A number of online tools can now be used in courses for group interactions. This article focuses specifically on asynchronous discussion software that allows one-onone and one-to-many interaction, still predominantly text based and independent of time. It remains a useful communication tool because online classes commonly have learners checking in at different times or from different time zones. This discussion tool offers great opportunity to faculty if thought of as “the classroom space,” and skilled facilitation by faculty in these spaces encourages community and interaction not only among class members, but also with content (Bedard-Voorhees, 2005; Dawley, 2007).
Still relevant are instructional cornerstones like Chickering and Gamson’s “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (1987), and Patricia Cross’s, The Role of Class Discussion in the Learning-Centered Classroom (2002), both of which emphasize the contribution of interaction to increased learning. Good discussion practices demonstrate Western Cooperative of Higher Education “Principles of Good Practice for Online Instruction” (2003), and Colorado Community Colleges Online’s faculty review exemplifies the measures of these practices and the rewards for faculty who demonstrate them (Colorado Community Colleges Online, 2004). Existing surveys support the value of student interaction in a course: One survey of more than 3,000 at Capella found that learners were appreciative of prompt, faculty feedback in discussions, reporting more student and faculty satisfaction in relationship to the quality and quantity of exchanges (Picciano, 2002; Rossman, 1999). Shea, Frederickson, Pickett, Peltz, and Swan’s (2001) survey of nearly 4,000 students provided these findings: “The greater the percentage of the course grade that was based on discussion, the more satisfied the students were, the more they thought they learned from the course, and the more interactions they thought they had with the instructor and their peers” (Piccianno, 2002, II. Review of the Literature). Given the evidence that interaction is important and the discussion tool is an effective way to maximize interaction, identifying instructional competencies and methods for acquiring such competencies is valuable for the professional development of online faculty.
Several sources define competencies. Williams, Paprock, and Covington (1999) gleaned these from several surveys: “General education theory, distance learning styles and theory, adult learning theory, teaching strategies/models, interpersonal communication, facilitatation and feedback skills,…, modeling of behavior skills, evaluation” (p. 33.); Williams, Paprock, and Covington (1999) specifically list “questioning techniques,” “giving and receiving feedback,” and “use of participative methods and techniques” (1999, pp.16-123), which are similar competencies named by Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Svacek (2000). These sources affirm the distance education Theory of Interaction and Communication, which states that the value of the teaching is related to the student’s feeling of comfort and belonging, plus the level of course discourse, which includes questions, answers, and debates. (Holmbert, 1987).