Discussion forums in the virtual classroom have the potential to replace face-to-face discussions found in a traditional learning site at a college campus or classroom (Brindley, Walti, & Blaschke, 2009). eLearning is more than a technology for learning – the nature of learning online is supported by learning theories that address these differences (Haythornwaite & Andrews, 2011). The theory of connectivism embraces characteristics of eLearning which include the type of interactions that are common in discussion forums (Siemens & Conole, 2011). These forums can be actively engaging and open to analysis, debate, and interaction (Brown, 2005). The theory of communal constructivism as discussed by Haythornwaite & Andrews (2011), explores the movement from socio-constructivism to a communal type, where learners and instructors contribute to a community of learning and become part of a network. While online learning is at a distance, and not in person, the importance of establishing a presence is considered of paramount importance (Palloff & Pratt, 2011). This is true for the instructor as well as the student. The theories of connectivism and constructivism require this type of presence, where students connect with other students and the instructor, as if in a face-to-face classroom (Ravenscroft, 2011). Not all discussion forums address this need, but are simply a type of old-fashioned bulletin board, where a note is posted and left for another person to read at some other time. Learners are not engaged in this format. However, instructors, students and online schools are in a position to utilize these learning theories for effective eLearning discussion forums.
In analyzing the discussion forums at Northcentral University, the method of enrollment must be taken into consideration, as students enter courses in an ongoing manner, never essentially being in a classroom of students, but instead often being the only one in the course at a designated time. This learning method does not create much opportunity for discussion. As a student there, I have never found a discussion board utilized within a course. There is essentially no community of learning. Northcentral provides students with individual study, or the classic “independent study” course.
The discussion board on the main page of Northcentral offers categories of topics, one being the “education” group. This is more of a posting, where students ask for specific information from current and former students – looking for textbooks, comments about mentors, and concerns with assignments. Comments are threaded, so there is some feeling of community, but this type of connecting is minimal. Original posters seldom get back to the discussion to comment.
Participation in forums is often evaluated by the quantity of students participating as well as the quality (Watson, 2008). Northcentral’s main page discussion forums do not include the mentors, and while this may not be necessary, and in my example, was probably better, the absence of mentors in course discussions may increase the distance and feeling of enthusiasm, which students perceive as favorable (Watson, 2008). This may create a divide between learner and mentor, and not bring the community of learning together. Northcentral does not provide a means for building a community of learning and therefore does not fulfill the needs of a connectivism learning theory (Watson, 2008).
In another online course, at Canvas MOOC, I found the discussion forums to be much more engaging and active, meeting the needs of the students. The instructor initiated dialogue and became a presence in the community of learning. This presence is deemed necessary to build a social network of sharing and learning (Tschofen, & Mackness, 2012). The discussion platforms covered more than one framework and included: Twitter with the course’s own hashtags to keep the community together, a dedicated Facebook for the course, as well as discussion forums within the Canvas platform. The instructor posed a question and asked the students to respond, a helpful method to encourage active learning (Palloff & Pratt, 2011). Dialogue developed as students posted answers and responded to other students. The instructor encouraged students to add 100 new Twitter followers that shared the same goals, interests and activities. She shared her success of connecting to a community while working on her dissertation. By tweeting her progress, she found others who had gone through the same process and who were anxious to offer valuable insights and references. She felt that this connectivism greatly enhanced her desire to get the work done and helped her accomplish the task, creating a network of followers and contributors.
As a student of her course, I felt connected, because she responded to tweets, posts and discussions with enthusiasm and interest, in a timely manner. This type of connecting requires more organization than what is offered at Northcentral, and probably would not work there, since the Northcentral courses are delivered in an ongoing manner, where students filter in and out of courses throughout the year. The Canvas course was more interactive, community building, and easier to link comments to actual people (due to the picture icons for each member). Those contacts made through discussion forums continued, though the class had long been completed. Northcentral does not encourage this type of community building through discussion boards or other networking platforms.
