Using “Plain Vanilla” Online Discussions to Foster Students' Learning: From Research to Practice

Using “Plain Vanilla” Online Discussions to Foster Students' Learning: From Research to Practice

Allison Zengilowski, Diane L. Schallert
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 29
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3292-8.ch002
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Rapidly, new technology is being introduced into educational environments, oftentimes, with little research to support its usage. This chapter is a review of the research on and consideration of students' experiences when using the antecedent to many of these newer burgeoning technologies: the online, fully text-based discussion. The claim explored is that written discussion can have important implications for learning and the creation of a learning community in a classroom. The chapter first describes the historical roots of the tool and students' experiences of being engaged in online discussion. Following this, the chapter explores four problems that students, instructors, and/or course designers may encounter with online discussions, followed by potential solutions. The problems include 1) discussions not helping students learn, 2) teachers' uncertainty about their role in discussions, 3) students feeling disconnected from their peers, and 4) the need to be sensitive to students' differing goals and experiences.
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In this era of evolving technology, “shiny” online tools are increasingly considered as instructors design online and hybrid courses at the postsecondary level. For example, such innovations as Second Life (Nussli & Oh, 2018) and voice chat tools (Dugartsyrenova & Sardegna, 2019) have been added to make group and classroom discussion more engaging and successful, and video/voice content is commonly used as support for flipped instruction (Tuna, Dey, Subhlok, & Leasure, 2018). Because innovations are not always effective, at least not immediately, educational researchers and practitioners need to turn an analytic and critical eye on such learning activities to illuminate when and how they are effective and how their use can be tweaked to make them more beneficial to students (Gillett-Swan, 2017). Such an analytic evaluation needs to be applied just as much to the “plain-vanilla” antecedent of these recent innovations, the fully text-based online discussion. Text-rich discussions involve students in either synchronous, real-time chatting about course content or asynchronous postings that resemble blog entries on emerging topics (Herring, 2001). The purpose of this chapter is to consider the literature on online discussion in order to ground a consideration of problems instructors may face when implementing text-rich discussions. Although it is common to think of computer-mediated discussion as taking place in fully online instructional environments, research and practice have also included the experience of online discussions as an integral activity to hybrid instruction that includes both face-to-face and online spaces. Years of research and experience with such hybrid instruction have led the authors to focus much of their informed recommendations on such contexts, even though many of the considerations addressed here apply to online discussions more broadly, whether held as part of fully online or hybrid instruction.

Thirty years after the introduction of the internet in 1990 (Andrews, 2013), it is nearly impossible to imagine a student in a college-level or post-graduate course who has not had the experience of interacting with others through the mediation of an online tool. Beyond the ubiquitous use of email correspondence, students have experienced in their daily lives “chatting” or “messaging” with someone who seems present in virtual space ready to respond in quick time. And, they have nearly always encountered a course assignment involving the posting of reflections or questions about an assigned reading, usually before meeting in class where the same readings are discussed face-to-face (Park et al., 2013). Still, many students have not had the experience of synchronous text-based tools with which to hold a “live” online discussion about ideas and questions on course topics during class time (Zengilowski, Park, Gaines, & Schallert, 2019). Although online discussions may seem best suited for use outside of class time, synchronous discussions held among students while they are present in the same physical classroom space offer an alternative that allows students to engage peers and their teacher in intellectual conversation (Williams et al., 2016).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Collaborative Learning: A goal-directed, socially-influenced, and culturally-reflective process by which individuals change their minds (their memory, knowledge, strategic control) about something with others or through the help of others. Learning processes are often laced with emotions.

Participation: In online discussions, the act of contributing to the forum through an explicit comment or through engaging by reading others’ posts.

Post-Secondary Education: Considering students in educational environments after high school. Includes undergraduate and graduate-level students.

Asynchronous Discussions: Online discussions that occur in an environment not bound by time. Participants can enter and re-enter at their leisure to comment and see others’ posts.

Uncertainty: A feeling, typically a cognitive one, when an individual experiences a sense of wondering, doubting, or being unsure.

Socio-Constructivist Views of Learning: Theory of learning that portrays learning as a constructive process embedded in social/cultural contexts. In such a view, learning is always collaborative work but is particularly relevant when describing students building knowledge together through classroom processes that encourage community building, information sharing, negotiation, and discussion.

Belonging: Conceptualized, in the classroom, as perceptions of support from teachers and peers on academic and personal dimensions.

Synchronous Discussions: Online discussions in which all participants are online in the same discussion environment at the same time.

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