Quality in distance education has been researchers’and critics’ major concern. The increase in access to digital and online technologies represents not only convenience, opportunities, and flexibility, but also a new challenge for educational institutions. To ensure quality in distance education, a plethora of buzz words have appeared in the realm of distance education: course design, support services, and interaction, as well as administrative practices that can encourage students to fulfill their educational goals. Among the many factors that contribute to the quality of distance education, researchers have suggested that the importance of communication tools stands out from other aspects of the distance learning experience (Diebal, McInnis, & Edge, 1998; Ferrari, 2002; Gibson, 1998; Rangecroft, Gilroy, Tricker, & Long, 2002; Steffensen, 2003; Zhao, 2003). Nowadays, due to the nature of innovative technology, a distance education course without communication tools such as discussion groups will be considered incomplete. Students will miss the “live” human interaction that can enhance the quality of distance education. Moore (2002, p. 69) argues that quality is accomplished in part by promoting interaction “with instructors, classmates, the interface, and through vicarious interaction.” Further, Moore (1989) identified three kinds of interaction in distance education and provided detailed explanations: learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner. Learner-content interaction indicates that construction of knowledge occurs when the learner interacts with the course content and changes in one’s understanding occur when the new knowledge is integrated with preexisting knowledge. Learner-instructor interaction reinforces the learner-content interaction using engagement and dialogue exchange to promote the teaching/learning process with examples, discussion, and so forth. Learner-learner interaction is vital in distance education if participation in class discussions is to take place (as cited in Wickersham & Dooley, 2006, p. 186). Among communication tools such as e-mail and chat rooms, discussion groups are considered an effective tool that allow students to interact with other students and with the instructor. There is no doubt that discussion groups will enhance quality in distance education. Why are researchers interested in the relationship between discussion groups and quality in distance education? This is because they wish to measure learners’ critical thinking skills. It is commonly argued that relevant/robust discussion among discussion groups can lead to learners’ critical reflection. It is Westerners’ belief that it is in relationship with others that we learn. How has this belief been deeply rooted in people’s minds? Some background information will help explain this.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Communication Tools: Communication tools refer to three forms of electronic communication in distance education courses—e-mail, discussion groups, and chat rooms.
Reflection: Reflection is thinking for an extended period by linking recent experiences to earlier ones in order to promote a more complex and interrelated mental schema. The thinking involves looking for • Commonalities, • Differences, • Interrelations beyond their superficial elements.The goal is to develop higher order thinking skills.Many educators consider Dewey (1933) the modern day originator of the concept of reflection, although he drew on the ideas of earlier educators, such as Aristotle Plato, and Confucius. He thought of reflection as a form of problem solving that chained several ideas together by linking each idea with its predecessor in order to resolve an issue.
Bloom’s Taxonomy: Benjamin Bloom (1956) created this taxonomy for categorizing levels of abstraction of questions that commonly occur in educational settings. The taxonomy provides a useful structure in which to categorize test questions. Since professors will characteristically ask questions within particular levels, and if you can determine the levels of questions that will appear on your exams, you will be able to study using appropriate strategies. Many teachers apply Bloom’s taxonomy to discussion groups in distance education and Bloom’s taxonomy has proved effective in facilitating discussions in distance discussion.
Interaction: Interaction refers to the act of communicating with someone through conversation, looks, or action. The verb for interaction is interact: The couple interacted wordlessly with their eyes. For discussion groups in distance education, interaction is made possible via information technologies.
Instructional Design: Instructional design is based upon some principles of human learning, specifically, the conditions under which learning occurs. Some time-tested principles of contiguity, repetition, and reinforcement indicate some of the conditions external to the learner that can be incorporated into instruction. The purpose of instruction is to arrange external events that support learners’ internal learning processes. Arranging discussion groups in distance education is one essential component of instructional design.
Conditions of Learning: Gagne (1985) defines conditions of learning as a whole set of factors that influence learning. Some conditions are external stimuli while other conditions are internal conditions. According to Gagne (1985) , internal conditions are states of mind that the learner brings to the learning task. They are previously learned capabilities of the individual learner. These internal capabilities appear to be a highly important set of factors in ensuring effective learning. In enhancing quality of discussion groups in distance education, instructors need to create both external conditions of learning and internal conditions of learning. Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy is a good example of developing external and internal conditions of learning in distance education.
Discussion Groups: Discussion groups make discussions on bulletin boards or via threaded discussions. Some people prefer large discussion groups because they wish to read everyone’s responses while others prefer small discussion groups because they wish to participate more in discussions and ask questions. Some instructors require that participation in discussion groups should be part of their participation grades whereas other instructors do not require this.