Online Discussion Groups

Online discussion groups have shown to be an effective way for students to communicate outside the classroom.  Online discussions have been linked to high amounts of student participation because the pressures of face-to-face classrooms are removed.   Feedback from students and teachers in online discussions has contributed positively to the quality of student postings.  Face-to-face discussions have also been improved through the simultaneous use of online discussion groups.  Finally, the students’ activity patterns including the frequency of participation in online discussions have contributed to the effectiveness of online discussions. 

Enhanced Student Participation

Discussion groups allow students to participate without the pressure of peers and teachers.  Studies done by English (2007), and Campbell (2007) showed students participate more often in online discussion groups because the pressures of face-to-face discussions are taken away in online environments.   Whether or not the absence of the face-to-face discussion pressures were harming to the students was not discussed. Students feel more at ease to give voice their opinions and communicate with their teachers because they can hide behind their computers.   The students are not faced with the pressures face-to-face discussions often give.   Face-to-face discussions can be intimidating because students are often required to talk on the spot in front of their teacher and peers.  This can make the students shy because they are afraid of embarrassing themselves by voicing the wrong answers in front of their teachers and peers.

 According to English’s (2007) study, threaded group discussions enhances students learning by allowing students to voice their ideas and create extensive answers and responses because the pressures of face-to-face discussions are taken off of them.  The online discussions gave the students opportunity to voice their opinions without fear of being judged by peers and teachers.  Students demonstrated more interaction with their teachers, which lead to a better learning experience for all (English, 2007). 

Another study  on student participation done by Campbell (2007) showed that ESL students participate more frequently in online discussions when compared to face-to-face discussions.  Campbell’s findings indicated the ESL students felt more comfortable in the online setting because the pressures of the face-to-face class were taken away.  Students who were naturally shy or never volunteered because of language barriers often led the discussions online (Campbell, 2007).  The student started participating in class more often after the students opened up in the online discussions.  

Threaded online discussions have shown to be an effective tool to get students to participate according to both English’s  (2007) and Campbell’s (2007) studies.  Online discussions helped students to get over their fear of participating in the classroom.  While the students did not get to fully confront their fear, they were able to work on increasing their participation because the students felt less pressure in online environments.   The students first give their opinions online which opens the door for them to start giving their opinions in face-to-face discussions.  Participation can be greatly improved through teachers’ utilization of online discussion boards. 

The Importance of Feedback

Feedback given in online group discussions has enhanced student postings according to Ertmer, Richardson, Belland, Camin, Connolly, Coulthard, Kimfong, and Mong’s (2007) and Swan’s (2002) studies.  Feedback in both Ertmer et al.’s (2007) and Swan’s (2002) studies from peers and instructors enhanced the quality of the students’ online postings.  Feedback was shown to be a positive way to improve the quality of students’ posting in online environments.

Ertmer et al.’s (2007) study revealed peer and instructor feedback allows students’ online threaded postings to reach and sustain a “high level of quality” (Ertmer et al., 2007, p. 91).  Positive feedback motivated the students to perform at higher levels of efficiency and allowed them  to “achieve higher [levels of] understanding”  (Ertmer et al., 2007, p. 78).  Students respond positively to positive feedback, which showed through their online postings.

 Swan’s (2002) study had similar findings to Ertmer et al.’s (2007) study.  Swan’s (2002) study looked at the importance of community among online discussions.  Swan’s study concluded that the support of the class as a whole in online discussions played an important role in the quality of the students’ online postings.   The more support student received from their peers and instructors the better quality of their online discussion community became (Swan, 2002). 

Feedback became an important factor in the quality of the students’ discussion postings.  Feedback motivates the students to achieve higher levels of learning and strongly improves the quality of their postings.   The more positive the feedback was the more effort students put into their online postings.  The quality of the students’ online postings was improved because of the positive feedback they received. 

Improving Face-to-Face Discussions Through the Use of Online Discussions

Online discussion sessions improved the performance of students in face-to-face lectures when used together in classes.  Two studies done by Althaus (1997) and Campbell (2004) showed online discussions improved students confidence and eventually allowed them participate in the face-to-face lectures stress free.   The face-to-face discussions were improved because students contributed more to the class as a whole by participating in the classroom.

A study done by Althaus (1997) studied a group of undergraduate students who had a class that used both face-to-face and online discussions.  The students participated more in the face-to-face discussion after having online discussions (Althaus, 1997).  This could be because the students felt more comfortable in an online environment and their discussions online broke the ice, sort of speak, for more participation in face-to-face discussion.  Similar findings were found in Campbell’s (2004) study.

Campbell (2004) studied a class with ESL students who used both face-to-face and online discussions.  ESL students are known to be shy in the classroom.   Campbell found the ESL students are more willing to participate in online discussion boards because they did not have to speak in front of the class.  Over time the ESL students opened up in the face-to-face class and began to participate on a regular basis.  The online discussion boards eased the students into eventually leading discussions in the face-to-face classroom (Campbell, 2004).  The online discussion boards motivated and increased the students self esteem, which led to increased participation in the face-to-face discussions (Campbell, 2004).

 Both Althaus’ (1997) and Campbell’s (2004) studies showed online discussions allowed students to feel comfortable with contributing to the class.  This led to the students’ participation increase inside the face-to-face classrooms.  It made the students become more involved and contributed to a higher quality classroom.  The higher participation rate inside the face-to-face classroom enhanced the quality of the face-to-face discussion.

Student Activity Patterns in Online Discussions

Seung’s (2005) and Gibbs, Simpson and Bernas’ (2008) studies looked at the students’ activity patterns and norms in online discussions.  Seung’s (2005) and Gibbs, Simpson and Bernas’ (2008) studies looked at activity patterns in different ways.  Seung’s (2005) study looked at the interactions between students and teachers.  Gibbs, Simpson and Bernas’ (2008) study looked at the patterns in days and times students participated in the online discussions.

Seung’s (2005) study looked at the interaction between student to student and student to instructor.  The rates of interaction between the students and teachers went up for one reason.  The study found that students were more actively involved in online discussions when the topic being discussed was personally related to them (Seung, 2005).  The students participated more often when the topic was more interesting to them (Seung, 2005). 

Similar to Seung’s (2005) study Gibbs, Simpson and Bernas’ (2008) study looked at activity and patterns of students in an online discussion community.  Their study focused on the amount of times and specific days and times students participated in online discussions.  Gibbs, Simpson and Bernas’ study found that students participated the most often in the middle of the week and least often on Saturdays.  The students contributed the most discussion activity during the afternoons and early evenings (Gibbs, Simpson, & Bernas, 2008). 

Both studies looked at activity patterns.  Students’ activity patterns depend on the topic and the day and time of the week.   Seung’s (2005) study showed students will participate more often in discussions where the topic is personally relevant.   Gibbs, Simpson, and Bernas’ (2008) study showed students participate most often in the middle of the week and in the afternoon and early evenings.