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Transcending Participation: Creating and Supporting Engagement in Online Courses

Steven Goss (Teachers College, Columbia University, USA)
Robin Hummel (Bank Street College of Education, USA)
Session Information
October 16, 2015 - 10:45am
Learning Effectiveness
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Research Study
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Asia 4
Session Duration: 
45 Minutes
Concurrent Session 10
Virtual Session

An approach for achieving engaged online discourse through the design of classroom structures and the support of students as a community of learners.

Extended Abstract

A common approach to student discussion online is teacher-created prompts to which students are expected to respond. Students are then required to comment on other students' posts, agreeing with what's been said or maybe offering a counterpoint. To encourage this type of discourse, teachers often provide students with prescriptive expectations for participation; for example, a directive to post a response and reply to the posts of at least two other students. Throughout the lifespan of the prompt, students participate in the forum by following the directions of the teacher.

This experience has been a staple of online discussion forums since the inception of teaching and learning online. It continues to be accepted even as teachers and students confess that it doesn't allow for authentic and organic discourse. Following expectations by responding to prompts produces a perfunctory participation from students, who cross off expectations as though attending to a checklist. It is this malaise surrounding the traditional online discourse that compels us to create a new understanding for a more engaged and communal voice in the online classroom.

Our initial findings demonstrate that students need a deeper understanding of what it means to be an online student. What is the role of the student and how can the roles they play lead to a more engaged discourse? We discovered that structures that promote engagement support students. But how do these structures support students in leading discussions that are more organic and engaging?

The problem we faced was how to design spaces that foster the communal experiences students and teachers desire a space where discourse is flexible and fluid, where the student's voice is as powerful and essential to the discourse as the teacher's voice. The challenge was how to break the online learning space free from the confining structures
of traditional face-to-face classrooms. But creating structures that support engaged discourse did not necessarily create a more communal experience, even though more communal moments did take place. From our findings, we began to reexamine our own practice to see how to deepen engagement in an online environment.

While defining the roles for engagement in online discussions and developing more effective structures to support engagement, we struggled to understand why the structures for discourse continued to be confining. Using what we discovered from our previous study, we redeveloped two courses to see if we could create a deeper online discourse. By setting up the expectations for students to have a more engaged role in the classroom and by creating structures to allow for a more open discourse, we hoped to achieve a more engaged classroom. These expectations and structures included:

? The number of times the student was required to post and respond was not prescribed;
? Students were encouraged to contribute to the list of assigned readings;
? Additional topics were suggested by the community;
? Readings were selected by small groups;
? Students were encouraged to continue discussions throughout the time of the course;
? Tangents begun by students were accepted and encouraged and a space was provided for such tangents;
? Students were expected to act as facilitators of discussions, especially where they felt confident in their own understandings;
? From this student-centered approach, the instructor became part of the community as a partner in the learning;
? The online environment became a more communal space, which allowed for more genuine discourse, which enhanced the forward movement of the content.

This shift from requirements and mandates to openness and flexibility allowed for a more engaged discourse, while the role of the teacher became less about monitoring and managing and more about engaging as a member of the learning community along with the students.

In speaking with our current students, we found that encouraging more flexible and communal approaches fostered a more authentic discourse that supported understanding of the content as well as responsibility for engagement. We agreed that defining the expectations through the lens of community rather than a traditional classroom supported them in not only understanding the content, but also created an awareness of themselves as (online) learners. One student described the experience, "I noticed that I'm paying more attention to what role I'm playing in the discussion. I have also been paying a lot of attention to the kinds of comments and questions I write so that I hopefully expand the discussion." Another student acknowledged the importance of their roles as engaged learners, and even when the discussion was lacking, this student recognized his own responsibility in promoting sustained discourse. He commented, "I would like to have focused more on ways in which administrators can effectively grow and support technology practices in their schools, but maybe I should have just steered my group's conversation that way if that was my interest." We discovered that many students began to see their role move beyond participant, and move into initiating and leading discourse. We also found that this approach had a profound impact on how the students understood the content. One student excitedly exclaimed, "This class would have probably driven me crazy without the interaction. It is very technical and in-depth, and the amount that we were able to bounce ideas off of each other and rely on each other for support was amazing!" Another student added, "I have really appreciated the conversational aspect [...]. It breaks down the technical into everyday language and provides other perspectives on concepts I am grappling with. [...]." In the implementation of this approach we have come to observe the ability of students to see themselves as the stream from which conversation starts and flows and that this perspective enhances comprehension. Our goal is to continue to expand our approach to learn how to create an online experience that fosters student engagement throughout the learning experience.