by Leslie Bowman, M.S.Ed.
George París Conway, M.S.Ed.
Educator, Instructional Designer and Consultant
July 2002 Article Part 1
This article begins a series of four articles that comprise our paper and presentation for the Society of Applied Learning Technology conference in Arlington, VA in July.
Communication in Online Learning Environments:
Framing Asynchronous Online Discussions
Asynchronous discussion is a valuable communication tool used to engage learners in collaborative learning activities throughout an online course. Without the facilitation of a skilled moderator, online course discussions can stall and become dormant. How can we prevent this and ensure that learners engage in meaningful discussion? And, more to the point, how can we facilitate discussions that encourage and support creative and critical thinking? This paper presents information and strategies we have learned through study and "trial and error" in teaching our own classes. Many of our strategies and techniques were learned through participation and observation in online classes during our own undergraduate and graduate study. Other strategies have been refined over time through experience and feedback from our online students. We are honored to have the opportunity to share our experiences with other educators.
The purpose of this paper is to identify and define effective strategies for designing, managing and assessing communication in online discussions. Emphasis will be placed on framing online discussions as issues that require critical and creative thinking rather than topics that merely invite opinion. Effective online learning takes place by taking full advantage of the capabilities of interactive discussion related to course objectives.
Constructivist instructional strategies are very effective in the online learning environment (OLE). Constructivism is characterized by assimilating new information and combining prior knowledge, which modifies current understanding and allows one to apply this "constructed" knowledge to the task at hand. This is ongoing process and requires a learner-centered, active learning environment. Interactive discussion is a communication process that encourages students to learn from each other by sharing prior knowledge and experience as well as by assimilating new knowledge. In an OLE, learners have many opportunities to discuss and share both prior and new or "constructed" knowledge. As online instructors, we must know how to effectively facilitate interactive, asynchronous discussions in Online Learning Environments.
Managing Online Discussions
Without interactive discussion, an online course would become just another correspondence course. Teaching in an OLE requires a learner-centered and active learning instructional approach. One of the most effective instructional methods is to encourage learner responsibility through "teaching by discussion." Although mini-lectures are generally used as a basis for discussion, teaching by discussion usually means guiding the learning process rather than relying on lectures. While this strategy is used to some extent in traditional classes, in the OLE it is the primary method of instruction. The instructor's role is to guide the process, giving explanations where necessary to clarify information, as well as adding a measure of expertise to the discussions.
Student Orientation for Learning by Discussion
When teaching in the OLE, it is important to remember that most students have had experience answering written questions, writing essays and opinions, and they have regurgitated course content in journals or on tests or for homework. Unfortunately, most students have had little or no experience in writing for the purpose of interactive communication and discussion. As a general rule, students expect a normal discussion to end either when material has been recited or when an opinion has been stated. The main reason for this is that, in the traditional classroom, there is usually not enough time to explore issues beyond a cursory level. Often, opinions are stated and rephrased several times, at which point "discussion" tends to become "argument." Most students tend to view discussions as statements of opinion about a topic rather than as an issue to be explored. Therefore, once all opinions have been stated, the "discussion" is over. Students generally do not view discussions as being reflective, exploratory or constructive.
The first step in familiarizing students with the process of learning by discussion is to teach them to think of discussions as exploring the deeper issues related to a topic rather than just stating their opinions on the subject. This encourages them to think in terms of exploring problems or ideas that need to be investigated rather than just stating opinions.
The next step is to teach students to think critically and creatively, to reflect on what they will say as well as what others say, and to be able to back up their statements with facts and documentation. In online teaching, the instructor's most important job is to guide students into discussions that are more than simply opinions about the topic content. When students are required to respond with more than mere opinions, they are obliged to expand their responses, ask for explanations, and support their responses with citations from reading assignments or from their own research. Instead of just reciting information, students are being taught to assimilate information, construct knowledge and then apply it to relevant issues.
Obviously, this is not going to happen spontaneously or even in the first week or two of class. Initially, most new online students will simply answer discussion questions superficially. When this happens, discussions can quickly fizzle out. This is where the role of the instructor as facilitator is critical. The instructor must intervene and examine students' answers and comments, ferret out issues relevant to what was said, and post these in the form of further comments and/or questions that require further probing by the students.
Instructors need to frame questions in such a way that the assigned reading material alone will not give them all the answers. This requires that students do some additional research in order to frame a significant response. This strategy encourages students to independently explore the issue in more depth. Since new issues will now originate in their discussions, students become more interested and involved in the outcome of the discussion and will start providing more comprehensive responses. This effective strategy will get them started and keep the discussion going, but how do instructors keep the discussion on track and ensure that learning is taking place?
In Part 2 next month we will discuss strategies for framing questions for online discussions.
Gazette Articles by Leslie Bowman & George París Conway: