Online discussion forums are a common–and often dreaded–feature of online learning environments.  I use asynchronous discussion boards regularly in my work as a middle school teacher, and have seen the value in terms of lending an interactive element to digital learning platforms.  Accordingly, Zimmer’s presents  “A New Way to Lecture” as a basic overview of the value of the “backchannel” as way to enhance student engagement and interaction with each other and the course materials.  However, in my observation, the amount of sustained interchange, in terms of frequency of communication between students, is a key element.  As a web conferencing facilitator in the School of Information Science at San Jose State University, I have learned that the real-time interaction between participants is a huge advantage of synchronous digital platforms such as WebEx and Collaborate not possible in asynchronous platforms such as a discussion board. I wonder if there are key elements of interactivity that could be enhanced in order to make my middle school class discussion boards a more effective learning tool?

I was intrigued when I found “Predicting Students’ Final Performance From Participation in Online Discussion Forums” by Romero, Lopez, Luna and Ventura. This study examines student behavior in online discussion forums as a predictor of success in online coursework. The article begins with a review of the prevalence and importance of discussion forums in online learning environments: “Discussion forums are one of the most popular tools for supporting students’ communication and collaboration in web-based teaching-learning environments and one of the best ways of sharing ideas, posting problems, commenting on posts by other students, and obtaining feedback (p. 458).”  As with our discussion forums using the Haiku LMS platform in my middle school classes and the iSchool discussion boards on the Canvas LMS platform at San Jose State, the discussion forums in this study were asynchronous.  Several advantages of the asynchronous format are cited by the authors, including the ability of students to participate at any time and place, provide the time to develop a thoughtful post or response, the ability to communicate with multiple discussions simultaneously, and potential support for more introverted students, who might feel intimidated in a face to face conversation.

Romero, Lopez, Luna and Ventura point out that an important disadvantage to asynchronous discussion forums is that instructors do not have dynamic opportunities to monitor and assess student participation and concept attainment. While quantitative measures are often used by instructors to evaluate the sufficiency of a student’s participation (eg, students must post or participate a minimum number of times), due to the potentially large number of posts and responses, it may be difficult for online instructors to obtain a comprehensive view of the quality of the participation, or assess what the student has learned. The authors propose the use of data mining techniques to provide quantitative data on discussion forum participation in order to predict the course grade, which hopefully reflects the degree of student concept attainment.

Joseph Barillari CC BY 3.0

Of note are several articles relevant to including discussion forums in the design of online learning experiences,  which were cited in the discussion section of the study:

The Romero, Lopez, Luna and Ventura  study was focused on university computer science students, with analysis of student participation data gathered from a Moodle Learning Management System:

  • Statistical information such as number of messages read/posted, time spent, etc.,
  • Evaluation scores of the content of the messages by the instructor, and
  • Social network information that uses questioning and responding relationships between students.

The body of the article discussion was primarily focused on technical algorithms used for quantitative data mining in the data analysis, so a discussion of online learning design methodology was largely absent.  However, the findings are relevant to instructors seeking to develop effective online learning environments. Student participation in the discussion forum analyzed in this study was not mandatory.  In spite of the optional discussion forum participation, the authors found that the number of messages and the number of words written by the student, the average evaluation score earned in each post and the degree of centrality (or how many other students responded to the posting student) were directly correlated with the student achieving a passing score in the class. So if we are going to incorporate an online discussion board into a course, strategies for motivating student engagement should be there as well.

A final item of interest in Romero, Lopez, Luna and Ventura was a comment in the findings section about the time-consuming nature of evaluating each discussion forum post, and the suggestion to use collective peer-reviews  (eg. the students themselves evaluate and score the content of the messages written by other students)  to assist with this.  I connected this with ideas by Jess Fee in  “7 Ways Teachers Use Social Media in the Classroom” considering ways in which student peer reviews on class discussion boards might be facilitated through some sort of social media platform.  Of course, explicitly stated and enforced parameters would be in place, so as to avoid a “Huh Challenge”  type scenario. After all, I teach middle school.

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