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A Missing Piece of the Research Puzzle: A Qualitative Look At Learners' Experiences with Asynchronous Course Discussions

Andrea Gregg (The Pennsylvania State University, USA)
Session Information
October 14, 2015 - 11:45am
Learning Effectiveness
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Multiple Levels
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Asia 4
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 1
Virtual Session

Dewey and more recent instructional design scholars emphasize the importance of considering learners' experiences. This qualitative study explores students' perspectives of their asynchronous course discussions.

Extended Abstract

The majority of faculty still view online learning with caution. Nearly 75% believe the learning outcomes in online courses to be "inferior" or "somewhat inferior" when compared to their face-to-face counterparts (Allen, Seaman, Lederman, & Jaschik, 2012). When one investigates faculty concerns about online learning more deeply, it becomes clear that interaction among students and their instructors is a major area of consternation. The following New York Times editorial written by a University of Virginia professor of English provides a more qualitative picture of the beliefs and corresponding concerns about the quality of meaningful dialogue that can, or rather cannot, take place online: "Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. . . . A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It's a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we've known since Socrates. . . . A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don't think an Internet course ever will" (Edmundson, 2012, p. A23). Edmundson's sentiments are consistent with a recent survey about faculty perceptions of online learning which found that 83% of faculty believe online interactions to be substandard to those that take place in the residential classroom (Jaschik & Lederman, 2014).

Certainly, dialogue has long been viewed as an essential activity within a Western educational paradigm (Burbules, 1993; Burbules & Bruce, 2001; Soltis, 1993). For a long time, dialogue was limited in distance education due to the lack of affording technologies (Anderson & Dron, 2012). When computer conferencing first emerged as a possibility for distance education, it was promoted as having potential advantages over its face-to-face counterparts for meaningful dialogue (Henri, 1992). Currently, the asynchronous online discussion forum, common to most LMSs, is typically cited as one of the key spaces in which educational dialogue takes place in online courses (Anderson & Dron, 2012).

In spite of early optimism, much of the empirical research conducted on online discussions suggests that students are not participating at desired levels of quality (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001; Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007; Gunawardena, Lowe, & Anderson, 1997; Kanuka, Rourke, & Laflamme 2007; Palmer, Holt, & Bray 2008; Rourke & Kanuka 2009; Wise & Chiu 2011; Yulselturk 2010). Most of this empirical work is based on content analysis (De Wever, Schellens, Valcke, & Van Keer, 2006) with recent studies also leveraging interaction and behavior analysis data captured by and extracted from the learning management system (LMS) (Wise, Speer, Marbouti, & Hsiao, 2013). Therefore, while there is a plethora of research conducted on online course discussions, there is relatively little investigation done toward the end of understanding students' experiences from their own perspectives (Rourke & Kanuka, 2007).

The study that I will discuss in this presentation explores and analyzes in-depth how learners themselves are experiencing dialogue in their asynchronous online course discussions. The study explicitly assumes that learners' experiences matter educationally (Dewey, 1938) and that they can help inform instructional design and teaching: "how people experience instruction can have a huge impact on how they engage and respond--and thereby learn--from the encounter" (Parrish, Wilson, & Dunlap, 2011, p. 16).
This is a phenomenological exploration that relies primarily on multiple interviews with each participant as its methodology (Seidman, 2013).

In this presentation, I will first give an overview of the context for the study, the empirical literature, the theoretical framework for dialogue and learner experience, and the research question being addressed. Next, in order to facilitate audience participation, I will ask people to work in small groups to generate ideas about what they think are relevant dimensions of learners' experiences with asynchronous online course discussions. We will then discuss key ideas as a larger group.

The data for this study will be collected and analyzed during the SU15 semester and in this presentation, I will highlight key findings. The primary data will based on interviews with students currently enrolled in fully online graduate degree programs and will be conducted using Seidman's (2013) phenomenological interviewing model. The student interview data will be supplemented with interviews with faculty and instructional designers, online course design artifact analyses, and reflective researcher memos. All data will be analyzed thematically according to the six steps of the Braun and Clarke (2006) thematic analysis model. After presenting the thematic findings from the study, I will talk about next steps in the research project. I will close with an audience discussion of the potential implications on teaching and instructional design of this line of research.

Lead Presenter

Andrea is a manager of instructional design for the World Campus at Penn State, where she leads a design team of instructional designers and instructional production specialists. The team is responsible for designing, developing, maintaining, and supporting nearly 100 online undergraduate and graduate courses.

She has presented at various regional, national, and international conferences including the EDUCAUSE Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference; the E-Learn World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education; the Annual Sloan-C Conference on Online Learning; and the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning.

Andrea taught credit academic courses in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences. She is a PhD candidate in Learning, Design, and Technology and is currently studying learnersÕ experiences with their required online course discussions.