Showing Worked Examples in Blackboard Quizzes

I’ve been thinking of ways to include worked examples and hints in Blackboard VLE quizzes. Cognitive Load theory has something called the Worked Example effect, whereby learners who receive direct instruction in the form of worked examples perform better than those who don’t. The reason is attributed to providing novice learners with an approach to solving a problem that they can replicate, thus alleviating the working memory load while solving a problem. There’s some more on worked examples here.

The question then was how to provide a worked example (or a hint, a slightly less informative way to guide students) in Blackboard quizzes. I want to have them at the point where students can click on them as they need them, rather than having to leave the quiz and go off somewhere else to get help. I did this in this trial with Javascript buttons. The video below goes through how it looks and the mechanics of it.

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My experiences of teaching online: A case study

My paper on taking a module that was taught in class and moved online has been published in CERP (free to access). The paper aims to share my own experiences in teaching a module online so that others considering this approach might find some information of use.

The paper is set against a background of what I consider to be a general disaffection for online teaching among staff and students. This is apparent from surveys by the DRHEA—which reports that the main use of VLEs is as content repositories; the UK HEA (pdf)—where students ranked “e-learning” as the least enjoyable and least effective method of teaching; and large scale US study which reports a disappointing level of criticality in considering the effectiveness of online engagement.

The rationale for moving the module online is presented. It was found from practice that the online version of the module opened up new possibilities, especially in the domain of transferable skills. A table of learning outcomes, and how they are aligned with assessment is given. Implementation of the module online followed Gilly Salmon’s Five-Stage model, which was useful in this case because the online delivery was supported primarily by discussion boards. Notes and reflections from my experience of implementation are incorporated.

Finally, evaluation aims to capture what went well and what could be improved—both from my own perspective and that of students. One of the great benefits was observing a growing sense of independence among the students, and their ability to move beyond structured problems to being able to tackle unfamiliar ones. Some suggestions about encouraging engagement from all students are presented.

If you read it, I hope you enjoy the paper. It has certainly been an interesting module to deliver over the last number of years. The fifth version of the online delivery begins in a few weeks!

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E-learning (dis)traction

I think the start of my teaching career coincided with the rise of the VLE. Early on, I remember being told about these new learning environments and the array of tools that would help student learning. Encouraged, in the nicest possible way, to upload material and use the institution’s expensive new toy, many lecturers complied and uploaded course materials, support papers, practice questions and so on. In this ideal world, the students couldn’t have had more learning resources at their fingertips. Learning was going to happen.

In reality, this has not been the case. The DRHEA e-learning audit (2009) reveals some disappointing figures across the Dublin region. Students regularly log into their VLE, but mostly access it to access course materials (lecture notes). This makes VLEs a very expensive version of Dropbox or other online repository.

This is also reflected in the UK. In my own subject (chemistry) and in physics, the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre review of student learning experience showed that e-learning came bottom of the pile when students were asked to say which teaching method was most effective and most enjoyable.

A Distraction

For most lecturers, e-learning is not part of their day to day practice, perhaps because of lack of confidence, probably because of lack of awareness. Mention e-learning, and the discussion quickly moves to whether to use PowerPoint and whether those notes should go online.There may also be subtle fears of replacement – that if learning can happen online, perhaps it can happen without lecturers at all! (Of course, anyone who has taught online knows the truth here!). And as the DRHEA survey shows, if academics engage with the VLE, it tends to be in the form of mimicking what they do in lectures, rather than supporting what is done in lectures.

Institutions, bless them, are concerned with e-learning from a perspective of usage and branding – how does their toy compare with next door. There have also been subtle and not so subtle undertones about how e-learning can provide cost-savings in the future, which is a naive viewpoint. Institutions need to be protected from themselves. If, as a community, we don’t consider valuable uses for incorporating into our practice, institutions will want to fill the vacuum, just as was done previously with pushing content online. Lecture capture, a spectacular waste of tax-payers money, is looming large and is already catching on in the UK. It looks good, makes for good PR and students “love” it. The fact that there is little or no evidence to show that it helps with learning is disregarded. As a community of educators, we should be concerned about this “innovation” being pushed on us [I recommend reading this for a fuller discussion of lecture capture]

Students, well bless them too. Students are clever, articulate, funny and they are our future. But they are also sometimes a bit stupid. Students will always want more – more notes online, more resources, more quizzes, self-study questions, more more and more! In the relaxed days several months before exams, they mean well and plan to engage with all of this material. But all the evidence points to the fact that students rarely engage with the material until it is too late, just before exams. At this stage, they find the nature of the content, often not even re-purposed for an online environment (substitution of what they have rather than supplemental to help them understand what they have), useless for their learning.

