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The discussion forum plays a central role in our online graduate-level advanced research methods course, providing opportunities for students to demonstrate knowledge and connect and learn with each other and the instructor. It is often the closest approximation of the kinds of conversations that occur in the face-to-face environment. However, the asynchronous format, along with vast differences in student age, profession, family commitments, and degree program, can negatively affect the quality of these discussions. Seeking to improve the quality of students' contributions to the discussion forum, we decided to use Glowacki-Dudka and Barnett's (2007) conference style roles. We also implemented a blog technique to better understand the student experience with these roles. Conference roles and examples Each student was assigned one of the following conference roles at the outset of the learning module: 1. Presenter—This student takes the lead on presenting the course material assigned for the week and posts his or her key points of analysis in the course discussion forum. This student is assigned to post first, within the first two days of the designated module period. Example: Student discusses the contributions of Merriam (a key text in the course) to the case study research methodology discussion. 2. Discussant—This student responds to the initial posting and suggests additional points of analysis or interpretations of the course material. The discussant describes how he or she might apply the course concept to research or workplace settings. This student is assigned to post second, on the third day of the designated module period. Example: Student describes how he or she utilized Merriam's case study definition in design elements in the development of a human resource workplace satisfaction study. 3. Critic—This student “pokes holes” in the prior discussion postings and suggests alternate points of analysis and conceptualizations of the course material. This student is assigned to post third, on the fourth day of the designated module period. Example: Student challenges the definition and descriptions used in prior postings concerning Merriam's perspective of case study research methodology. 4. Audience member—The remainder of the students participate as audience members and contribute to the ongoing discussion by (a) reflecting on the course materials or prior postings, (b) further expounding upon class members' ideas or applications, (c) confirming prior applications of material or conclusions of class members, and (d) providing additional examples of how the course material applied in their research or workplace environment. These students are assigned to post last, within the remaining days of the designated module period. Blogs In order to increase student-to-faculty communication, students were required to write weekly blogs at the conclusion of the learning module. Each blog prompted students to reflect on the course material for the learning module, their assigned conference roles, and their online learning experience. Through this process, student-to-faculty communication increased exponentially. Students were asked to reflect on the module period and respond to the following prompts:
  1. What would you say about your experience as an online learner during this module?
  2. What would you say about your experience in your role during this module?
  3. What would you say about your learning in regard to case study research methodology during this module?
While communication increased, students' communication deviated from the assigned prompts. Students used their individual blogs to constructively criticize the course as a whole, suggest changes to the course, and complain about the contributions of other students. The blogs were effective in increasing student-to-faculty communication; however, the time required for the faculty member to respond to the individual comments that were “off topic” was an unintended consequence of the assignment. Interestingly, the students who regularly enrolled in cohort-based courses cited different concerns with the course than did traditional classroom-based students. One of the criticisms of cohort-based education is that students assume inflexible team roles within the cohort over a period of time (Scribner & Donaldson, 2001). This course asked students to change conference roles with each learning module, thus creating disequilibrium for cohort-based students. The blog assignment illuminated how students differed in their experiences based on prior mode of course delivery (cohort-based versus traditional). Faculty recommendations We found that the conference role technique enhanced discussion forums. All students participated in each discussion forum; moreover, the quality of the discussion postings was improved from prior classes. The blogs helped us understand how students felt about implementing the conference role technique. The following is what we learned from these reflections:
  1. Use of the conference role technique was an effective way to increase student engagement with the course material and demonstrated learning in the course discussion forum.
  2. In order to apply abstract course concepts to research and workplace settings, the use of conference role techniques encouraged students to actively read the assigned readings and extend their discussions in varied ways.
  3. As evidenced with the blog assignment in which routine feedback was required, faculty should be prepared to respond to students' wide variety of comments and requests. Thus, the onus is on the faculty member to respond to student concerns and complaints.
In emerging online pedagogy, we recommend that faculty continue to implement and reflect upon discussion techniques that encourage student engagement in the course material and discussion forums. References: Glowacki-Dudka, M., & Barnett, N. (2007). Connecting critical reflection and group development in online adult education classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 19(1), 43-52. Retrieved from Scribner, J. P., & Donaldson, J. F. (2001, December). The dynamics of group learning in a cohort: From nonlearning to transformative learning. Educational Administration Quarterly, 37(5), 605-636. Retrieved from Susan Swayze is an assistant professor of educational research and Rick Jakeman is an assistant professor of higher education, both at The George Washington University.