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Fostering participatory engagement within discussion boards for online students in HE

03 Jun 2021 | Ameena Payne Ameena Payne, eLearning Advisor at Swinburne University of Technology, shares five strategies to build engaging, sustainable learning conversations within discussion forums that are abundant with collaborative inquiry, dialogue and sharing of personal learning experiences for online students in higher education.

An extract from A Resource for E-Moderators on Fostering Participatory Engagement Within Discussion Boards for Online Students in Higher Education, first published from the open access journal Student Success ISSN 2205-0795 on 15 March 2021

Strategy #1 Use media

Using media meaningfully may pique students' interest and reduces the heavy use of text. There are many tools that can be used to integrate media, a selection of these are: Canva, Powtoon, video or audio recordings, GIPHY and Unsplash. This does not mean that we need to apply a radical shift to using audio/video, memes, emojis, and GIFs as a means  of  scholarly  communication.  Instead, we  should  use  multi-media  in  illustrative  and  organisational  ways  to  gain students’ attention and to add visual appeal. The goal is the modification of instruction and content to generate greater engagement.

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Strategy #2 Affiliative humour and storytelling

We all have a unique story to tell. When online instructors incorporate storytelling and “affiliative humour” (Pundt & Herrmann, 2015), rapport  can  be  more  rapidly  built.  Personal narratives  establish  human  connection  which  students  can  more  deeply appreciate.

Dialogue is crucial to the student experience. Storytelling should incorporate personal or professional experiences that align to concepts being taught. A personal, engaging and conversational tone initiated by the unit facilitator may assist students in better understanding the content as there is a likelihood that less academic jargon is used. I like  to  incorporate  such  video  dialogue  as  mid-week  discussion  board  prompts;  I  integrate  my  own  personal/professional experiences with the weekly content. By contextualising the content within my own lived experiences, I strive to demonstrate “teacher immediacy” (Anderson, 1979, p. 544 as cited in Rourke et al., 2001, p. 5). Engaging in eye contact, embracing a relaxed body posture, motioning and smiling improves students’ affect toward course content and toward their e-moderator (Rouke et al., 2001).

Strategy #3 Socratic questioning

The  Socratic  approach  to  questioning  is  based  on  intellectual,  introspective  dialogue;  the  early Greek  philosopher/teacher, Socrates, believed that thoughtful questioning enabled the student to examine ideas rationally (Payne, 2021). Socratic  questioning  encourages  student  agency  and  self-regulated  learning.

Some  of  my  most  employed Socratic  question  types  are  questions  about  an  initial  issue,  clarification  questions,  reason  and evidence questions, origin/source questions, and viewpoint questions. Within my discussion forums, this kind of querying has promoted peer-interaction as well as independent thinking and strives to encourage student ownership of the learning process (Intel, 2007).

Strategy #4 Reframes

It is  the  role  of  the  unit  facilitator  to  guide  students  in  discussions  involving  effective  summarising of  formative  and/or summative  activities (Salmon,  2011).  I  plan  out  meaningful  reframes  (introductory  posts)  each  week  that  guide  the  student through the formative activity. Reframes serve to motivate students to connect with the discussion activity.

Reframes  aim  to  reproduce  the  material  in  a  shortened  form,  picking  out  the  main  points  and  posing  a  discussable  prompt (Salmon, 2011). A discussion activity asked students to watch a video and read prescribed literature regarding the key topic  of  modern  relationships  in  Australian  society.  Students  were  then  requested  to  post  their  perspective,  backed  up  with scholarly evidence, on whether dating applications were of benefit or detriment to relationships. One aim was for students to able to actively explore the topic and provide a range of potentially divergent but informed viewpoints from several different perspectives.

Strategy #5 Weaving

A weave is a discussion board post which acknowledges student contributions and earlier discourses (mentioning students by name), expanding upon the  conversation through Socratic questioning and prompting students to engage with their peers to learning and establish a sense of community. “Weaves seek opportunities to add value to participants contributions” (Salmon, 2011, p. 207). Where appropriate, weaves can and should incorporate relevant and/or witty multi-media such as GIFs, memes or other images, audio or video.

Respond and adapt

It is vital  to be  responsive  and adaptable  to students. Dewey (1997) advocated for empowering students by honouring their experiences. It is equally important to maintain a strong visual presence on the forums. E-moderators should strive to provide group and individual responses where appropriate. We should demonstrate a continuous stream of communication and provide timely and detailed responses (Jarvenpaa et al., 1998). In my experience I believe that e-moderators should aim to post in their forums at least every 48 hours (even if there is little active engagement).

Online educators should establish the kinds of dynamic and supportive discussion forums that are unsupported through didactic and  pedantic  instruction.  The  creation  of  engaging,  high  trust  spaces  that  are  rich  with  optimism,  excitement,  interactivity, continuous streams of communication, rapid and thorough responses, and two-way dialogue facilitate and enrich the learning process.

The student discussion board learning experience should encourage participation and connections – both between experiences, content and with peers. Ultimately, we want to have students who are engaged and supported in their learning, leading to successful outcomes in their chosen units. This aims to feed into student retention, advancement and ultimately successful completion of a tertiary qualification.

Ameena is conducting an interactive workshop, Embedding presence and participatory engagement within discussion boards for online students in higher education: a workshop for e-moderators at the Advance HE Curriculum Symposium on 8 June.

Ameena Leah Payne is an educator within the disciplines of education and business in vocational and higher education. She holds a Graduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching (Higher Education), Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, Diploma of Project Management and a Certificate IV in Training & Assessment. She is currently pursuing her Master of Education (Research Intensive) at Deakin University where she is a Deakin International Scholarship recipient. Her education interests are in learner analytics, assessment design and information communication technology – not to mention equitable education and education reform.

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