Exploring the Dimensions of Online Discussion

Credit: iStock.com/Rawpixel
Credit: iStock.com/Rawpixel
Why is online discussion worth discussing? For starters, many conversations about this unique form of interaction have centered on its merits. Is it better or worse than face-to-face discussion? As interesting as those conversations have been, what merits analysis now are the implications of those features that differentiate online from face-to-face discussion. Online discussions are written exchanges minus nonverbal cues, offered asynchronously and with required comments and responses tied to teacher-provided structures. Those separated but interconnected features have implications for the teacher who plans, facilitates, and assesses the exchanges; for students who are learning to engage in digital academic discourse; and for how course content is to be learned.

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Why is online discussion worth discussing? For starters, many conversations about this unique form of interaction have centered on its merits. Is it better or worse than face-to-face discussion? As interesting as those conversations have been, what merits analysis now are the implications of those features that differentiate online from face-to-face discussion. Online discussions are written exchanges minus nonverbal cues, offered asynchronously and with required comments and responses tied to teacher-provided structures. Those separated but interconnected features have implications for the teacher who plans, facilitates, and assesses the exchanges; for students who are learning to engage in digital academic discourse; and for how course content is to be learned.

Normally, entries in our It’s Worth Discussing collection focus on a topic as it’s presented in a single scholarly article. But in this case I was unable to find an article that explored these very important implications with the depth and detail a worthwhile discussion merits. What follows is a collection of quotations from various articles and potential discussion questions. It’s such an important topic. With the recent move to extensive remote learning, increasingly online discussions are becoming a bread-and-butter learning activity in our courses. Their features deserve our focused attention.

The articles

Aloni, M., & Harrington, C. (2018). Research based practices for improving the effectiveness of asynchronous online discussion boards. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(4), 271–289. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000121

Dixon, C. S. (2014). The three E’s of online discussion. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 15(1), 1–8.

Heuer, B. P., & King, K. P. (2004). Leading the band: The role of the instructor in online learning for educators. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 3(1). http://www.ncolr.org/jiol/issues/pdf/3.1.5.pdf

Mandernach, B. J., Forrest, K. D., Babutzke, J. L., & Manker, L. R. (2009). The role of instructor interactivity in promoting critical thinking in online and face-to-face classrooms. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(1), 49–62. https://jolt.merlot.org/vol5no1/mandernach_0309.pdf

Smith, T. W. (2019). Making the most of online discussion: A retrospective analysis. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 31(1), 21–31. http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE3172.pdf

Key quotations and discussion questions

1. Moving beyond the relative merits of face-to-face and online discussions

“Our results challenge the traditional comparison between online and face-to-face instruction . . . shifting the focus from a superficial analysis of the comparative value of each instructional mode to a more insightful investigation of instructional factors that are uniquely relevant and valuable in the distinctive settings created by online and face-to-face education” (Mandernach et al., 2009, p. 58).

2. Considering online discussion in light of general goals for online environments

Online environments “should foster a sense of community, encourage tolerance of conflicting ideas and viewpoints, require research and citing sources that will support opinions, and enable students to find their own voices, whether in agreement or disagreement with their peers” (a source quoted in Dixon, 2014, p. 4).

3. The implications of online discussion features for teacher planning, facilitation, and assessment

“Online discussion is not the ‘easy way’ for instructors to teach a class. Rather, online discussion involves perhaps more time and preparation in order to assure that each student receives the maximum opportunity for learning” (Dixon, p. 6).

In this work a group of online teachers was asked to describe their role, and they characterized it

“as active and evolving during [the course]. They expected the instructor to act as a planner, a role model, a coach, a facilitator and, above all, a communicator. These roles are interconnected and overlapping, with different emphases at different times and in varying degrees throughout the life of the course” (Heuer & King, 2004).

“Our findings suggest that the asynchronous component of online learning does not inherently prompt students toward enhanced critical thinking” (Mandernach et al., p. 58).

“Our findings indicate that the forum in which discussion occurs (face-to-face or online) is not as important to the development of critical thinking as the ability of the instructor to effectively facilitate discussions activities. The challenge for instructors is to adapt the familiar and comfortable discussion facilitation strategies of the traditional, face-to-face classroom to the unique dynamics of the asynchronous, online classroom” (Mandernach et al., p. 58).

“It might seem that online instruction simplifies the role of the instructor. However, these data indicate the need for the instructor’s constant, continuing, informed, and observant involvement” (Heuer & King).

4. Implications of online discussion features for students

“One of the greatest challenges of online discussion is low student participation and engagement. There are many reasons why students either do not contribute at all to online discussions or contribute in a shallow manner” (Aloni & Harrington, 2018, pp. 273–74).

Here are the reasons listed in the article:

  1. Confusion about the instructors’ expectations; not understanding the purpose or value of the discussion
  2. Low-level prompts that call for a single, fact-based answer
  3. Poor management of the discussion (domination by the teacher or a few students, informal “texting” language, inappropriate content)
  4. Student feelings of not being connected to or valued by classmates or the instructor (or both)
  5. Misunderstanding or difficulty interpreting the responses of others due to the absence of emotional cues

5. Implications of online features for acquisition of content knowledge