Rubrics are most often created for the purpose of meeting learning objectives and assigning grades. Since the discussion forums at Northcentral are not part of the courses, they are not required, and hence there are no rubrics for this type of activity. The course on Canvas was a MOOC and while it had objectives, there were no rubrics for online discussions. While I understand the need for grades and encouraging students to become actively engaged in a discussion online, I think the rubric is often too confining and may defeat the purpose of replacing face-to-face learning. Classroom discussions happen as topics are introduced, questions answered, and students interact with each other and the instructor. From my experience these are free-flowing, as discussions should be, with no thought of meeting the criteria of a rubric. If online discussion forums are to become successful, students and instructors need to express ideas and share thoughts without having to look at a rubric for a satisfactory grade. There may be a need of structure and prompts to guide students through effective online forums and promote a feeling of connecting (Ravenscroft, 2011). Discussion forums must have rules, to avoid negativity, but the demands of a rubric seem out of place when trying to create a community of connectivism.
In a high school online biology course delivered by K12, the students were required to post one comment on the results of their lab, and make two comments replying to two other student’s results. This was the required rubric. While this should have opened more discussion, essentially the students only did the requirements stipulated in the rubric. An engaged and enthusiastic mentor should be able to stimulate conversation without referring students to a rubric. The purpose of the online discussion forums should be to connect, share, and learn (Brindley, Walti, &Blaschke, 2009). Learners should be active in conversation for the sake of learning instead of meeting the rubric. Yet, a rubric may be helpful in navigating the new territory of dialogue and communication within online forums, where learners need to think, reason, and analyze (Watson, 2008). The facilitator is responsible for setting the questions and guiding the dialogue, and thus ensuring that the theoretical works of connectivism are promoted and addressed when designing these forums (Ravenscroft, 2011).
Example of an Asynchronous Discussion Question:
Mentor: Participate in this discussion activity by using your own blog -- either one you write or manage. If you do not have a blog, you may look at one on the Internet and and surmise the answers to these questions. Please take a look at other class member’s discussions, including their blog and comments, and try to engage in a dialogue with other students.
Bullet Points I wish to stress as the facilitator:
1. Discussion is respectful. The importance of feeling safe in a virtual environment, where ideas can be freely exchanged without ridicule is important and must be monitored by the facilitator (Palloff & Pratt, 2011). Proper netiquette must be followed.
2. Students interact with each other by reading and responding to comments. This facilitates the communal connectivism needed to produce community (Palloff & Pratt, 2011).
3. As the facilitator, I want to be sure to engage with each of the students and help encourage more dialogue with questions, confirming my presence in the discussion and community of learning (Ravenscroft, 2011).
4. Students must analyze the purpose of their blog writing or determine a purpose if they do not have one yet. While reading the comments of fellow students, learners will see examples and be able to ask questions to help them refine their goals.
5. Learners form a strategy that will meet the goals and purpose of their writing, both professionally and personally. There may be different strategies to meet these goals, and this may need to be addressed.
6. Encourage reflective thinking and sharing of ideas.
7. As the facilitator I will give an example of answering these questions by sharing my blog, purposes and strategies, opening the discussion by sharing with the community my presence.
Example of a Rubric:
Examples of online discussion:
The instructor activates the discussion with a prompt to visit a site, read other policies, and then poses a question for students to answer.
Brindley, J., Walti, C., & Blaschke, L. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/675/1271
Haythornewaite, C. & Andrews, R. (2011). E-Learning Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Palloff, R., &Pratt, K., (2011). The Excellent Online Instructor: Strategies for Professional Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Ravenscroft, A. (2011). Dialogue and connectivism: A new approach to understanding and promoting dialogue-rich networked learning. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 12(3), 139-160. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=59832458&site=eds-live
Siemens, G., & Conole, G. (2011). Special issue — connectivism: Design and delivery of social networked learning. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 12(3), I-IV. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofs&AN=508180290&site=eds-live
Tschofen, C., & Mackness, J. (2012). Connectivism and dimensions of individual experience. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 13(1), 124-143. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofs&AN=71275494&site=eds-live
Watson, A. (2008). Developing teaching practice for more effective use of asynchronous discussion: A preliminary investigation. Proceedings Ascilite Melbourne 2008. Retrieved from http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/melbourne08/procs/watson.pdf.