The mysterious discussion forum

Apologies for the disjointedness of the following as it is just a parking spot for my thoughts that are still developing on the issue of LMS discussion forum ‘good practice’.

I just finished skimming a paper by some folk at Deakin University that talks about the impact of a formally assessed online discussion forum on final student results. The paper is called “Does the discussion forum help? The impact of a formally assessed online discussion on final student results” by Stuart Palmer, Dale Holt and Sharyn Bray (2008).  The paper reports on a case study where an undergraduate engineering course employed a formally assessed online discussion forum. In their abstract they say:

the number of postings read was not significantly correlated with the final unit mark, suggesting that passive lurking in this online discussion did not significantly contribute to student learning outcomes

On the surface their would appear to be a disconnect between this statement and the following chart generated from the Blackboard learning management system at CQUniversity which suggests a correlation between the number of forum hits ( clicks made by the students on the discussion forum ) and their resulting grade.

Figure 1. Discussion forum usage against grades

Despite Figure 1 above showing a correlation between the quantity of visits a student makes to discussion forums and their resulting grade, its probably safe to say that the students who are more likely to visit LMS discussion forums are also more likely to visit other parts of the LMS course and are, perhaps, more engaged in any case. The same problem applies in using  for student posts and replies to discussion forums as a metric for determining the value of discussion forums to students in LMS courses.

Recently at CQUniversity, a couple of discussion forums were introduced into a course with the explicit task of supporting a particular topic in a course. This topic was an assessed via an optional exam question that a significant number of students either failed or did not attempt. In this case the discussion forums and the instructional scaffolding failed to adequately prepare the students for the exam question. It should be noted that that there appeared to be some similarities in the way that the Deakin assessment was implemented and the way that this course approached the discussion forum. For example the Deakin example required students to post on the forum in a specific way ( in this case a reflection and peer review ) while the CQUni example required student to respond and post in quite a structured way. Both of these are somewhat different to the common ‘free-for-all’ LMS discussion forum. Irrespectively, a question that arose during the “post mortem” of this course, and probably one that the Deakin folk thought of, was how can we make better use of discussion forums hosted within the LMS in the future.

One avenue we are beginning to investigate in relation to improving LMS discussion forums is through the monitoring of staff participation in discussion forums. We have noted that there appears to be a distinct correlation between the level of student engagement in a course and the level of activity the instructor exhibits on the LMS discussion forum. While figure 2 is only looking at LMS engagement (as indicated by hitcount on course sites), it does show a correlation between instructor presence on course discussion forums and the level of student engagement in courses generally.

Figure 2. The Influence of staff discussion forum participation on student engagement

Interestingly, Williams & Humphrey (2007) suggest that while social presence markers do not predict interactivity, there does seem to be some relationship between indicators of social presence and the quality of interaction. They go on to say that the achievement of purposeful and worthwhile learning experience requires not just interactivity, but interactivity in the form of content-rich and critical discourse. According to Northedge (2003):

It is through repeatedly sharing in meaning making with speakers of the specialist discourse that students come to internalise the frames of reference which are taken for granted within the knowledge community

Both of these are alluding to the formation of inter-subjectivity or discipline discourse  within the discussion forum. In other words, some instructional structure or purpose for the discussion forum is required to best utilise the facility. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not necessarily common place and tends to reinforce my (limited) observations. So how do we structure or scaffold a medium as ‘messy’ as an LMS discussion forum?

I am quite partial to the Northedge (2003, Pg 175) approach where the discussion centres around a story. The story sets the context of the discussion and the students are asked a series of questions about the story. The questions are not direct and do not elicit a simple surface level response. For example, the scene is set with the initial story and asked question about their attitudes and feelings relating to the story, the ethics and moral perspectives, they are asked to assume the role of one of the players and consider their alternative perspective etcetera. So it seem to me to be more of an intellectual immersion into the discipline topic than a simple ‘chat channel’ forum that we often see.

Northedge, A. (2003). Enabling Participation in Academic Discourse. Teaching in Higher Education, 8(2), 169-180.

Palmer, S., Holt, D., & Bray, S. (2008). Does the discussion help? The impact of a formally assessed online discussion forum on final student results. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 847-858.

Williams, R. S., & Humphrey, R. (2007). Understanding and fostering interaction in threaded discussion. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(3).

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1 thought on “The mysterious discussion forum”

  1. Here’s another piece of research supporting the involvement of instructors in discussions:

    Gorsky, P. and Blau, I. (June 2009), Online Teaching Effectiveness: A Tale of Two Instructors. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning vol. 10, number 3.

    ISSN: 1492-3831

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