Leading class discussions, and encouraging discussion among students, is one of the most important factors of a successful online class. In the asynchronous format, discussion will look a lot different from what we might expect of teaching—a professor behind a lectern at the head of a classroom calling on raised hands. Well, an online class won’t look anything like that, of course, but the benefits of discussion held entirely through a remote class has benefits galore.
Some of the benefits of an asynchronous discussion include more learning for students, the opportunity to collaborate and make connections between students, and an overall improvement in learning. A lot of research has been done over the years to back up these claims, too. Just having that distance—and the time—to formulate answers allows students, in many respects, greater mastery over the content. How?
We’ll look at some research done over the past twenty years to get a sense of how it is that students make out rather well by being able to respond to prompts through discussion boards, share their thinking and learning, and get feedback that counts.
Some Misconceptions About Online Discussions
The fact we need to talk about the benefits of online discussions sort of implies that the whole idea of it needs to be defended. In a way, it does, and that’s because, given the model of the professor at the head of the class asking questions, it’s difficult to imagine how one can achieve that kind of atmosphere online. If you’re beginning a career as an online adjunct, the question as to the efficacy of online discussion forums is probably a prime one.
Can you lead a class discussion like this online? Actually, is it even about your “leadership”? Not entirely. But the thing is, you don’t necessarily want to do it that way. There are better ways to guide the discussions. The online discussion led by students might even be superior!
Olla Najah Al-Shalchi of the College of William and Mary in Virginia says this: “When people hear about distance education, they sometimes fear that students will be missing a great deal of interaction, communication, and participation.” That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? But, as he continues, “This is a misconception that needs to be addressed so that people will begin to appreciate the advantages of distance education and what it has to offer.”
The first thing to understand is that students can, in fact, interact online. And they do. “At times,” Al-Shalchi says, “there is more interaction that takes place in online discussions than in traditional classrooms.”
Let’s point out a distinction here: an asynchronous discussion does not expect a student to show up at a specific time to participate in the discussion. This can actually allow for more interaction, and the benefits of this are enormous.
What Do Students Say About Asynchronous Discussions?
Discussion forums—at least according to some of the student evaluations we’ve seen—can be boiled down to a few good reasons as to why they’re effective.
- The discussion forum allows students to dig deeper into the material. They’re actually able to spend more time with the material.
- The discussion forum, done correctly, allows students to say what they need to say without fear of judgment and reprisal. They can actually learn through their mistakes—and also their successes.
- Students quickly get the idea that the instructor is entirely available to them—even if they never sit in the professor’s office!
- The students appreciate the community that evolves around the discussion forum, and especially the community between the students themselves.
“One key advantage,” says the Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University, “is that student learning and thinking become more visible. Instructors and teaching assistants can make use of additional time to develop intentional and thoughtful feedback.”
They are not suggesting that brick-and-mortar classroom time is wasted, but rather that the space and time created by an asynchronous discussion forum allows for more flexibility of thought. Everyone, teachers included, has more time and more breathing room to craft thoughtful responses.
The Freedom of Online Discussion
There are a lot of benefits to asynchronous discussions, but let’s start with one of the most general ones here. Two Canadian professors, Elizabeth Murphy and Elizabeth Coleman, cowrote a paper in 2008 that pointed out a number of benefits of online discussions, and a major factor was control.
In the asynchronous discussion, control lies more with the student than the instructor—and one major control is over the pace of the discussion. Contributing at their own pace means, as the authors write, that students “have time to reflect on their and others’ comments.” Additionally, students who are shy, and those who move slower, benefit from an “equalizing effect” from being able to control that pace. That means no competition, no “you answered the question before I could even raise my hand”!
As you might imagine, there is the “freedom from temporal and spatial constraints.” Because an asynchronous class allows students to learn independent of time and space, it encourages self-directed learning. That, in turn, allows for more interaction and flexibility in communication because a student can reach out for help when they need to.
“Other benefits that have been identified by researchers,” the authors write, “include opportunities for constructing and negotiating meaning, engaging students in meaningful online dialogue, promoting critical thinking processes, and achieving higher levels of abstract cognitive processes than in face-to-face communication. Other benefits include more careful, formal and reflective responses and an increased motivation to participate and to write well due to the presence of a real audience and purpose for communicating.”
Let’s look a little deeper.
If Students Have Time, Students Use the Time Well
Imagine a scenario, if you haven’t already experienced this yourself: You, as a teacher, are standing in front of a classroom of, oh, twenty-four students. You’re discussing the impact of a business idea, or maybe a theme in James Joyce’s Ulysses, or a controversy with a certain educational trend. You ask a question, then open it up to students, and…then what?
You might find that in a lot of cases, your question is met with silence. Are you surprised? After all, a student has to not only think, but think quickly. And given that they maybe pored over an assigned reading days before, they might have, you know, forgotten some stuff. What pressure!
