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Collaborative learning refers to an instruction method which requires students to work together in small groups toward a common goal. In this issue of CDTL Brief, glean from the authors’ experience with Collaborative Learning and discover how it can be used to promote meaningful learning among university students.

April 2004, Vol. 7, No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Using Online Forums as a Replacement for Face-to-Face Discussion Groups*

George D. Bishop
Department of Social Work and Psychology
Gilles Doiron
Principal Educational Technologist, CDTL


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 discussion.

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 discussion promptly.

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.

Online surveys

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 discussions

  • 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.

Participation rates

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 in  

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 9).

Figure 4: Ratings of experience with IVLE discussions

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 IVLE discussions

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 and circumscribed,

  • There needs to be clearly stated leadership for the discussions, and

  • Participation in the discussions should have clear relevance to grades.

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.

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Using Online Forums as a Replacement for Face-to-Face Discussion Groups
Weekly Review and Integration of Ideas and Abilities
Collaborative Learning: Some Issues and Recommendations
The Impact of Teaching Assistants on Students’ Learning Experience: A Study on Teaching and Learning in an NUS Chemistry Laboratory
A Model of Collaborative Learning Project for Japanese University Students