Online Discussion Strategies That Create Community

One of the biggest complaints about online courses is that students feel disconnected. They don't know the teacher or fellow students in the class. In online courses, teachers regularly use discussion to make connections with and between students. In a survey of over 350 faculty, 95 percent used it and 87 percent required student participation in online exchanges. The authors of the paper referenced below used a “Community of Inquiry” framework for their exploration-specific strategies that can be used to build community through discussion in online courses.

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One of the biggest complaints about online courses is that students feel disconnected. They don't know the teacher or fellow students in the class. In online courses, teachers regularly use discussion to make connections with and between students. In a survey of over 350 faculty, 95 percent used it and 87 percent required student participation in online exchanges.

The authors of the paper referenced below used a “Community of Inquiry” framework for their exploration-specific strategies that can be used to build community through discussion in online courses. “The purpose of this paper is to discuss specific strategies that have been proven through empirical research to support online CoIs [Communities of Inquiry].” (p. 155) They note that the literature on online discussion is voluminous, but to be included in their review, “the study had to have taken place in a fully online, higher education setting, utilized text-based asynchronous discussion, focused on the influence of a specific strategy, employed at least one direct research measure ... and been peer reviewed.” (p. 155) They retrieved 220 potential studies, but only 36 of them met their criteria.

The Community of Inquiry model proposes three essential elements needed to make an educational experience successful: social presence, cognitive presence, and teacher presence. The authors explore the role of these elements and strategies that can be used online to support them.

Social Presence—“One comment often heard from online instructors and students is the loss of human touch in a fully online course.” (p. 155) How do instructors go about creating a positive and supportive environment when students are not physically connected? Based on their review of the literature, the authors recommend two strategies: instructor modeling of social presence and required and graded discussions. They suggest that online instructors be personal in their communications with students. They should use students' names, express humor, and introduce personal stories that are relevant.

Research does not establish that social presence causes learning. It's something closer to creating a climate that makes learning more likely to occur. Students build interpersonal connections when they interact with each other, which is the justification for requiring participation in these exchanges. Research indicates that when those discussions count for between 10 and 20 percent of the student's grade, the number of messages students post increases and their sense of classroom community is heightened. Interestingly, increasing the grade percentage to 25 to 35 percent garners no further benefits.

Cognitive Presence—The problem that needs to be addressed here is the frequent failure of online discussions to go beyond idea exploration. “Students may be exchanging information and ideas, [but] they are rarely connecting and expanding on ideas, or applying new ideas to other contexts.” (p. 156) This can also be a problem in face-to-face discussions when students simply share their ideas without responding to the contributions of others. The authors cite research documenting that prompts teachers use to promote online interaction play an important role.

“Discussion prompts that inherently guide students to progress through the phases of cognitive presence were more successful in eliciting integration and resolution.” (p. 157) The cognitive phases referenced here include identification of an issue, the exchange of ideas and information about it, the connection of those ideas, and their application to new ideas. “Select a discussion prompt that encourages structured interaction and critical thinking, while also supporting the specific learning objectives.” (p. 161)

The prompts are important, and so are the facilitation methods used. “We argue it is not the mere presence of a facilitator that is effective, but rather the techniques employed.” (p. 158) For example, they recommend that teachers sometimes take a “challenging stance” by asking students to defend their positions or by highlighting different viewpoints and asking for responses to those.

Teaching Presence—Here one of the issues is the amount of time teacher facilitation of online discussions can take. If teachers are providing feedback to individual students and actively participating in the discussion, the time investment can be huge. And there's the ongoing question of how much instructors should participate in online discussions. Research documents that teacher presence is the “backbone” (p. 159) of creating community, which makes these important issues.

Among the authors' recommendations is the provision of “prompt but modest instructor feedback.” (p. 159) Multiple interventions by the instructor in online discussions do not lead to increases in student interaction. In fact, the research reveals that modest instructor feedback encourages students to take more ownership of the discussion, which increases the number of student-to-student exchanges. They also recommend the use of peer facilitators. Students may feel more comfortable in discussions led by peers.

Peer discussion leaders post more messages than do teachers, research has shown. The authors point out that peer facilitators will likely need development, including specific instruction on what techniques they should use. Sometimes it helps to assign students facilitator roles such as discussion starter (the role of launching the discussion) and wrapper (the role of summarizing an exchange).

Research also shows positive benefits of what the authors describe as “protocol prompts,” which are “a structured method of having discussions by establishing a well-defined goal, clear roles, rules for interactions, and specific deadlines for posting.” (p. 160) Teachers might also want to consider creating teaching presence by providing audio or video feedback. Software (some of it free) makes it possible for teachers to verbally comment on a discussion exchange and post that feedback on a discussion board or send it via email. Students then get to hear the instructor, and additional messages are conveyed by tone of voice.

This is a helpful piece of scholarship. It tackles some of the challenges presented by online environments, suggesting research-tested strategies that have been shown to improve discussions and increase the sense of community in online courses.

Reference: deNoyelles, A., Zydney, J. M., and Chen, B. (2014). Strategies for creating a community of inquiry through online asynchronous discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10 (1), 153-165.

Maryellen Weimer is the editor of The Teaching Professor.