Finally, we have my very good friends, the learning development officers, who try various strategies, sometimes against all the odds, to assist lecturers in incorporating e-learning into their teaching. Locally, their help has been of great value to me, but reading about e-learning on blogs and on The Twitter Machine, there is a sense that the ideas and conversations within the learning development community does not reflect what is happening on the ground. There is perhaps a false sense of advancement, buffered from the great unwashed of PowerPoint debaters by early adopters and innovations in the literature. This can lead to a disconnect in language – acronyms, gadgets and tech jargon which results in the lack of confidence among lecturers who may wish to change. The term “learning technologist” does not help, as it immediately imposes a (false) divide between learning and e-learning.

Gaining traction?

So, what to do? The high participation rates in VLEs indicate that this is a place where learning opportunities can be provided. Students are hungry to engage, if material is there. One of my favourite authors in the literature on e-learning for practitioners is Gilly Salmon (Gill-e-Salmon?). A core component of her approach is for practitioners to ask themselves: “What is the pedagogic rationale for implementing any proposed change?“. I think  this is a very powerful position – it speaks in language all perspectives can understand, or at least appreciate (institutions I am looking at you). Lecturers, identifying problems or issues in some teaching practices can consider how to integrate a change, perhaps harnessing technology, into their teaching. Because there is a need; an underlying rationale even; the implementation has a value and a role to play in the module delivery. Lecturers may refer to it, and better still integrate it into their class work. Students are now presented with specific, often bespoke learning materials with specific purpose of supporting their learning at a particular stage of their learning in the module. Instead of just representing lecture information all over again, there is a reason at particular stages in the module, to interact with these reasons – they have a value. Learning development officers can offer their considerable expertise in supporting lecturers in developing the resources, so that they are fit for a purpose. And institutions are happy because students are happy and access statistics look good. In our own work here at DIT, we have enjoyed some success at the micro-level employing this approach – moving away from mass content upload (“shovelware”) towards specific learning resources tailored for and incorporated into specific modules. It takes time and is harder work, but the value of what is produced is greater for all.

Now, I feel better after that.

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Teaching Fellowship Launch Presentation

The DIT 2010-2011 Teaching Fellowships were launched on 23rd September 2010, and each recipient of a Fellowship gave a presentation on the work they plan to do. It was really nice to see what others plan to do; there was a lot of variety and a lot of overlap at the same time. My presentation – the main thrust of which was summarised in another post – is embedded below. All of the presentations can be viewed from the LTTC website.

embedded by Embedded Video

The video is streamed from the HEAnet server using the Embedded Video plugin (for the information of any WordPress junkies out there).

Alternative gathering of Fellowship (image credit):

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Class Websites using Google Sites and Podcasting with Audacity

This presentation is a screencast of a presentation to be presented at Chem Ed Ireland 2010. It covers:

  • what uses class websites might have
  • overview of setting up Google Sites
  • Example of a chemistry class website on Google Sites
  • Uses for podcasting in education
  • Overview of Audacity

This handout accompanies the presentation. Lots more information on setting up a class website using Google Sites is available at the Becoming an eTeacher Resource. Module 5 of this resource focusses on podcasting using Audacity. Some other links are given below.


Becoming an eTeacher – Five module resource on setting up and populating Google Sites for class work

RHS CP chemistry – Example of a class website for chemistry

Sounds Good Project – resources on using audio for feedback and assessment

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PreLecture Resources: Literature Examples

This post provides some short annotations to literature involving prelecture resources/activities – the annotations are a brief summary rather than a commentary:

