of problems have been identified which might hinder students’ learning in online discussions. These include: a lack of engagement; limited interactions among participants; low contribution rates and, lack of academic focus (Delahunty, Verenikina & Jones, 2014; Wang & Chen, 2008; Wen-Yu Lee, 2013; Boling et al., 2012; Kim et al., 2016). A review of the literature demonstrates that factors among academic staff which lead to poor online discussion include: lack of clarity for staff about how discussion ‘works’ in asynchronous contexts, their previous experiences with online forums often being less than satisfying; the urge for staff to assess discussion; and, lack of time or skill for staff in designing pedagogically sound online discussion tasks which encourage productive discussion (Delahunty, Verenikina & Jones, 2014).

What does the Guide offer?

When based on pedagogically and theoretically sound strategies, productive online discussion has strong potential for enriching students’ learning through ‘joint construction of knowledge’ (Delahunty, Jones & Verenikina, 2014). Knowledge construction can be defined as “the process whereby students undertake social exchange with their lecturer or peers in order to create and apply new understandings that resolve dilemmas and/or issues they are facing” (Koh et al., 2010, p. 285). Online discussion has been shown to promote knowledge construction in an even more effective way than face-to-face discussion because there is time for reflection and extended opportunity for interaction (Brace-Govan, 2003; Guiller, Durndell & Ross, 2008). However, if the online discussion is not well designed or monitored and does not lead to meaningful interaction, its potential for learning will not be realised.

From our previous research, we found that there are four interrelated components essential to designing and conducting successful online discussion in an online or flexibly delivered course:

four components for designing and conducting a productive online discussion: 1. Outcome oriented task design
four components for designing and conducting a productive online discussion: 2. Explicit communicative strategies
four components for designing and conducting a productive online discussion: 3. Interactional scaffolding
four components for designing and conducting a productive online discussion: 4. Clear expectations for participation

The four components for designing and conducting a productive online discussion are explained and exemplified in the next four sections of this guide.

We present these guiding principles and examples in relation to each of the interrelated components so educators can take them inventively to adjust and apply to their own specific courses and disciplines.

1. Outcome oriented task design 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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