What does the research say about online discussions?

With new and emerging educational technologies, we often wonder how much it helps with student learning.  Online discussion boards have been a research topic for over two decades.  And all of that research seems to converge on one idea: Online, asynchronous discussions are incredibly valuable, even better than face-to-face in some aspects of the discussion, but the effectiveness of these discussions are tied to how well instructors facilitate online discussions.

The specific advantages of online, asynchronous discussions are:

  • increased student collaboration.
  • increased student participation in discussions.
  • better or more opportunities for reflection and peer review.
  • individualized instruction via instructor feedback.
  • more structure.
  • more time to think before giving a response.

Online interaction is more meaningful when instructors and students use the online learning platform (in our case Blackboard) as an extension of the classroom.  Instructors and students report that asynchronous discussions are more mindful, democratic, equitable, and reflective.  In addition, research suggests that online discussions support experimentation and divergent thinking.

There is a downside to online, asynchronous discussions, though.  Online discussions tend to rely on students understanding the content, and face-to-face instruction provides immediate feedback and correction of student understanding of concepts.  Online discussions assume that students have a certain level of critical thinking skills.  We often forget that students need to be taught how to think critically, so discussion boards can fall flat when students do not have critical thinking skills.

But we can do something about these two issues.  Instructors should use class time to address both of the issues mentioned above and model what a good discussion looks like.  For example, you can use class time to lecture (if you’re concerned about students understanding content), go over any questions regarding content in class, and engage in the deeper conversation online.  In addition, instructors should go over expectations their for online discussions.  This would be a great time to model what a great discussion board post looks like.

So if online discussions are valuable only when instructors become good at facilitating, how do we become good online discussion facilitators?  Researchers have come up with a list of instructor must do’s when facilitating online discussions.  According to the research, instructors should:

  • Maintain the focus of the discussion and keep the discussion “intellectually responsible.”  This means that instructors should be helping students stay on task and on topic, and instructors should be coaching students into writing responses that are intellectually stimulating and engaging.
  • Stimulate the discussion.  When discussions start to fall flat, a good facilitator steps in and revs the discussion back up.  That could mean posing a follow up question.
  • Hold students accountable for participation.  The simplest way to hold students accountable is to make online discussions worth a percentage of a course.  But instructors should also be reading students’ posts and responding in some way.  Students need to know that you’re reading their posts, i.e. you need to maintain a teaching presence inside of the discussion board.
  • Write discussion board questions that require students to use higher order thinking skills.  Good facilitators ask questions that allow for a variety of responses and opportunities for deep discussion.
  • Provide direction and feedback in what needs to be done.
  • Structure learning through purposeful course design.  Everything you do in the discussion board should be meaningful to the students and the course and leads to opportunities for learning.

Resources for further reading:

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