  1. Online Discussion Assignments Improve Students’ Class Preparation, Teaching of Psychology, 2010, 37(2), 204-209: Lecturer used pre-lecture discussion activities to encourage students to read text before attending class. It had no direct influence on examination results but students reported that they felt they understood the material better and that they felt more prepared for exams.
  2. Using multimedia modules to better prepare students for introductory physics lecture, Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 2010, 6(1), 010108: Authors introduce multimedia learning modules (MLMs) which are pre-lecture web-based resources which are awarded credit to incentivize usage. Authors mention one of the reasons as being to reduce the cognitive load in lectures. The total time required for each pre-lecture was about 15 mins, and they covered most of what was coming up in the lecture itself. the authors argue by presenting exam scores, etc, that the prelecture resources increased students’ understanding of a topic before coming to the lecture, measured by post-prelecture-but-before-lecture questions, and will present in a subsequent paper how the lecture experience changed because of the introduction of these resources. (T. Stelzer, D. T. Brookes, G. Gladding, and J. P. Mestre, Comparing the efficacy of multimedia modules with traditional textbooks for learning introductory physics content. Am. J. Phys.). The authors provide a link to examples of their prelecture resources (Flash resource).
  3. Benefits of prelecture quizzes, Teaching of Psychology, 2006, 33(2), 109 – 112: Tests the use of pre-lecture quizzes and found that students felt that lectures were more organised, felt better prepared for exams, and performed better on essay questions when compared to students who had not completed pre-lecture quizzes.
  4. Student-Centered Learning: A Comparison of Two Different Methods of Instruction, Journal of Chemical Education, 2004, 81(7), 985 – 988: Lecturer introduced pre-lecture quizzes to facilitate just in time teaching – teaching based on student misunderstandings/difficulties identified just prior to the lecture. The students took the approach seriously as they were given some credit for it. the approach was considered successful by staff and students in the programme.
  5. From the Textbook to the Lecture: Improving Prelecture Preparation in Organic Chemistry, Journal of Chemical Education, 2002, 79(4), 520 – 523: This paper describes attempts to encourage students to prepare for lectures. The authors argue that engagement with the textbook results in more active learning by students. Pre-lecture activities (“HWebs”) were to be completed by students prior to each lecture, and were based on the content of that lecture. The lecture itself remained relatively unchanged. The analysis found that student performance on HWebs correlated with their end of semester grade. While students generally liked the material, the felt that the system penalized them for being incorrect on material they had not yet been taught. Students did generally agree that use of the HWebs helped them understand the material in lectures. and the lecturers found that the nature of the lecture did gradually evolve to more explanation and discussion.
  6. Preparing the mind of the learner, University Chemistry Education, 1999, 3, 43: This paper uses examination statistics to demonstrate the effectiveness of pre-lectures, with a particular effect noted for students who did not have a strong background in chemistry. The pre-lecture is defined as an activity prior to block of lectures aimed at either stimulting the prior knnowledge that may be present but inaccessible/forgotten and/or to establish the essential background knowledge so that learning takes place on a solid foundation. The students involves were in a year 1 of 4 (Scottish) degree and included those who had to take chemistry in their first year as well as those who were pursuing a chemistry degree, and students with a low level of prior knowledge were enrolled on the module. The pre-lecture took the form of a short quiz at the start of the pre-lecture, which students marked themselves, followed by the class breaking into groups comprised of a mixture of self-designated “needing help” and “willing to help”.The remainder of the pre-lecture activity allowed for the group to work through activities. The evaluation took the form of comparing the exam results of students in this group (who had little or no chemistry) and the students in the group that did not have pre-lectures but had a good level of chemistry knowledge. The results demonstrated that there was a significant difference between these groups in the years that pe-lectures were not offered, but not in the years pre-lectures were offered. A range of confounding factors, including mathematics knowledge were examined and found not to affect the results. The results are surprising, given that the students without pre-lectures received approximately 10% more teaching time as this was the time given over to the pre-lectures for the group that had them.
  7. Preparing the mind of the learner – part 2, University Chemistry Education,2001, 5, 52: This second paper from the Centre for Science Education on this topic. Based on the evidence from the first study on the benefits of pre-lectures, this work looks at the development and implementation of “Chemorganisers”. These aimed to enable the preparation of students for their lecture course, ease the load on the working memory space and change students’ attitudes towards learning. The structure and purpose of Chemorganiser design is explained in detail, along with an example. Evaluation was carried out by comparing the exam marks between the two groups described in the previous paper. In the year Chemorganisers were instigated, this difference was insignificant.
  8. Developing Study Skills in the Context of the General Chemistry Course: The Prelecture Assignment, Journal of Chemical Education, 1985, 62(6) 509-510: This short paper reports on the inclusion of using instructional activities during a lecture course to allow students develop study habits.Students are asked to read a section of a text book prior to the lecture and are asked questions at the start of the lecture. Evaluation took the form of student survey, who said that they liked the pre-lecture assignments and that it encouraged in-class discussion.

Image Credit

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Supporting Virtual Communities: Reflection on Module

As we complete the Supporting Virtual Communities module, we are asked to reflect on our learning during the module, by replying to some of a range of prompts given. Two prompts are considered in this report: “The Muddiest Point” and “To the Future”. While they draw on different aspects of the module activities and my own learning, they focus on my main interest in e-learning – namely the facilitation of discussion boards. References marked with an asterisk are ones that are new to me and I have included them in my annotated bibliography.

