Reviewing the evidence around discussion boards in education, I have come to a conclusion that has surprised myself – where possible, instructors should facilitate interaction with and among students either face-to-face or by other synchronous means (e.g. Skype, web conferencing). This will improve the quality of interaction on discussion boards.
The basis for this recommendation is that instructors must keep in mind how difficult online interaction can be for students with those they have never met, and that they need as much support in encouraging interaction as possible. As an online instructor, I have seen how difficult it is to persuade students to interact if they are not given a particular reason to do so and are naturally not inclined to do so. This is supported by Bayne (2005), and perhaps the most interesting aspect of her work is that the anxiety felt by students in interacting online does not extend to instructors. This means it is very easy for instructors to be unaware of it, and assume that students are not interacting because they are lazy or uninterested, rather than because they are anxious.
The anxiety was also noted in Finegold & Cook (2006), who found that students considered tutor involvement in discussion boards important and also that they valued the ability to interact face-to-face or by email if they preferred.
In studying the impact of online tools, Akhras (2012) found that collaborative performance was higher online than offline. This was in the context of a group of students who knew each other, which perhaps supports the idea that a blended learning approach can work best.
From a personal point of view, I have worked on many global projects, where interaction is mainly via email, conference calls, web conferences etc. My consistent observation is that communication via telephone is more effective than email and face-to-face is best of all. Moreover, once a group has met face-to-face, the quality of interaction by other means improves – people know each and feel accountable to each other. This is consistent with studies undertaken in a corporate context (Pyoria, 2007).
It will not always be feasible for a group studying online to meet together, but web conferencing and similar tools do make “live” interaction much easier, even if a group is geographically dispersed. This means that the advantages of discussion boards set o0ut in my previous blog post, such as students choosing when and where to study, can be retained. The evidence suggests that a certain amount of live interaction will make discussion boards a more engaging and effective tool for education.
Akhras, C. (2012) ‘Virtual Classrooms and the Discussion Forum: A Net Benefit for Business Students’, International Journal Of Business & Social Science, vol.3, no.11, pp.1-7.
Bayne, S. (2005) ‘Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace’ in Land, R. and Bayne, S. (eds) Education in Cyberspace, London, RoutledgeFarmer.
Finegold, A., & Cooke, L. (2006), ‘Exploring the Attitudes, Experiences and Dynamics of Interaction in Online Groups’, Internet And Higher Education, vol.9, no.3, pp.201-215.
Pyoria, P. (2007) ‘Informal organizational culture: the foundation of knowledge workers’ performance. The Finnish Model of an information society’, Journal of Knowledge Management, vol.11 iss.3, pp.16-30.