The development of technology introduces the possibility
of using online discussion forums as part of the formal structure
of modules. Traditionally at NUS, lectures for a module have
been supplemented with face-to-face discussion groups, which
over the years have increased dramatically in size. Not only
do such groups require rooms to meet, they also absorb considerable
amounts of the tutors’ (who are often also lecturers
for the module) time. Since online discussions are not constrained
to a specific place or time, using such discussion forums
could potentially free up valuable resources such as staff
time, physical space and maximise convenience for students
and tutors. However, questions remain about the effectiveness
of online discussions for stimulating learning and their acceptability
to students and staff as a substitute for face-to-face discussions.
Bearing these questions and possibilities in mind, a trial
on using online discussions conducted through the Integrated
Virtual Learning Environment (IVLE) as a replacement for face-to-face
discussion groups in a 3000-level Psychology module was undertaken
with technical assistance of staff from the Centre for Instruction
Technology. This paper describes the methodology, results
and the conclusions drawn from the trial.
Structuring of online discussions
The trial of online discussion forums was conducted on 142
students taking the module, PL3212Y “Health Psychology”
during Semester Two (Academic Year 2002/2003). As there were
deadlines for papers and time required to introduce the online
discussion forums to the students, we decided to have nine
1-week discussions on nine different topics on health psychology.
These discussions were synchronised with topic coverage in
the module syllabus. Students were randomly assigned to 14
9-person and two 8-person groups. Each member within the 9-person
group assumed leadership of the discussion for one topic.
After each member of the 8-person groups had led one discussion,
the members were reassigned to other groups for the final
The discussions were conducted asynchronously over 1-week
beginning at 12.00 am Monday and ending at 11.59 pm the following
Sunday. During this time students could make postings whenever
they had access to the Internet. Group leaders were tasked
to get the discussions started and keep them on track. As
lecturer of the module, George Bishop monitored the discussions
but did not take part in them. In most cases groups began
their discussions early in the week. However, when a group
did not start their discussion by mid-week, an email was sent
to all members of that group urging them to commence their
Following each week’s discussion, group leaders for
that week were to write a 10-page ‘position paper’
which accounted for 25% of the overall module grade. Group
leaders were told that while their paper should reflect the
group’s discussion, they need not be limited to points
raised or materials utilised in the discussion. An exemplar
position paper was made available on the module website for
students to consult.
Position papers were submitted via the IVLE and were due
one week after the specific discussion had closed. To give
students practice in critically evaluating ideas developed
in response to the questions posed in the discussion topics,
each position paper was anonymised and sent to a randomly
selected student in the class for critique. Students were
to write a 5-page narrative critique of the position paper
but not to grade the paper. Critiques were due one week after
the student received the position paper. Each student did
one critique that constituted 15% of the overall module grade.
To encourage quality contributions to online discussions,
discussion leaders were required to rate the quality of the
contribution of each member of their group (excluding themselves)
at the close of the discussion on a topic. Thus each student
received eight ratings on the quality of their contributions
to the different discussions. In conjunction with the percentage
of discussions in which each student participated during the
term, these ratings provided the basis for assigning marks
for discussion participation, which constituted 10% of the
overall module grade. Thus, in total, participation in the
discussion forums, the position paper and critique made up
50% of the total module grade.
To assess students’ response to the use of the online
discussions, we conducted two online surveys: one following
completion of four of the nine discussions and the other following
completion of all discussions. In these voluntary and anonymous
surveys, students used a 5-point scale to rate the following:
- Experience with online discussions
- Quality of the online discussions
- Quality of the online discussions versus face-to-face
- Amount of learning from the online discussions
- Discussion format that best stimulates learning
- Preferred format of discussion
In addition, students were asked to list three things they
liked about the online discussions and three things they disliked.
In all 98 students responded to the mid-term survey and 91
students responded to the end-of-term survey.
The online discussions were evaluated in terms of participation
rates, observation of the discussions, position papers and
critiques produced, as well as responses to the online surveys.
Overall, participation in the online discussions appeared
to be high. Across all discussions, the participation rate
was 87.9% with a total of 3937 postings (i.e. average 27.7
postings per student). The total number of postings by individual
students ranged from 3 to 87 over the course of the term.
In Figure 1, 56% of the students participated in all nine
discussions, 17% participated in eight discussions and 11%
participated in seven. 16% of students participated in six
or fewer discussions.
Figure 1: Number of forums participated
Despite some fluctuations, the rate of postings was relatively
even across most days with the highest numbers recorded on
Thursday and Sunday (Figure 2). Such a trend could be due
to the Wednesday lectures and students posting to make their
participation count before the discussions close at 11.59
pm on Sunday.
Figure 2: Postings by day of week
Figure 3 indicates that postings were made around the clock
with the rate of postings peaking around midnight and falling
to their lowest levels at about 6 am.