The Muddiest Point

Why do we interact online?” This was the question posed by White (2002*) who argues that pre-planning of interaction spaces online is important to identify the tools and expectation of what is wanted from an online space. I’m not convinced the large majority of e-tutors (including myself!) know what exactly to do with discussion boards (hence I am doing this module!). It was an issue that arose from one of our scenario activities in the Supporting Virtual Communities (SVC) module, when we were asked to consider the time we spent online for the module. In response to this, I posted the following:

…what do we want the discussion board for? If it’s a support mechanism, well then it’s probably fine to have non-critical messages… But if we want to use them to encourage discussion, and the zone of proximal development et al, … the only way is to link it in with assessment. My worry there is that if you do this, do you discourage discussion at a trivial but useful level. As an example, if you [module tutor] had said, I want anything you post to be backed up by a reference/example from literature. That would no doubt enhance the apparent criticality of the discussion posts, but very much reduce the volume. [25 May 2010]

Learner-learner interaction is an important aspect of distance education, along with learner-content and learner-tutor interactions (Moore, 1993, pp 20 – 22). I have written before (Seery, 2010) about some problems I see arising out of discussion boards, citing the work of Angeli et al (2003) and Kanuka (2005) who examined the contributions to discussion boards by both students and tutors and found that in general the level of discussion was low. However, I tended to lay the blame at the door of technology, or see assessment as a key to encouraging participation. In the discussions in this module, an interesting reference to a subsequent paper by Kanuka (Clarke and Kanuka, 2007*) was highlighted. This identifies three barriers to critical discourse – a confusion or lack of clarity on the nature and purpose of discussion posts; critiques of other posts were considered an attack and time constraints. The work suggests using highly structured activities to encourage critical discussion. The scenario-based activity in the SVC module was structured so that while it required reflective posts, based on a consideration of one’s own approach to scenarios, it also required that we respond to others’ contribution – hence encouraging dialogical interactions (Pena-Shaff and Nicholls, 2004*). Reviewing my posts on the scenario based activity (which was highly structured), I felt I engaged in a meaningful dialogue with others and learned a lot from their contributions to my posts.

Clarke and Kanuka (2007) also found that students in their study found use for the discussion board beyond critical discussion. Like the students in their study, I found that discussion posting and engaging in others postings helped clarify my own thoughts on an issue. I posted this when reflecting on the use of discussion boards:

…With a discussion post, you have to commit to something – clearly (and concisely) outline your case. It’s there, then for all to see, so you tend to read it through others eyes more than you might if it was just a notion in your mind. [5 June 2010]

A thought-provoking response to my post about discussion boards from a classmate argued that discussion boards had a role in aligning module delivery with Salmon’s five-stage model (Salmon, 2002) – in particular that it had a role in the knowledge sharing and construction phases, but perhaps was limited in the in-depth analysis (stage 5) of peer’s work. I think this resonates a lot with what White, Rourke and Kanuka (and indeed Salmon herself) have written about, as discussed in the preceding paragraphs. The pre-planning of what we intend to use discussion boards for, and the subsequent structuring of activities and support around these plans, mean that the potential is there to use them effectively in the later stages of Salmon’s five-stage model.

Finally, the situation I found myself in as a participant on the SVC module was one where I knew my classmates well from other modules and had built a good rapport. I wondered about the importance of this rapport in the determining the nature of the group’s interactions, in a reflective post to the boards:

…for an online module where participants did not know each other, I wonder if some sort of induction/initial exercise would be required to develop this level of trust and awareness of each other – so that they will seriously consider opinions posted in the process of  challenging their own. [5 June 2010]

In Rourke and Kanuka’s study (2007), they describe a participant who at the start of the module explicitly invited other participants “to feel free to critique her work” (p. 119) so that they could all learn, but as the module proceeded, only three of her 97 contributions involved a disagreement with someone else’s post. Another participant who himself did demonstrate critique in his postings also explicitly requested that people change from a “tone of politeness” (p. 120). Reflecting on my own contributions to the discussion boards, I felt comfortable in making comments/disagreements where I wanted to because I knew the class members well from face-to-face discussions, and when they made their contributions, I could almost imagine their non-verbal interactions from the classroom! Therefore I think for a module where participants do not know each other, early structured activities (perhaps organized around induction) prompting responses from participants, perhaps led and demonstrated by the tutor would be useful to break the ice a little on demonstrating how to offer a counter-opinion without the worry of offending other class mates.

