Pat, in “Did we miss the point” (Online Learning, 9/30/13), shares an excellent resource on online discussions with a decided emphasis on online: Vanessa Paz Dennen’s “From Message Posting to Learning Dialogues: Factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion” (Distance Education, 2005). According to Pat, “The article has specific examples of what is being discussed and how it was being used in the discussion forums.”
Following are excerpts from Dennen — with my comments in italics:
The research question for this naturalistic study was: “How does the design and facilitation of different types of asynchronous discussion activities impact student participation in terms of quantity, quality, timing, and nature of messages posted?”
Asynchronous discussions are unique to online learning. There is no traditional instruction method that is truly an analogue to asynchronous discussion, and thus this medium needs to be examined closely in order to generate knowledge that will help online instructors learn and make informed decisions about how to design and facilitate asynchronous course interactions.
Interaction requires “two discussants.” Just because students were composing and posting messages within these classes did not mean that they were engaging in dialogue. In order for dialogue to be present there needed to be evidence of at least two discussants who were communicating in response to each other.
Feedback and assessment are not necessarily the same. Assessment here refers to the assignment of a grade; feedback is a related issue, although feedback and assessment are not quite the same thing. An instructor might provide feedback without assessing a grade, and a grade may be assessed without providing any other feedback than the numerical or letter rating.
The impact of discussions may be found in “other course assignments.” Intersubjectivity among students was evident in many of the transcripts; in courses where actual dialogue occurred students were negotiating meaning relative to course content with each other. By communicating and pooling their shared experiences, they created a wealth of perspectives from which to draw upon in their other course assignments. Students repeatedly hailed these forums as a good place for exchanging and learning about different viewpoints.
Instructor presence can be established outside of the discussion forum. Instructor presence affected how much, and to whom, students wrote their messages in these courses. It could be established either within, or outside of, the discussion forum, and the most favorable presence seemed to be one that let students know that their messages were being read without taking over the discussion. Instructor presence was related to feedback and assessment; when there was no feedback or assessment, there likely was no instructor presence.
More than one way for instructor to be present. Instructor presence, given these observations, seems to be something that is important in moderation, and that can be achieved in different ways. It was established when students knew in one way or another that their instructor was reading their discussion contributions. [emphasis added]
Instructor domination is a no-no. On one end of the continuum was Dr F, whose classes had a great deal of instructor– student dialogue (he posted about half of all messages) but little peer dialogue. Dr F began most of the discussion threads and monitored the Web boards closely when they were open. His level of attention to the Web boards was admirable, yet created an instructor-centered feeling within the discussions. He responded quickly to student messages, which ensured that they received a response but also shut down the potential for much peer interaction, since students would not likely feel the need to respond when the instructor already had. In this class, students looked to Dr F for confirmation; on the few occasions when he was not present, they were upset. Student comments on the post-course survey indicated that his facilitation strategies caused problems, specifically a feeling of abandonment one week when he was ill and less active and a feeling that peer interaction was not appropriate.
Work smart, not hard. More is not necessarily better in terms of presence, and, as Dr B demonstrated, an instructor need not be a frequent contributor to an online discussion in order to have a presence.
Many online students are nontraditional, and their expectations are different from their traditional counterparts. Many of the instructors and students involved in this study, however, responded that for the non-traditional student socialization in a pure or traditional sense may not be an adequate motivator for generating discussion. . . . Students should be told explicitly that knowing and interacting with classmates will be an important part of their course experience.
Prompts aimed at opinions rather than a correct answer are better. The classes that generated lively discussions, such as Drs B’s and D’s, used discussion prompts that were phrased in a way that allowed everyone to take a different perspective or share their own point of view. . . . For example, if an instructor were to post a question with one clear, expected answer on a discussion board, there would be little use for multiple students to reply once the correct answer was given. Additionally, there would be little reason for students to discuss this topic further. On the other hand, if a discussion question allowed for multiple perspectives to be presented, supported, and argued, there is greater opportunity for students to engage in the activity.
Degree of instructor domination is inversely proportional to student-student dialoguing. An instructor taking an “expert” role had a clear effect on the tone of the discussion, with students writing to the instructor rather than to their peers. . . . Conversational treatment by the instructor generated higher quality student contributions
Conclusion. Further complicating the matter, there does not appear to be one correct or better way to teach via an online medium . . . instead, one’s contextual factors should greatly affect the selection of teaching methods and activities, just as they should in a traditional classroom. . . . Clearly, some approaches to group communication on the Web will better serve instructional purposes than others. . . . The experiences of these classes suggest that it is indeed possible to generate principles of instructional design and facilitation that may apply broadly to online instruction, encouraging student participation that ideally will support learning processes.