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In the last issue of CDTL Brief, we presented to you the first of a two-part discussion on IT in Education Today. In this second part of the discussion, we feature reportson some of the current uses of IT for teaching and assessment in NNUS and Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and guidelines on the facilitation of the onlince disscussion forums

October 2001, Vol. 4 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Maximising the Potential of Computer Mediated Discussion: Guidelines for Facilitation
Mr Glen O’Grady
Senior Educational Development Specialist, CDTL

Online discussion forums, or Computer Mediated Discussions (CMD), are popular with lecturers wishing to use IT to enhance the quality of student learning. At NUS, statistics show that the online discussion forum is one of the most utilised tools in the Integrated Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE). However, one need not look very hard to see many struggling or abandoned forums. Because how the teacher mediates CMD affects the way students participate and the quality of discussion (Ahern 1992), this article aims to help faculty maximise the potential of CMD by offering some guidelines for facilitating online discussion forums drawn from research on CMD.

1. Have a good reason for using CMD

Focus participants by being clear about why you are using CMD. Besides making it ‘convenient’ and ‘easier’ for students to communicate collaboratively (Kitchen & McDougall 1999, Hudson 2000), CMD can promote meta-cognition and foster new ways of thinking and processing ideas (Johanyak 1997, Olaniran 1996, Minch 1995, Gil & Quinones 1999). CMD also helps students develop language abilities (Beauvois 1998) and generate a wide range of views (Sommers 1997).

At NUS, various faculty members have used CMD in different ways 1:

  • To allow students to submit a summary of their tutorial readings so that everyone can see what others think before tutorial discussions.
  • As a forum for answering any course-related questions students may have.
  • To get students to discuss and evaluate one another’s project work.
  • As part of an online distance-learning course in which the CMD is the key interactive component for students to raise questions and discuss problems.

2. Do not assume everyone is familiar with CMDs

Students may not participate in CMDs because they find the CMD software difficult to use (Lee 2000), or they do not know how to log on to the CMD or are unable to access it because of limited computing resources (Fishman 1999). Lee (2000) found that students when faced with technical problems suffered ‘cognitive overload’, hence distracting them from the CMD’s intended purpose. In addition, participants may also not know what is expected of them once they have logged on to the CMD. Hence, English (1997) suggests giving students clear instructions on how to utilise CMDs (i.e. the technical aspects of how to log on and some guidance on how to participate and learn in a CMD environment).

3. Create specific tasks for students to work through collaboratively

Motivate and guide students in their CMD participation by setting them tasks [e.g. debates, simulations, games, role-plays, case studies, transcript-based assignments, brainstorming, delphi-techniques, nominal group techniques, and projects (Paulsen 1998)]. Tasks that stimulate online discussion are particularly useful if the teacher and students are new to CMD and need some structure to establish a culture of discussing online.

Some researchers have argued that ideally CMD tasks should be collaborative in nature because they believe learning is a process of social construction [i.e. learning is not a passive process in which a teacher imparts knowledge to a learner, but an active process for the learner, where meaning is negotiated with peers and others, drawing upon prior prepositional and procedural knowledge in making sense of new information (Evans & Butler 1995)]. In a university setting, the real value of collaborative learning is getting students to work with each other, instead of depending on teacher-student interaction alone. Collaborative learning can lead to deeper learning by promoting rich and complex cognitive processes such as working through conflict/ disagreement, developing alternative proposals and self- explanation, internalising and appropriating ideas, sharing cognitive load, participating in mutual regulation, and finding one’s social grounding (Dillenbourg 1999).

4. Participate in the discussion, but sparingly

Lee (2000) established that students disliked it when tutors were not directly involved in the discussion. Yet Veerman (2000) found that when a tutor challenged and countered a student’s opinion, it immediately ended the discussion. Thus by participating sparingly, facilitators can avoid undermining the discussion. In fact, moderators who accept a more facilitative role help students take greater responsibility for their own learning (LaGrandeur 1997).