To the Future

The question for me now is what can I take from this learning for input into my own practice as a teacher? Considering the range of activities and reflections from the module, I can draw out three themes.

The first builds on the concept of structured activities discussed above. I think there is a great deal of merit in using suitable structured activities, for example in a problem- or context-based scenario. A specific example would be present a scenario involving an analysis in a module I teach which covers a wide range of techniques, asking students to provide a response to how they would approach an analysis, and comment on others responses in a guided peer-review. This concept has been used in the MyExamopedia site (MyExamopedia, nd), which aims to help students structure their exam answers, although I would direct this discussion towards a more general concept of building an awareness of critical analysis, rather than specifically for exam questions (although I recognize that exam question work is a great motivator for students).

The second theme is to use the online interactions and discussion to better prepare learners for in-class activity. Dietz-Uhler and Bishop-Clarke (2001*) describe a study where students were given assigned reading to discuss, with some students having an online discussion prior to the in-class discussion and others who did not. They found that the students who had the online discussion prior to the in-class discussion had a greater range of perspectives and enjoyed the face-to-face activity more than students who just had the face-to-face discussion. I think this method points to a useful aspect of discussion boards – providing learners with a range of learning styles more time and opportunity to discuss issue relevant to their learning than a purely face-to-face session might allow for.

A sub-component of the second theme draws from my experience from my involvement in the group activity in the SVC module. This demonstrated that even very experienced learners can lose direction in a collaborative group project. Reflecting on the activity in my blog, I posted this:

When we give our own students group presentations to do, I am disappointed in cases where a group break a presentation into three parts, each member take a bit to work on and then marry it together at the end just before the presentation, the glue of the uniform theme of Powerpoint still wet. It looks like three pieces and it sounds like three pieces – with little internal reference to each other, and possibly in the worst cases little knowledge of each others’ contribution. But having completed an assignment in this way in our own group, I can see how easily it is done. [24 May 2010]

Students need very detailed guidance and scaffolding if they are to really engage with each other in developing a group project (rather than cooperating to produce a product). The same arguments for encouraging critical discussion would appear to apply here – students need guided structured activities to guide them through the process of group work. I think an online discussion space would prove invaluable in this regard.

Finally, the overall message from several aspects of the SVC module was that online work requires more pre-planning than equivalent in-class activity with the instructor shifting from the role as content provider to facilitator (DeVries and Lim, 2003*). Because interaction by students with the materials is asynchronous and can happen at any time, and the scope of materials is much broader as students can access information on the internet, the tutor cannot hope to be an expert in every aspect of what students may bring up, but move to a position whereby students can be guided through such material. In this regard, online tutoring is generally more demanding on tutors time than in-class work (Mandernach, Dailey-Hebert and Donnelli-Sallee, 2007*).

As I polish off the last of my assignments for the first year of the MSc, I ask now: am I ready to become an e-Teacher? At times there is a bewildering array of information, often conflicting about what works and does not work. In our final debate, the motion “it is straightforward to teach online – if you are a good teacher in the classroom, you can be a good one online too!” I agreed, against initial general consensus, with this motion. When we think of online teaching, we tend to think of the gadgets and tools and swirly diagrams (well maybe not those). At the heart of good face to face teaching is a motivated tutor, who wants to create a dynamic learning environment whereby students can feel free to ask and discuss materials made available in a structured, engaging manner as pre-prepared by the teacher. But the lesson I have taken from this module especially and the year as a whole is, these are at heart the same qualities of a good online teacher too.

References (references marked with an * are included in the annotated bibliography)

Angeli, C., Valanides, N. and Bonk, C.J. (2003) Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34(1), 31 – 43

*DeVries, J. and Lim, G. (2003) Significance of Online Teaching vs. Face-to-Face: Similarities and Difference, E-LEARN 2003, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, November 7-11, 2003.[PDF at]

*Dietz-Uhler, B. and Bishop-Clarke, C. (2001) The use of computer-mediated communication to enhance subsequent face-to-face discussions, Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 269–283.

Kanuka, H. (2005) An exploration into facilitating higher levels of learning in a text-based internet learning environment using diverse instructional strategies, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(3), article 8.

Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

Moore, M. (1993) Three Types of Interaction in Distance Education: New Perspectives, eds. Harry, K.,  Hohn, M. and Keegan, D., London: Routledge.

MyExamopedia (nd) (June 2010).

*Pena-Shaff, J. B. and Nicholls, C. (2004) Analyzing student interactions and meaning construction in computer bulletin board discussions, Computers and Education, 42, 243 – 265.

