26. Online Collaborative Learning

26.4. Developing Meaningful Online Discussion

Since the publication of the original CoI paper in 2000, there have been a number of studies that have identified the importance of these ‘presences’ within especially online learning (click here for a wide selection). Although there has been a wide range of researchers and educators engaged in the area of online collaborative learning and communities of inquiry, there is a high degree of convergence and agreement about successful strategies and design principles. For academic and conceptual development, discussions need to be well organized by the teacher, and the teacher needs to provide the necessary support to enable the development of ideas and the construction of new knowledge for the students.

Partly as a result of this research, and partly as the result of experienced online instructors who have not necessarily been influenced by either the OCL or the Community of Inquiry literature, several other design principles have been associated with successful (online) discussion, such as:

  • Appropriate technology (for example, software that allows for threaded discussions)
  • Clear guidelines on student online behaviour, such as written codes of conduct for participating in discussions, and ensuring that they are enforced
  • Student orientation and preparation, including technology orientation and explaining the purpose of discussion
  • Clear goals for the discussions that are understood by the students, such as: ‘to explore gender and class issues in selected novels’ or ‘to compare and evaluate alternative methods of coding’
  • Choice of appropriate topics, that complement and expand issues in the study materials, and are relevant to answering assessment questions
  • Setting an appropriate ‘tone’ or requirements for discussion (for example, respectful disagreement, evidence-based arguments)
  • Defining clearly learner roles and expectations, such as ‘you should log in at least once a week to each discussion topic and make at least one substantive contribution to each topic each week’
  • Monitoring the participation of individual learners, and responding accordingly, by providing the appropriate scaffolding or support, such as comments that help students develop their thinking around the topics, referring them back to study materials if necessary, or explaining issues when students seem to be confused or misinformed;
  • Regular, ongoing instructor ‘presence’, such as monitoring the discussions to prevent them from getting off-topic or too personal, and providing encouragement for those that are making real contributions to the discussion, heading off those that are trying to hog or dominate the discussions, and tracking those not participating, and helping them to participate;
  • Ensuring strong articulation between discussion topics and assessment

These issues are discussed in more depth by Salmon (2000); Bates and Poole (2003); and Paloff and Pratt (2005; 2007).