5. Ask questions or make comments to help students understand/learn in a deep fashion

The key ingredient that determines the success of a CMD is the teacher’s facilitation skills in being able to assist students to learn without spoon-feeding or abandoning them. If CMD is a collaborative tool for students to learn deeply, then facilitation should help students move through the different phases involved in the social construction of knowledge. These phases, based on the work by Gunawardena et al. (1998) on interaction analysis, are:

i) Sharing/Comparing of Information. Students offer statements of observation/opinion/agreement or ask and answer questions to clarify details of statements/ definitions/descriptions.

ii) Discovering and exploring dissonance/inconsistency among ideas. Students identify and state areas of disagreement. This is the operation at the group level of cognitive dissonance [i.e. an inconsistency between a new observation and the learner’s existing framework of knowledge and thinking skills (Festinger 1957)].

iii) Negotiating the meaning/co-construction of knowledge. Students negotiate/clarify the shared meaning of terms and assign relative weights to different types of argument. Proposal and negotiation of new statements embodying compromise should begin to appear.

iv) Testing and modifying proposed synthesis/co-construction. Students test the proposed synthesis against ‘received fact’ as shared by the participants and/or their culture, existing cognitive schema, personal experience, formal data, and contradictory testimony in the literature.

v) Specifying agreement statements/applications of newly-constructed meaning. Students form statements that summarise agreement(s) and examples of the applications of new knowledge, as well as meta-cognitive statements that illustrate an understanding of how they have constructed their knowledge and ways in which their thinking (cognitive schema) has changed.

Phases (i) and (ii) typify the level of discussion in many CMDs. While in some instances the latter, and more complex, phases may be achieved by other means (e.g. face-to-face discussion, project work, group study), Phases (iii) to (v) are largely absent in CMD because the associated thinking is not explicitly encouraged enough by pro-active facilitation. To help students move through the different phases, the facilitator would have to ask different types of questions and/or prompt reflection at appropriate times.

For example, after posting a discussion question and allowing students to respond, a facilitator could ask: “How do the various responses amongst class members differ? Is there any way of reconciling opposing points of view?” Next, the facilitator could encourage students to form a hypothesis based upon what the group has discussed and to test this hypothesis against what experts have said in the literature. Then, invite students to reflect upon what the class has learnt as a whole. Finally the facilitator might ask students to share how they feel about the CMD process and describe how the discussion has changed the way they think about the subject matter.

6. Relate CMD to classroom discussion and vice versa

A lot of studies on the effectiveness of CMD have compared this mode with face-to-face classroom discussion. Some studies, while admitting to differences in the way the discussion is carried out (e.g. asynchronous as opposed to synchronous), have contended there is no major difference in learning outcomes based on the medium of discussion (Hall 1999).

Other studies have argued that CMD does lead to better student outcomes. Scovell (1991) found students using CMD scored higher on writing and reading tests. Scott (1993) alleged that students using CMD were more considered in their responses, productive in accomplishing task objectives, and more uniform in their participation. Phillips & Santoro (1989) found courses with CMD received higher students satisfaction ratings. Mahesh & McIsaac (1999) suggested that students who used CMD became more committed to the course and established closer student-teacher interaction; however, this depended upon the quality of the teacher and the time he/she was willing to put into CMD.

Other studies that looked at the effect of combining CMD and face-to-face discussion suggest that the two mediums help facilitate different types of learning outcomes. Althaus (1997) established that students who had mixed-mode courses earned better grades than those doing either by itself. Veerman (2000) found that while CMD was effective in getting students to conceptualise and be task-orientated, it was less effective than face-to-face settings in helping students finish tasks. Marttunen & Laurinen (1999) showed that CMD helped to enhance text-based argumentation skills and face-to-face discussions were better at developing counter-argumentation.