*Rourke, L. and Kanuka, H. (2007) Barriers to online critical discourse, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2, 105–126.

Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: the key to active online learning, RoutledgeFalmer: London.

Seery, M. (2010) Interacting Online – problems arising out of discussion boards, (blog post) (June 2010)

*White, N. (2002) Defining the purpose of your community, (June 2010)

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Supporting Discussion Boards – Some Literature

The following is an annotated bibliography for the Reflection on Learning post for the module Supporting Virtual Communities. Links to references are available at:

  • DeVries, J. and Lim, G. (2003) Significance of Online Teaching vs. Face-to-Face: Similarities and Difference, E-LEARN 2003, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, November 7-11, 2003. [PDF at]

This conference paper compares face-to-face teaching with online teaching and notes many similarities. Some strategies for encouraging learner-learner interactions, which the authors discuss as a very important interaction in online learning, are outlined – including pairing/grouping new learners to seed discussions and build on these to generate discussions to the group. The role of the instructor is to provide guidelines and guidance, and weave the discussions to keep them focussed. While the paper lacks an element of criticality, it is a useful guide and “call to arms” reassuring lecturers new to an online environment that they already have a lot of skills in their repository to approach online teaching.

  • Dietz-Uhler, B. and Bishop-Clarke, C. (2001) The use of computer-mediated communication to enhance subsequent face-to-face discussions, Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 269–283.

This paper explores the value of online discussion and/or chat prior to an in-class activity by using a quantitative experimental study, where some of the class do not interact online prior to a discussion, and others do. The work is in the context of social psychology, and the impacts of this on the nature of social communication – for example, that individuals communicating online feel less inhibited. Students were required to read a short article. Two groups communicated online (one chat, one discussion board) and one did not communicate prior to the class discussion. While no difference between the two online groups were observed, when these groups entered the face-to-face component of the activity, they felt more confident, got more enjoyment and were able to discuss several different perspectives when compared to the group who only discussed the article face-to-face. The authors argue that this method could be useful for improving in-class discussions.

  • Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

This paper aims to determine the time involvement in facilitating an online module (rather than developing). Courses from a wide range of disciplines were studied.  They foud that instructors logged in on average 5.46 days a week, consisting of an total online time of 3.12 hours in the weekly period. The authors argue that while this is less than the equivalent the instructors would be spending in class, these interactions are over and above the learning students are engaging with through the online materials. In addition, while the weekly interaction (5.46 days) appears to correlate with a “face-to-face week”, the tracking noted that instructors logged in over the seven days, resulting in a significant shift in workload for instructors. The paper therefore provides some useful data to the debate about equivalence of face-to-face and online teaching.

  • Pena-Shaff, J. B. and Nicholls, C. (2004) Analyzing student interactions and meaning construction in computer bulletin board discussions, Computers and Education, 42, 243 – 265.

This paper provides an analysis of knowledge construction of student posts in an online module, in the context of the alignment of computer conferencing with social constructivist theory. The results show interesting finding on the timing and contributions of posts, including a higher proportion of posts at the beginning of the module, and replies to posts after a week tended to get no subsequent reply. Knowledge construction for students involved clarification, and elaboration, with students tending to post “reflective” rather than “dialogical” posts. The work provides some interesting things to consider in scaffolding critical discussions – structured activities are recommended to encourage dialogical as well as reflective postings, along with clear objectives for the discussion based activities.

  • Rourke, L. and Kanuka, H. (2007) Barriers to online critical discourse, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2, 105–126.

This paper examines the level of critical discourse observed between students in a fully online graduate humanities course. It includes a useful literature review on the scope and rationale for encouraging online discussion. In line with previous work, they found that there was little evidence of critical discussion observed on the discussion boards. This was attributed to three reasons.

The first was that the students had “competing orientations” towards contributions to the discussion boards. Only one of the five students interviewed incorporated any level of criticality – evidenced by referring to others posts, to literature, presenting an argument based on these, etc. Second, critiques of others’ posts were interpreted as attacks by the students concerned. Thirdly, the time limitations of the students mitigated against making contributions that they would have otherwise made. In addition, some participants felt reluctant to post a critique of others comments where they felt the other had more time to read prescribed texts.

The paper notes that the students found positive outcomes from contributing in discussion boards, even though their contributions were not critical in nature. These included clarifying thoughts on writing, relieved isolation and stayed on schedule with tasks. However, the authors point to work that demonstrates that a higher level of critical discourse is observed when students are given highly structured activities.

