Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

Threaded discussion forums

Drawn from a series of blog posts, Fall 2012.

The Sunny Side

As part of an online faculty orientation I took Fall 2012 (to figure out how to design an online faculty orientation – or not), I participated in a discussion-based online course, musing, of course at the meta-level question of learning and discussion forums. Here’s what I see as the sunshine side (dark side next).  For the online or hybrid course, discussion forums provide:

The opportunity for a slower pace than that afforded in a face-to-face class meeting. Some people are slow, deep thinkers , and seldom participate in the lively discussion that we all love (teachers and most students) and talk about when we talk about face-to-face vs online.  People who are extroverted think out loud; people who are not need some time to think things over individually before they are ready to engage in dialogue. My colleague at Marylhurst University, Lisa Davidson, developed this line of thought.

The opportunity to go back and see what is said, a form of persistence not afforded in the live classroom setting.  This attribute makes it easier to summarize and synthesize, and even collaborate in the construction of knowledge.

In the moment, we can make assertions and claims. In the text setting, in an academic environment, we learn how to support our assertions and claims, hopefully with considered research in a body of knowledge. That takes more time, but it is part of the rigor and discipline that is fundamental to formal learning. And – it gives practice for the skill of critically evaluating information.

For those of us who struggle with the chaos of the network effect of all the applications that support interaction and communication, the discussion forum can provide a small oasis of order. I’m not suggesting in any way that a class should be designed lock-stop to provide order throughout, but it may be a relief to have one place where one can expect order, in an otherwise fluid and dynamic environment.

The Dark Side

Oddly enough, the source of this post is . . . a discussion forum post. It is clear evidence that I was able to use a discussion forum to dive down deeply into a topic.

My difficulty with the discussion form as implemented is that I’ve not often seen a pattern of sustained, thematic development of ideas, what Scardamalia and Bereiter (2006) called “iterative idea development” (p. 7) and what Thayer called “cumulative build-up of knowledge or consensus” (2012b).

One of the root causes is the technology. Scadamalia and Bereiter (2006) argue that “threaded discussion militates against deepening inquiry; instead, it is much more suited to rapid question-answer and assertion-response exchanges” (p. 20). The other is that “the structure of the assignments seems to increase the fracturing of the discussions, since we are all asked to post an original response to the same questions” (Thayer, 2012b).

The other issue is . . . where do the questions come from? If from the instructor, then the teacher is doing a piece of work that would be much more beneficial to the learner if they were to do the work themselves. In other words, the most meaningful questions (and the ones that are engaging) come from the learner.

A possible new approach is starting to emerge for me, based on: a) Scardamalia and Bereiter’s (2006) idea of collaborative knowledge-building discourse; b) the learning theory concept of “scaffolding”; and c) on Thayer’s (2012b) notion of a “managed multi-thread format.” Here’s  how it might work:

  • Each discussion question is framed as a problem we are to solve collaboratively (rather than engage with individually) – and the question comes from the learners, maybe through a process we might call “the free market of questions.”  Each student lobbies for their question, the group choose the most important to explore.
  • Each initial response to the discussion question is structured in terms of a proposal, the rationale and supporting data for the proposal, any additional information that might be necessary to modify the proposal (providing this structure would be the “scaffolding” that might help reduce the “I agree” and off topic posts that can add the volume of posts that represent a barrier to learning..
  • Implementing Thayer’s “managed multi-thread format,” to start a new sub-thread the poster would have to read all of the initial posts, and then advance the discussion to a new level, “justifying why his/her idea is new and different from the ideas submitted above” (2012b), and then other participants would pick the line of discussion they wish to follow (or make their own claim to a new approach).
  • The instructor’s role would be to challenge whether these posts represent a new idea, or should be absorbed into another sub-thread.
  • The participants in each sub-thread would be required to bring their discussion to a summary/synthesis conclusion which is then posted in the week’s summary of the discussion.
To summarize

A fellow student of mine, Jim Thayer made a great synthesizing post (just as we would have our students do):

“I have been thinking about this a lot during this course, as this new technology still feels pretty “clunky”. The highly structured format that online teaching imposes on the communications stream got me thinking about the actual structural aspects of discourse and of human cognition.

We’re still in the phase of trying to adapt the fluidity of a multi-participant discussion into the confines of rigid thread structure. What I was trying to achieve was to mimic the way purposeful intellectual discourse manages to simultaneously dis-aggregate ideas and at the same time rearrange them along organized hierarchies of concepts.

I suspect that within a few years our ability to capture and map multi-threaded conversations will be much advanced, and may permit us to clearly extrapolate a full spectrum of alternative and/or parallel lines of discussion. Perhaps, then we will be able to adapt the presentation of these discussions to appeal to different types of learners. We could use a mapping approach for the visually oriented, and a recorded argumentation for the audio-learner, and some lines of inquiry might even be captured in mathematical terms.

At that point, we may begin to present the interplay of ideas in ways that are not possible today in our uni-dimensional classrooms.”

From personal email communication with Jim Thayer, with permission.

Bender, T.(2003). Discussion-based online teaching to enhance student learning: Theory, practice and assessment. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing LLC.
Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 97-118). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Thayer, J. (2012a, August 21). Is writing writing? Retrieved from Moodle discussion forum.
Thayer, J. (2012b, August 20). Yikes! How to absorb more than 375 unmoderated comments. Retrieved from Moodle discussion forum.

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