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IF and the Online Classroom

Online education went mainstream years ago. Conservative figures from the Department of Education indicate that over five million college students took an online course in 2012. The Babson Survey Research Group, which has been collecting data on distance learning since 2002, puts that number above seven million. Despite the discrepancy, both studies found that online learning is on the upswing. Ninety percent of academic leaders believe that it is likely that a majority of all higher education students will be taking at least one online course in five years’ time. Two-thirds of chief academic officers believe that there will be substantial use of student-directed, self-paced components in future online courses. The same percentage of academic leaders report that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy. Despite these growing trends in online education, educators still feel unsettled—disturbed even—by online courses.

Why is this the case? Many educators believe that online education is not as good as face-to-face instruction. The Babson Survey contends that the percentage of academic leaders rating the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face instruction grew from 57 percent in 2003 to 77 percent in 2012. This might sound impressive, but a closer look at the survey reveals that these responses are based on personal perceptions of academic leaders (i.e. administrators). There is no data in this report about how instructors view online education in comparison to face-to-face instruction.

I have taught over twenty-five online courses for a major research university in the US. Enrollment in both my in-person and online courses had a tendency to exceed 200 students. Rarely, if ever, did I feel like my online courses were better than my in-person courses. Theis reason for this is not because online learning is inherently flawed. It is my belief that online teaching pedagogy has not caught up with online technology.

 Universities rushed into online education because there was a huge economic incentive to do so. Teachers are now scrambling to figure out how to best utilize online technology to better reach their students and improve online instruction. Small gains have been made. Many universities have created new staff positions to help faculty with “instructional design” or to better design online courses. These new positions are being filled by people trained in educational technology (EdTech) for the purpose of offering teaching support to online educators. This is more than what most universities offer their in-person instructors. There is a growing sense that we need to learn how to teach well in online courses.

What I have learned from working with people trained in educational technology is that online courses must become interactive. Although students can set their own pace and work independently, online courses are most productive when the instructor is able to facilitate interactivity between students.

In theory, most online courses offer some kind of discussion forum to increase interactivity between students and to develop those social skills that many of us fear are being lost in online interaction. The problem with this, in my observations of online classrooms and in my communications with online instructors, is that calling a space a “discussion forum” does NOT make it a space where students are able to engage in genuine, developmental, mind-expanding discussion. Instead, my students have told me that they resent discussion assignments because they feel like it is “busy work.” They do not feel like they are engaged in discussions with their peers but, rather, they are victims of drive-by verbal attacks. That is, other students post one-off statements and never return to the discussion. I understand how this would be very unsatisfying. 

Interactivity Foundation President Jack Byrd, Jr. and I began to think strategically about online education and particularly about the issue of online discussion forums. We began to ask:

How might we improve online discussion forums so that they resemble the experiences that students have in face-to-face discussions? What might a robust online discussion forum look like? Which skills will students develop in online discussions? How do instructors create and manage—the latter being a huge task—robust online discussions?

In our efforts to address these questions and to open up a space for others to join us in our search for improved online teaching pedagogy, we have drafted the IF Online Discussion Guidebook. This guidebook is unique in several ways:

1)      It is written for BOTH students and instructors of online courses. Students will learn HOW to participate and facilitate online discussions. Instructors will learn how to construct and manage interactive student discussions.

2)      This is the only guidebook in online education that describes a student-facilitated online discussion process. Students learn how to enable their own collaborative discussion groups in the discovery of the course subject matter.

3)      This guidebook offers multiple resources for faculty ranging from sample grading rubrics to best practice guidelines for dealing with the day-to-day maintenance of online discussions.

This edition of the Guidebook focuses on text-based, asynchronous online discussion platforms, as one of the most common platforms in use today. The aim of the Guidebook is to be helpful. We anticipate an increase in online education in the future and we believe there is a great opportunity to improve this learning platform through online discussions. We have developed this student-facilitated online discussion approach through our own experiential classrooms as well as through years of teaching in-person and online courses. This text reflects and builds upon the work of the Interactivity Foundation (IF). We hope this guidebook is helpful to those teaching and learning online. We welcome continued discussion on all aspects of this guidebook.

To review a complete draft or table of contents of the guidebook or to join our network of online educators, please contact Shannon Wheatley Hartman at [email protected].