This essay prompts the consideration of the purpose of online interaction, giving several ideas for consideration – the intent for the group interactions, the target audience, the type of interactions, the time frame and the guidelines and governance. She argues that these are some considerations that should be developed prior to delivery of an online module and consequently matched with the tools (discussion board, chat room, etc). I would have added here for a learning perspective, that the assessment and activities would also be matched in with the purpose of the discussion boards.

Photo Credit

Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

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E-moderating: Reflection

In the third week of the supporting virtual communities module, we were given a range of scenarios, and asked to outline what our response to the scenario would be. It was a very interesting and engaging activity, and through posting my own thoughts, reading others and reading replies to mine, a lot of issues got teased out during the week.

The Lurker

The first scenario asked us to compose a brief message that we would send to a student who had not yet made a contribution to the discussion board. My response is posted below. Some points I tried to address in my response (which was really guided by Salmon (2004))  were ensuring that the student (“Jack”)  was aware of the pace of the module and that he could be left behind as well as providing practical suggestions about how he might contribute, perhaps guided in some way by any interests that Jack may be known to have. I was a little surprised to my peers’ response to this message, which I thought was quite good!! Their feeling was that I was too formal (using “Dear” instead of “Hi”), and was sending this email without being aware of why the student had not contributed.

Dear Jack,

We are near the end of week 1 and I would encourage you to contribute your response to the 1st week’s task. As you will note from the course outline, there is a lot of material to discuss over the coming weeks, and it is easy to get lost if you don’t regularly contribute.

In contributing your first message, you might approach it by answering one of the following questions:

  • Did you agree with Jill when she said…
  • Why do you think we need to use a system suggested by Mary?
  • Fo you agree with the proposal made by James when he said…?

If you are having technical difficulties, please email me or telephone me, details below.


An interesting discussion ensued, around whether a tutor should be formal, informal, friendly, professional or a mix of all. I concluded that while I would certainly be much more informal in a face-to-face session, my style of writing is naturally more formal. However, a lot of my peers opened their reply with statements like “I know you must be finding it very busy, because I am too” or “I know the technology is difficult, I found that too”. If these statements are not true, I fundamentally disagree with using them – they are in a sense self-deprecating the tutor unnecessarily to put the student at ease. In the overall, very excellent, scenario feedback, our module tutor mentioned that online module requires a lot more thought about pre-planning and support. Therefore if the module workload has been well planned and formal support mechanisms are in place, then there should be no reason why Jack cannot contribute, or at least contact the tutor to request support. Self-deprecating comments, while well intentioned, can result in a lowering of the bar of expectations by giving learners an opt-out (“well the technology is difficult”). This concept was considered (understandably) pessimistic by some of my peers, but I do think for learners that are not highly motivated, a path of least resistance is often more attractive. However, with that in mind, a consideration of the type of lurkers is worthwhile.

It is worthwhile considering the types of 'lurkers' before considering a response to prompt input (Photo Credit at end)

Types of Lurkers

Salmon (again!) mentions three types of lurkers:

  • free-loader – someone who just reads posts and doesn’t contribute back
  • sponge – someone who learns a lot from discussion but is reluctant to give back because they feel they don’t know enough
  • lurker with skill/access problems – people who want to reply but can’t

Admittedly my response to Jack probably considered that he was in the first category, with a nod to the fact that he might be in the third. I think the scaffolding questions to stimulate a response do deal with freeloaders/sponges. But after this scenario, I will probably keep my formality a little more in check, especially for learners who I do not know face to face. However, the difficulty here, and one to tease out in future, is the level and nature of boundaries between tutor and student. Again, in the feedback we received on the session, the tutor asks us to consider the nature of the tutor in the discussion board – as a co-student; a guide, offer different approaches, etc. This comes back to the issue of pre-planning the module in advance, and the role of the tutor. I think this can depend on the nature of the module and the students.

“I’ve posted”, where’s my reply?

A second scenario we considered was one where a student, John, had posted a statement complaining that when he posted, people did not reply, and by the time they did the topic had moved on. I didn’t post a formal response to this, as John’s tone annoyed me too much! However, I followed peers responses, and some issues started to get teased out. John could have been having a bad day, could be highly motivated and frustrated that others are not, and so on. But stepping back, it begs the question, what are discussion boards for? If it is a space to consider and develop thoughts with others, it is useful. A great paper by Angeli and Bonk found that most posts to discussion boards in a module they studied where usually a low level of learning or acknowledgement, both on the part of tutor and students. Therefore, if a module is using the discussion board as a place for creation and dialogue, this needs to be formally built into the course design, along with the expectations of students to interact. If it is, and explicitly so, poor old John might get a reply to his posts sooner. A caveat is that John could be posting very long posts, and wanting to know what others think of his opinion, rather than engage with others. In this case, John might be encouraged to shorten posts to one point, or if something is a fluid discussion, a move into synchronous chat may be more appropriate.