Figure 3: Postings by time of day
Observations of discussions, position papers and critiques
Impressions from reading through a convenience sample of
the discussions captured in IVLE suggested that the students
took the assignment seriously and the discussions appeared
reasonably well focused with little chit-chat or other off-topic
discussion. Also it appeared that the quality of materials
discussed was high—students made appropriate references
to assigned reading materials and brought in suitable materials
from news media, professional publications and Internet resources.
In several instances students summarised readings, both assigned
and unassigned, and posted articles from the Internet for
other group members to read.
On the whole, the quality of the position papers and critiques
was what one could expect from students in a 3000-level module.
The papers of course differed in quality but most addressed
pertinent issues related to the discussion questions credibly.
Though the students were uncertain about the critiques they
were to do, they generally did reasonably well in evaluating
the position papers assigned to them.
Online survey responses
The two online surveys produced very similar patterns of
response. In the interest of efficiency only results from
the second survey will be reported. Results for the questions
using a 5-point scale are found in Figures 4 through 9. As
will be noted, 69% of the respondents rated their experience
with the online discussions as good or very good (Figure 4).
Similarly, 61% assessed the quality of online discussions
as good or very good (Figure 5). 56% indicated that the quality
of online discussions was superior to what they encountered
in face-to-face discussion while 32% thought face-to-face
discussions were better (Figure 6). 88% of the respondents
indicated that they had learned at least a moderate amount
from the online discussions (Figure 7). 51% indicated online
discussions were better at stimulating learning, 37% viewed
face-to-face discussions as better and 12% stated that the
two formats were equal in this regard (Figure 8). Finally,
57% preferred the online discussion format with 31% preferring
face-to-face discussions and 12% indicating equal preference
Figure 4: Ratings of experience with IVLE
Figure 5: Ratings of quality of IVLE discussions
Figure 6: Comparison of quality of face-to-face
to IVLE discussions
Figure 7: Ratings of amount learned from
Figure 8: Comparison of face-to-face to IVLE discussions with
respect to stimulation of learning
Figure 9: Preference for face-to-face
versus IVLE discussions
When asked what they liked and disliked, 67% & 31.9%
of the students mentioned the flexibility and convenience,
respectively, of the online discussions as features they particularly
liked. With regard to features that students disliked, the
specific aspects that received the most comments were the
impersonal discussion sessions (34.1%) and the lack of instructor
participation (22%). One student commented that the latter
aspect ‘makes us feel like sheep without a shepherd’.
On the whole, we judge this experiment in the use of online
discussions to be highly successful and believe that such
discussions can be a viable alternative to face-to-face discussion
groups. Participation in the discussions was high and the
quality of the discussions also appeared to be favourable
with a relative minimum of chit-chat and off-topic conversation.
Data from the online discussions also pointed towards the
usefulness of this format.
The scope of materials employed in the online discussions
was noticeably greater compared with the variety generally
turned to in face-to-face discussions. This can certainly
be attributed to the fact that the discussions were conducted
asynchronously over the course of a week, thereby providing
students with opportunities to seek out materials to address
issues raised in the discussion interactively.
The surveys indicated that this format is highly acceptable
to students and, in fact, preferred by a majority. Students
rated their experience with the online discussions positively,
regarded the discussions as high quality and indicated that
they had learned from them. When asked to compare the quality
of online discussions with that in face-to-face discussions,
students generally rated the quality of online discussions
as better. Convenience and flexibility were among the key
reasons for favouring online discussions.
However, online discussions are not without their drawbacks.
Students commented that they missed the social interaction
of face-to-face discussions. One possible solution is to schedule
face-to-face meetings for members of the discussion groups
so that they can get to know each other and thus be able to
associate names on the screen with real individuals.
Another aspect viewed negatively was the lack of instructor
involvement in the discussions. In this case the lack of instructor
intervention was by pedagogical design. One purpose of the
discussions was to get students to examine issues on their
own and without being ‘spoon-fed’. Even though
students expressed concerns about getting off-track in their
discussions, the ability to self-correct when they go off-track
is an important aspect of learning. In our view, it is important
for students to realise that they are not ‘sheep’
and the instructor is not a ‘shepherd’ in the
learning process. Rather, students should be independent learners
with the capacity to self-correct. Further, the instructor
was either available in person or via email whenever students
had questions. To address this concern in future use of such
forums, we are explicitly telling students that the instructor
will monitor the discussions but not participate and the reasons
for this. Also, students will be encouraged to bring up concerns
with the instructor either in person or through e-mail.
For those considering using online discussions, structuring
the discussions is critical. In particular, we would argue
that the following principles are required for online discussions
to be successful:
- The goals of the discussion be explicit and clear,
- The topics of the discussion need to be well defined
- There needs to be clearly stated leadership for the discussions,
- Participation in the discussions should have clear relevance
At this point, we cannot say with certainty that these are
iron-clad requirements, but we can say that online discussions
of the type described in this paper, which included these
elements, were successful.
* This article is condensed
and adapted from the original article, ‘Using Online
Forums as a Replacement for Face-to-Face Discussion Groups’
in Proceedings of the FASS—CDTL Symposium: Grounded
Experiences in University Teaching and Learning. National
University of Singapore.