Online classes can avoid this issue because students have time. Imagine this, instead: a question is posed on an online discussion board, and the student reads it. But they know they have days, or maybe even a week, to answer! So what do they do?
One thing they do is extra research. Now a student can consult a textbook or do a little research outside of that. They can think about it over the course of days, maybe even begin to draft a response. Without the rush, a response to a prompt given by the instructor—or even a response to something another student has posted—can be thought out far more carefully. The draft, their answer, can be revised over time, too.
And what does that do for the student? Why, it takes away the stress.
Stefan Hrastinski, in a 2008 research paper, had this to say: “The receiver has more time to comprehend a message because an immediate answer is not expected.” That is to say, having more time increases a student’s ability to process information. In one of the interviews with students that Hratinski conducted, a student said, “In the [asynchronous discussions] it is easier to find more facts, maybe have a look in a book and do more thorough postings.”
That thoroughness is what we want to draw out of students. Careful, well-considered responses will make the student feel confident and capable, too. An increase in the ability to process information means more control for students. Olla Najah Al-Shalchi points out that asynchronous discussions prompt students to do this informed research before posting—basically, it prevents them from making uninformed comments and saves them from looking foolish!
We might overlook the obvious, too: a student is allowed the time to first of all log in and then read what everyone has posted to that point. This is different from showing up to class ten minutes late because there is no “late” to begin with! The student enters the discussion prepared—and confident.
The Social Benefits of Online Discussion
An asynchronous discussion among students can actually create enduring social relationships. “Sharing ideas” was a big finding for researcher Sigrun Biesenbach-Lucas—that sharing of ideas opens up whole new worlds for students. Here’s the thing: in a classroom, given the time constraints (maybe an hour or two?) not everyone is going to be able to participate. But in an online forum, everyone can participate—and will most likely be expected to, if the class is set up correctly—and because of that the views and perspectives multiply!
As Biesenbach-Lucas points out in a 2003 paper, students can conceptualize a topic from diverse viewpoints and contribute to each other’s understanding. The asynchronous discussion provide structured opportunities to engage with course material in a way that everyone can chime in and add to the discussion. In this fashion, the class becomes collaborative.
“Learners actively construct their own learning by engaging themselves and others in reflective explorations of ideas, drawing conclusions based on their explorations and synthesizing those conclusions with previous knowledge in what is most often a non-linear process,” he writes. “In this process of learning, students are engaged in more inductive, problem-solving activities as opposed to deductive, analytic teacher-based exercises and lectures, and instructors may prompt students’ engagement by providing open-ended questions and problems that require discussion and collaborative work to answer/solve.”
That’s a bit heady, but let’s simplify: online discussions can mediate communication not only between the student and instructor, but between students themselves. The students are not just memorizing rote information, they actively become problem-solvers. Students exchange the ideas of each other, and not just the teacher. In fact, the teacher’s role can diminish from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.”
Getting advice from other students proved, in many research studies, a common theme. Students also suggested that online discussions helped them get a better grasp of the course content from lectures, readings, and assignments.
Critical Thinking in the Asynchronous Discussion Forum
All of this suggests, as research has confirmed, that asynchronous discussions lead to what we most want students to develop: critical thinking. With control over the pace of the discussion, the time allowed them to do research and make well-thought contributions, and the collaborative spirit of a course where everyone joins the discussion, a student naturally cultivates a deeper understanding.
Consider that this critical thinking happens both in collaboration with other students and under the guiding hand of the professor, as well. When the tone of the discussion is monitored—and many researchers have expressed the need to keep the tone positive and respectful—then the class can ultimately be a memorable one.
In other blog posts, we’ll look at examples of asynchronous discussions and ways to facilitate them. These are important tools that will empower students.
Al-Shalchi, O. (2009). The effectiveness and development of online discussions. Journal of Online Teaching and Learning, 5(1), 104-108. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.556.5914&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Biesenbach-Lucas, S. (2003). Asynchronous discussion groups in teacher training classes: Perceptions of native and non-native students. Journal of Asynchronous Learning, 7(3), 24-46. http://dx.doi.org/10.24059/olj.v7i3.1843
Brown University (n.d.) Asynchronous strategies for inclusive teaching. The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. https://www.brown.edu/sheridan/asynchronous-strategies-inclusive-teaching
Hratinski, S. (2008). Asynchronous and synchronous e-Learning. Educause Quarterly, 31(4). http://anitacrawley.net/Resources/Articles/Asynchronous%20and%20Synchronous%20E.docx
Murphy, E., & Coleman, E. (2004). Graduate students’ experiences of challenges in online asynchronous discussions. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 30(2). https://www.learntechlib.org/p/43066/