Angeli, C., Valanides, N. and Bonk, C.J. (2003) Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34(1), 31 – 43

Salmon, G. (2004) E-Moderating, The Key to Teaching and Learning Online, 2nd Ed., Kogan Press: London.

Photo Credit

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Interacting Online – problems arising out of discussion boards

I wanted to post some thoughts on the use of discussion boards in VLEs – both from the perspective as a learner and as a tutor. My impetus is that if online learning is to be truly beneficial in place of in-class learning, interactivity is the core driver. Discussion boards are fantastic in this regard, but I have come across some problems in recent usage.

Discussion boards architecture

Discussion boards are a useful locus for interaction between peers and between tutor and learners. In my role as tutor, I feel I have used them well in terms of providing students with support, and allowing them freedom to interact with each other in discussion materials. this is mindful of work by people like Angeli and Kanuka, who have written some nice critical overviews of academics’ uses of discussion boards with their students. Angeli talks about “levels” of interaction on the part of tutor – from very basic (confirmations or acknowledgement) to advanced (getting students to tease out their understanding) – see table below. Kanuka reports on a large scale survey of use of discussion boards in the US, reporting that their potential is underused.

Levels of engagement in discussion boards

As a student on the MSc (E-learning) course, the discussion board is a useful portal to keep in touch with peers as I am out of class for the first five weeks. I am involved in two module boards – a general course one and a specific one on academic writing, where we are expected to develop group responses to academic articles. In the former case, the board started off with a rush – lots of useful exchange of ideas. This died off after a week, and I am wondering why (apart from the obvious factor that nobody had any more to say!)

One element may be the architecture of the board itself, and it worth considering how this may be optimised. The arrangement is similar to one I use myself – different discussion topics for different sections of the course. As a tutor, this makes perfect sense; discussion posts relevant to particular topics are in appropriate sections. The problem I find as a student is that when logging into the VLE, new posts are displayed. One can read these as a group (i.e. not specific to section topics), but it is not possible flag them. So if there is no time to post a response at that point, it is difficult to remember (or indeed find) the post at a later stage when there is time to reply. The VLE (webcourses (a WebCT-Blackboard hybrid) is primarily to blame in this instance I think – as the discussion board options (flagging, subscribing to threads, email alerts, etc) are very limited compared to standard open discussion fora. The point about ease of finding posts is relevant, as according to Salmon (2000), many posts are composed off-line – i.e. people wish to give consideration to what they write. This is especially important where students are expected to back up what they say with literature, which may take off-line time.

MacDonald discusses forums, wikis and blogs as means of asynchronous supports MacDonald, 2008, Ch 6). While outlining the usual ideas of facilitating group interaction by means of activities, using assessment etc, I don’t see anything on good practice regarding the architecture of the board itself. (There is an interesting statistic that 1/5 of a group will be active contributors, which I think bears out in my experience).

Group Work via discussion boards

A second consideration is how well discussion boards support group work. As part of a module on writing and disseminating research, where group responses are required on academic papers, I have found it a poor substitute to a wiki. The problem with using a discussion board is that while it allows individual students to post their thoughts, which are often very insightful for others to read, the process of the group is not facilitated, as the editing and compiling of individual responses is done off line, by one or more nominated members of the group. In addition, because of the many statements into one approach of discussion board group work, various members may take different strategies to what they believe the final product should be (e.g. visual rather than text) and then be disappointed if their ideas were not included in the final distillation. A wiki allows all members of the group equal hierarchy, as all members can edit. (MacDonald (2008) does report that their are issues around members being reluctant to edit other’s work, which is something I have heard about at a recent Edtech conference too.) The democracy of a wiki (which is inherent with problems of course!) is a strength in the regard of ensuring everyone has equal contribution. So there it is – discussion boards are anti-democratic!

As a tutor, I have not used discussion boards to support group work, only for peer-peer support and posting of individual work, so I can’t comment on my perspective in that regard.


Angeli, C., Valanides, N. and Bonk, C.J. (2003) Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34(1), 31 – 43

Kanuka, H. (2005) An exploration into facilitating higher levels of learning in a text-based internet learning environment using diverse instructional strategies, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(3), article 8.

MacDonald, J. (2008) Blended Learning and Online Tutoring, Gower: Aldershot.

Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online, Routledge Falmer: London.

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