LearnIT -future directions for learning with technology at the University of Adelaide
On-line discussions can improve student learning
Presenter's biographical details
Mike Keller is an entomologist whose research focuses on biological control of insect pests and weeds, as well as the behaviour of parasitic wasps that serve as agents of biological control. He contributes to undergraduate teaching in the subjects Biological Control, Insect Behaviour, Integrated Pest Management, Environmental Biology, the IPM Internship, Horticultural Production and Viticultural Production. Mike is the course advisor for the Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Integrated Pest Management) . He contributes to the Cooperative Research Centre for Weed Management Systems.
Over the past two years, I have been using on-line discussions in undergraduate teaching to extend student learning to issues beyond those considered in lectures. These discussions start with a question or premise that students must consider, research and discuss to arrive at an answer or provide an approach to finding a solution. Discussions last three weeks or more and involve both face-to-face discussions and on-line written contributions. In this session I outline the rationale behind using on-line discussions in teaching, the ways I have used them, effective practices and pitfalls and assessment.
What are on-line discussions?
On-line discussions have been developed to facilitate interaction on the World Wide Web. They use the same approach as bulletin boards that are so common on the Internet. Participants can log on at any time and follow a hierarchical series of contributions on a topic of interest. These contributions can be read and reviewed over time. As a result, discussion can follow several paths at once and debate of a particular point can be picked up even after others have moved onto other areas. On-line discussions are academically appealing because they involve active and responsive thought by students. This paper briefly reviews the use of on-line discussions in teaching, how my own practices have evolved over time, and effective practices for integrating on-line discussions into teaching.
How I have used on-line discussions
I first used an on-line discussion in 1998 in an undergraduate class in Integrated Pest Management. The whole class addressed the question, 'Would it be possible to eliminate synthetic pesticides from agricultural systems?' The activity started with a laboratory session in which the class discussed a wide variety of topics and questions related to the overall question. Students then went away and focused on particular aspects of the question. Over the following weeks, students logged on to the discussion and made three or more contributions.
A formal evaluation of that first activity indicated several problems and possible solutions. Firstly, a single discussion involving the whole class of 70 students was too large. Many students were unsure of: (i) How to respond to others; (ii) the appropriate length of contributions, and (iii) the need for supporting information from references, so more guidance at the start was recommended. Finally, there was a tendency for many students to wait until the end to contribute, which eliminated interaction.
In 1999, on-line discussions were held in three different subjects. In Integrated Pest Management, the discussions were a separate activity involving groups of five to eight students. Each group focused on a different current problem. For example, one group questioned whether Australia's ban on the importation of apples from New Zealand was justified on scientific grounds or is it just a trade barrier? In Biological Control, a small class of 11 discussed the importance of the specificity of organisms used in biological control as a part of a larger project that included laboratory work. Finally, in Insect Behaviour students undertook open-ended laboratory projects in groups of five to six. In this case the online discussion provided a mechanism for weekly for recording of experimental progress and a separate forum that covered more theoretical issues. In each of these subjects, students were expected to contribute a minimum of three submissions to the discussions.
I have assessed students using four criteria: (i) overall contribution of new information that is relevant to the subject, (ii) analysis, synthesis and critical thinking, (iii) responsiveness to other contributions, and (iv) supporting references. Rather than give a mark for each contribution to the discussion, I give a single mark which is the maximum score in each category across all contributions. This gives students an incentive to make extra contributions as they can potentially improve marks each time they join the discussion. Also, there is no need to address all criteria in every contribution. For example, a student could simply ask a question to clarify a point made by another student, as might happen in a face-to-face discussion.
I return marks by electronic mail. This is confidential and feedback can be given to students quickly. In these assessments, I also give suggestions and criticisms to help the discussion if it is getting off-track or if important topics have been overlooked. In this way the discussion is subtly managed without me being heavy-handed.
Whenever students log onto the discussion, they get advice on a range of topics in a series of web pages under the title 'How to get higher marks.' This series addresses the most common questions and problems I have encountered. It both assists students and relieves consulting time with students.
In some instances, students have participated in online discussions in prior course work. These students provided leadership in their groups as other students compare their work to the benchmarks provided by better students.
Effective practices in the use of online discussions
- Choose challenging questions
The nature of the topic under discussion is crucial to its educational value. Questions seem to stimulate discussion best, especially if they are open-ended and topical. In my pest management subject, I asked several colleagues to describe some important and pressing current problems caused by pests. Those problems that involved public debate or that had no clear solution stimulated the best discussion. It was important that literature on the topics was available and accessible to students.
- Integrate discussions with other activities
Online discussions have worked best when they were integrated with other face-to-face activities. Starting discussion with a workshop to outline ideas and questions about the topic gives students a better overview of the problem. It also introduces them to the other participants, which makes the activity more personal. At the conclusion of the online discussion, a workshop session to draw the various lines of thinking together and provide a synthesis brings the discussion to a more satisfying conclusion.
In some instances, the online discussions can supplement other learning activities. For example, they can broaden the students' understanding of more focused practical exercises.
- Provide accessible guidelines
Many students need guidance at the start to participate effectively. In addition to printed instructions, my students have found a series of brief tips posted on the discussion web site to be helpful. These are posted under the heading 'How to get higher marks' and include topics like 'finding references' and 'be the devil's advocate'. A student can quickly browse these pointers to check if they have remembered all of the relevant criteria for effective participation and assessment.
- Establish serial deadlines
Unfortunately many students never complete assignments until just before the deadline. Nothing kills a discussion like a lack of participation. A series of deadlines seems the best way to overcome this problem. When students must contribute at several times, they tend to become more involved in the discussion. Not only does this stimulate further participation, it also helps them progressively to improve their own work as they read and compare the contributions of classmates.
- Provide timely, confidential feedback
Assessment and feedback are important in guiding students in their learning. Assessment delivered through electronic mail is an easy and effective way to provide feedback. This medium is quick and confidential. The feedback a student receives can stimulate further discussion along new avenues or keep the discussion focused without academic staff becoming too dominant.
- Organise students in small groups
Four to eight students seems to be the best group size. At this size everybody has a chance to contribute, yet nobody need struggle too hard to find information to contribute. If the group becomes too large, following the discussion becomes a burden.
- Marking is the most demanding aspect of online discussions. Careful consideration of assessment is necessary to avoid excessive time demands.
- The computing systems must be reliable. Breakdowns of the student electronic mail system broke the line of communication in several instances, which compromised provision of feedback on the discussion.
Online discussions are appealing for several reasons:
- They promote active learning and critical thinking
- Every student has an equal chance to contribute, whether they are extroverted or shy.
- They are open-ended and non-linear so students can explore the topic from a variety of perspectives
- They allow time for thinking and reflection because students can participate at any time
- They promote the development of literature research skills
- Students can compare their work to the benchmarks set by the best contributors
Students have enthusiastically participated in online discussions and found them both challenging and stimulating. They can be a useful adjunct to other learning activities if careful consideration is given to topics of discussion, group size, assessment and other aspects of the exercise.
Browse this site