Instructor involvement in Online Discussions? To be or not?

This post is Part 1 of a 2 part series on Instructor involvement in Online discussions

How important is discussion and discourse in learning?  How about in online learning?  Somewhat important —- vital —- not?  This past week I’ve been immersed in online discussions— as a participant and as a mentor to professors teaching online. Before we go on, the answer to the question is … vital, critical, essential – the instructor that is.  A caveat, deep, authentic and successful learning is supported by instructors that guide, yet focus, redirect, and shall I say… nurture. It’s a challenge, as facilitating discussions in online classes is much different than face-to-face. It’s no surprise that instructors teaching online are often at odds with how to develop effective discussions in the online class. Some professors even feel it’s best not to get involved. What to do?

From a Student’s Perspective…
Can students have meaningful and valuable online discussions asynchronously without the instructor’s presence?  Research says no, for the most part. And from a student’s perspective, I’d have to agree. My most meaningful learning experiences involve at least some level of interaction and contributions from the professor. The involved instructor keeps the discussion focused and moving by responding to student posts with comments and questions that challenge students to build on their point and think.

What the experts say about Instructor Participation….

  • “Instructor presence [including participation in discussions] is a key element in the distinction between online and face-to-face education. Online instructors need to be “seen” in order to be perceived by their students as present in the course just as do face-to-face course instructors”. (Mandernach et al, 2006)
  • Paloff & Pratt (1999) pose that the instructor in an online class is responsible for facilitating the personal and social aspects of an online community in order for the class to have a successful learning experience.
  • Olcott & Wright (1995) assert that the responsibility for instructional quality and aggregate effectiveness of distance education rests with the instructor.

ImageCreating a framework for Effective Online Discussions
This week as I’ve been participating in a MOOC called iFaciliate a 5 week online MOOC for educators which modeled what’s needed to establish effective discussions. This course refers to the Community of Inquiry model, which synthesizes pedagogical principles and needed instructional practices for effective instruction in the online learning environment. I discussed this model in a previous post.

How to Create the Framework for effective discussions:

  • Establish guidelines and purpose for threaded discussions -  outline these at the introduction to the course.
  • Establish a Social Presence – this is where participant and instructor, introduce themselves to classmates -  sharing, introducing and connecting. Also known as the orientation  phase, Social presence is defined as the ability of learners to project themselves socially and affectively.  When students feel connected with other learners, feel part of the class and community, they are more likely to engage in discourse and discussion about course content.
  • Make the technology transparent – the discussion needs to be about the students – the content and the learning, not the technology, i.e. the Learning Management system or the discussion threads. When students are participating in online discussions, the ‘technology walls’ should disappear – just as when we are in a classroom, is the focus on the whiteboard, the power point slides or the professor’s tie for that matter?

Check back this week for part 2: How instructors can effectively facilitate online discussions.