A high levelof interactivity that involves discussion among class participants is an important characteristic of any successful virtual educational community. The benefits of such interactivity include cognitive engagement, student satisfaction, positive learning outcomes and enhancement of critical thinking skills (Hamann, Pollock, and Wilson, 2011).
In a typical online course students are required to engage in some or all of the following activities: submit an individual assignment, which may consist of a reflective essay paper based on required readings or a research paper based on the student’s own readings; complete a quiz or test, which consists of testing the student’s comprehension of prepared lecture material; participate in smaller group activities, which may involve a collaboration of three to four colleagues on a common project; and participate in the threaded discussion forum, which involves posting responses to topics provided by the instructor, commenting on the posts of other students in the class, and posting original topics for discussion. In terms of interactivity or promoting discussion, individual assignments and quizzes are the least interactive since communication is between an individual student and the instructor unless, that is, the student posts his ‘draft’ paper on the discussion thread for comments or feedback from other students in the class. On the other hand, the highest degree of interaction takes place on the threaded discussion forum, in which all students in the class as well as the instructor participate. In the virtual classroom, therefore, student interaction and discussion takes place primarily though the threaded discussion forum.
The instructor, who assumes the role of facilitator, is primarily responsible for the quality of the threaded discussions in terms of encouraging the students to share experiences, ideas, and solutions as well as to provide continuous assessment and feedback. The instructor is thus viewed as a leader. It has been demonstrated that teachers or instructors who make students feelenthusiastic about coursework and assignments are more likely to have students who enjoy their courses and have higher levels of affective learning (Harrison, 2011).
This article will examine the factors that can either strengthen or compromise the effectiveness of student interaction through the threaded discussion forum and thereby affect the virtual educational community in either a positive way. In terms of the instructor’s responsibility there are a number of recommendations that, if followed, will result in a high degree of successful student interaction and discussion.
1). The instructor must actively participate in their course to avoid the perception of being invisible or absent. Students who cannot ‘see’ their instructor may not be motivated to fully participate (Mandernach, Gonzalez, and Garrett, 2006). Of course, the presence of an instructor in a face-to-face classroom is not questioned regardless of the nature of the interactions, or lack thereof.
2). The instructor should establish discussion parameters if for no other reason than to carefully manage the finite amount of time that is available in class as compared to the voluminous subject matter. Simply put, all discussion related to the subject being taught in class is acceptable, but all other topics should be avoided. It is also of value to make certain subjects clearly prohibited because of their inevitable deleterious effect on the class due to their ‘incendiary’ nature (Jeimzu, 2011).
3). The instructor should clearly specify beforehand a minimum number of postings for each student. In addition, it may be that students are required to respond to a topic or question before replying to the ‘answers’ posted by other participants.
4). The instructor should serve as a role modelfor student participation and behavior. ‘Setting the bar’ for reasonably quick responses as well as active participation in discussions is essential and sets the tone for students’ classroom performance (Goloboy, 2003). Time delays in a threaded discussion can be frustrating to students. This is especially true if the response was misunderstood and the students have attempted to clarify. Online instructors should try to post daily or on a regular basis that has been communicated to the students beforehand.
5). The instructor should encourage the students to share experiences, ideas, and solutions. In this respect, he/she should assume the role of a facilitator and review the students’ discussion contributions without trying to control them. For good discussion board facilitation, the instructor should randomly and selectively reply to students and provide prompt explanations or further comments regarding the topic of discussion. He/she should provide feedback even if it is merely a ‘cheerleading’ comment, redirection, or guideline submission. The instructor should intervene when the discussion seems to be struggling or headed the wrong way but should not over-participate in the discussion, as this will be considered stifling and restrictive by the students (Sheltonand Saltsman, 2004).
6). The instructor should find ways to prompt students to pursue given topics further: this may consist of finding unifying threads so that he/she can weave several strands of conversation into a summarization. They can also draw attention to opposing viewpoints, different directions, or conflicting opinions that could lead to debates and peer critiques (Berge, 1995).
There are other factors that may negatively affect the quality of discussion threads that are beyond the control of the instructor. First, despite the instructor’s best intentions students may be unwilling to participate for a variety of reasons. Second, faculty may be pressured by the administration to ‘maximize’ class sizes to make them more efficient or profitable. However, the instructor must consider not only the demands on their own time but also the quality of the educational experience for the students (Colwell and Jencks, 2004). It is reported that online learning best takes place in collaborative learning communities of 15-20 students, and no more than 25. Too few students usually have difficulty in generating meaningful discussions and too many create an excessive number of messages that may cause frustration for group members who cannot keep up. The class size must be sufficiently large to encourage activity, but not so large that the sense of group connectedness is lost. It is universally recognized that teaching a distance-learning course requires more time than teaching a traditional course.
Online courses require much more development time and much more interaction time to manage than do traditional courses. The consensus of online instructors seems to be that those who teach larger classes either have additional assistance from instructional aides or have sacrificed some levelof communication to maintain the large class size numbers. However, additional or supplementary help appears to be the exception rather than the rule.
The success of any virtual learning community is attributed to a high degree of participation or interaction together with a high quality of discussion among participants. Interaction takes place primarily through the threaded discussion forum. It is the responsibility of the instructor to initiate discussion, encourage students to share experiences, ideas and solutions, and provide continuous monitoring, assessment, and feedback. There are proven strategies that the instructor can use to maximize the quality of both discussion and participation. These include maintaining a ‘visible’ instructor presence; specifying minimum posting and parameters for discussion; modeling student participation and behavior; providing helpful feedback without controlling the discussion; and finding ways to stimulate discussion further. While the instructor is primarily responsible for promoting participation and stimulating discussion, other factors beyond his/her control may negatively impact the learning community such a reluctance of students to contribute or class sizes that are too large or too small.
Berge, Z. (1995). The role of the online instructor/facilitator.
Colwell, J. and Jencks, C. (2004). The upper limit: the issues for faculty in setting class size in online courses. Teaching Online in Higher Education: Politics, Ethics, and Online Instruction Conference, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne http://www.ipfw.edu/tohe/Papers/Nov%2010/015_the%20upper%20limit.pdf
Goloboy, J. (2003). Top 10 secrets of successful online educators. http://www.online-learning-solutions.com/Jgoloboy_Top_10_Secrets.pdf
Hamann, K., Pollock, P. and Wilson, B. (2011). Enhancing the quality of discussions in undergraduate online courses. Annual Meeting of the American Political Science
Harrison, J. (2011). Instructor transformational leadership and student outcomes.
Emerging Leadership Journeys, 4 (1), pp. 82-136.
Jeimzu. (2011). Dead raccoons and other taboo online classroom discussion topics. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://www.brighthub.com/education/online-learning/articles/44124.aspx
Mandernach, B., Gonzalez, R., and Garrett, A. (2006). An examination of online instructor presence via threaded discussion participation. Journal of Online Teaching and Learning, 2 (4) http://jolt.merlot.org/vol2no4/mandernach.htm
Shelton, K. and Saltsman, G. (2004). Tips and tricks for teaching online: how to teach like a pro! International Journal of Instructional Technology, 1 (10) http://itdl.org/journal/oct_04/article04.htm