Although adopting both mediums of discussion in a university course can help students develop a wide range of skills and encourage them to ponder about the subject matter beyond lectures/tutorials, this method comes at a cost. Tolley (2000) revealed how one lecturer on average spent at least four hours a week moderating CMDs on top of a full teaching load. However if one is able to bear this cost by possibly distributing the load amongst colleagues/tutors/students, or offsetting it by reducing some portion of face-to-face contact, then the focus should be upon how can one help students to commit to both mediums? Because of the established lecture-tutorial structure of higher education, students generally value face-to-face contact and equate what is important by what is said in the classroom. Failure to address issues that have emerged from the CMD in the classroom or vice versa suggests to students that the CMD is unimportant and is simply a ‘nice-if-one-has-time’ appendage to the course. So to help integrate the online and face-to-face mediums, lecturers could develop tasks where some elements are completed online and others during face-to-face contact.

7. Give students strategies for ‘repairing conversations’

Veerman (2000) reports how CMD lacks the physical and physiological cues (e.g. appearance, intonation, eye contact, group identity) that are critical in repairing any communication breakdowns in traditional collaborative learning environment (Johnson et al. 1976). To help students overcome miscommunications in CMD, Winiecki et al. (1998) suggests the following strategies:

  • Get students to summarise the argument/thread so far, specifying specifically who has said what to who and when did they say it.
  • Cut and paste relevant or strategic parts (“snips”) of previous emails.
  • Encourage students to clarify whether they have understood what someone else has said.

One additional suggestion is to encourage students to express feelings through textual smilies (O’Grady 2001).

8. Motivate by having a good activity/task and by pointing out the benefits of CMD

Other possible reasons why students fail to participate in CMD include:

  • Students do not want to appear ignorant (Englebardt 2001) and are concerned about the permanency of postings (Akers 2001).
  • Students feel like they are talking to ‘photo-electric walls’ (Sproull et al. 1984).
  • Students feel that their peers do not respond in the same spirit as they do (Scardemalia et al. 1992).
  • Students find CMDs as too much effort or a chore (Newman et al. 1995; Clark & Brennan 1991).
  • Students have no reason for saying anything, i.e. what they want to say has already said by someone else (McKendree et al. 1998).

Such barriers are not insurmountable and suggest that with some careful planning, students can be motivated to participate. For example, a teacher can divide a large discussion group into smaller groups, assign a student in each small group to summarise the group’s conclusions and then post these opinions in a larger group discussion.

Some teachers assign a grade to ensure all participate. However, McKendree et al. (1998) found that forced participation can substantially lower the overall quality of online discussions. The same study also found that a large proportion of students not posting messages were still participating but in a vicarious manner. Sutton (2000) argues that it is possible to have ‘vicarious interactors’ who process the interactions of others without posting any messages.

Students will participate in CMD if they value the reasons for doing so. Teachers can help students realise the benefits of using CMD by showing students hard data (this may require some research) on how participating in a CMD is an integral part of learning and the development of their understanding, which can therefore lead to an improvement in performance and grades.

9. Monitor and Evaluate

Monitoring and evaluation aids the teacher in understanding how both task and tool affects the learner. Some evaluations on the use of CMD have discovered that females tend to participate less than males and were even less likely to be involved if the tasks were adversarial (Gregory 1997, Herring 1992, Ferris 1996). Such evaluation help sensitise teachers as to what they need to be aware of when planning CMD tasks. As CMD is a relatively new tool in higher education, there is a need to further explore how, when combined with different tasks, it impacts upon student learning.


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1 A two-part CDTL workshop on ‘Maximising the Potential of Online Discussions for Learning’ was held on 1 February and 5 April 2001. During the interim between each workshop, the 18 faculty participants were invited to participate in an online discussions, the experience of which was reviewed on 5 April.

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A New Paradigm in Teaching Computer Science
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Maximising the Potential of Computer Mediated Discussion: Guidelines for Facilitation