Many years ago distance education courses were labeled as correspondence courses. We now refer to courses being taken across a great distance simply as online courses. One of the biggest differences between the older correspondence courses and more recent online courses is the idea of online discussion forums for the students. The idea here being that students can communicate, debate and share ideas in general about the course content.
Over the years we’ve learned many things about online discussion forums and here are a few things to keep in mind that can help instructors maximize the benefits of online discussions.
Domination – a number of studies show that a few students typically dominate an online discussion forum, this is very similar to a traditional face-to-face discussion. Overall students still have a tendency to talk more in online discussions than they would in a face-to-face environment. The benefit here is that this has a tendency to draw out the quiet students who might shy away from discussions in a face-to-face environment. This is exactly why discussion forums should be a key component to any online course.
Unequal – it is important for faculty to establish requirements for participation but they must realize that equal participation is not going to be likely. No matter the requirement there is a small group of students who will still dominate the discussion. If too many discussion items are required for each student this may have a negative impact by leading students to post just enough to meet the requirements.
Participation increases – in general studies have shown that the initial discussion takes place between faculty and students but as time goes on students start talking to each other on a more regular basis. If the goal is to move the course from the traditional lecture format and include more discussion this is a positive. This is most likely the result of every student having an equal opportunity and online discussion so it makes sense that they will organically start speaking to each other. Overall faculty should be involved in, but not dominate any of the discussion forums. Providing a solid structure and a gentle nudge when necessary will be just enough to let it get taken over by students.
Interactions – researchers have found that responses generally contained supportive messages about each other’s postings. This is important to recognize as many people who do not participate in these types of discussion forums generally have a negative connection to anonymous online discussion feeds that contain a lot of inappropriate and flaming text.
Challenges – one of the challenges in creating discussion items is the requirement that all students make an original posting. Oftentimes this creates multiple discussion threads that are hard to follow and students will run out of original ideas after a few postings have already been made…thus posting unoriginal comments.
Faculty should consider the purpose of the original posting requirement. What is the goal? Is it to simply be creative, then responding to someone else’s point of view might contain more creativity than trying to develop an original posting. Faculty might consider requiring one or two original thoughts on a particular topic, instead of requiring a *post once and reply twice strategy*.
Researchers have also found that in general most responses to your discussion items are supportive and positive in nature. Students in many cases appear to be too nice and not willing to challenge one another in a professional manner. If the goal is to participate in a constructive disagreement an instructor might deliberately pick an extreme point of view to stir things up and invite students into a disagreement and then facilitate the interaction and engagement amongst the students.