Student-led facilitation strategi...
Distance Education Vol. 30, No. 3, November 2009, 339���361 ISSN 0158-7919 print/ISSN 1475-0198 online �� 2009 Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Inc. DOI: 10.1080/01587910903236510 http://www.informaworld.com Student-led facilitation strategies in online discussions Evrim Baran* and Ana-Paula Correia aCenter for Technology in Learning and Teaching, N108 Lagomarcino Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011-3191, USA Taylor CDIE_A_423825.sgmFrancisand (Received 4 June 2009 final version received 5 August 2009) 10.1080/01587910903236510(online) Distance Education2009 0158-7919 (print)/1475-0198 Original Article 2009 Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia, Inc. 30 3 000000November EvrimBaran firstname.lastname@example.org This study explored student-led facilitation strategies used to overcome the challenges of instructor-dominated facilitation, enhance the sense of learning community, and encourage student participation in online discussions. It presents a series of cases of students��� facilitation strategies and using qualitative data analysis of discussion threads within the naturalistic inquiry framework, identifies three facilitation strategies: inspirational practice-oriented and highly structured. The study shows that these facilitation strategies generated innovative ideas, motivated students to participate, and provided a risk-free and relaxed atmosphere for participation. Keywords: facilitation peer facilitation online discussions online learning distance education case study Introduction Online discussions have been widely used in both blended and online courses as a platform for exchanging information, communicating, and supporting learning. The design and development of meaningful learning activities as part of online discussions presents new challenges to the instructors who are used to getting feedback via audio, visual, and contextual cues in face-to-face classrooms (Collins & Berge, 1997). Providing the quality of online participation has been one of these challenges because students may fail to engage in deep conversations and provide thoughtful and reflec- tive contributions related to the discussion requirements (Dennen & Wieland, 2007). Although discussion techniques have been used in face-to-face classrooms, using them in an online environment requires the utilization of different pedagogical approaches because of the affordances and the limitations of asynchronous online communication technologies. According to Harasim (1990), the key differences between online and face-to-face discussions are time and place dependence, and the richness and the structure of communication. Moreover, in online asynchronous discussions, communication relies on text-based information, which lacks immediate instructors��� verbal feedback used in face-to-face classrooms as well as nonverbal and contextual cues critical for communication. Even when using synchronous technology as conference calls, online students perceive the lack of nonverbal and contextual cues as a serious obstacle for establishing reciprocal understanding (Karpova, Correia, & Baran, 2009). *Corresponding author. Email: email@example.com
340 E. Baran and A.-P. Correia From a social constructivist perspective, online discussions create opportunities for students to construct meanings together and integrate new knowledge into their prior experiences (Rourke & Anderson, 2002). This is the underlying learning and teaching perspective used in this study. Online discussions can serve as a platform for students and instructors to interact in a social environment without boundaries of time and distance, promoting students��� critical thinking and helping students to reflect on their ideas (Brooks & Jeong, 2006 Hew & Cheung, 2008 Wang, 2008). Research has identified several problems related to online discussions, such as limited student participation (Hewitt, 2005) inadequate critical analysis of peers��� ideas (Rourke & Anderson, 2002) and lack of motivation, commitment, and time, and failure to communicate effectively (Brooks & Jeong, 2006). To address some of these pitfalls, a number of facilitation strategies, mostly focusing on the instructor as facilitator or moderator, have been described in the literature (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). Although tutors and instructors play a critical role in online discussion environments, their domination may result in an instructor-centered discussion, suppressing students��� active participation (Rovai, 2007). The use of discussions in online education has far outpaced our understanding of how these should be designed and moderated to support students��� learning. Despite the potential of peer facilitation in online discussions, strategies that nurture meaning- ful dialogue and participation have not been widely explored, a key gap this study attempts to address. This naturalistic case study used an online graduate course to look at strategies utilized by student facilitators to promote meaningful dialogue and participation in asynchronous online discussions. This study investigated two research issues: (a) what peer-facilitation strategies increase participation and foster meaningful dialogue and (b) how these strategies accomplish that. Teaching presence and instructor facilitation in online discussions Anderson et al. (2001) defined teaching presence as ���the design, facilitation and direc- tion of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing [students���] person- ally meaningful and educationally worthwhile outcomes��� (p. 5). Instructor facilitation has been considered an important indicator of teaching presence, strong enough to encourage students��� participation in online discussions. Consequently, a number of facilitation strategies focusing on the role of the instructor as a facilitator have been identified (Berge, 1995 Mason, 1991 Paulsen, 1995). For instance, Paulsen (1995) and Mason (1991) separated teachers��� moderation roles into three categories: organi- zational, social, and intellectual. Facilitation techniques are recommended by category. When serving in an organizational role, the moderator sets the agenda, objectives, and procedures for posting and interacting in an online discussion. The social role involves reinforcement of good discussion behaviors through welcoming messages and prompt feedback with a positive tone. The intellectual role, being the most important, uses techniques to encourage a high level of students��� responses by asking questions, synthesizing key points, and nurturing the intellectual climate in online discussions (Mason, 1991). Berge (1995) added a technical role and used a pedagogical role instead of intellectual. Anderson et al. (2001) identified three teacher roles and responsibilities: (1) instructional design and organization, (2) discourse facilitation, and (3) direct instruction. Facilitating discourse ���is critical to maintaining the interest, motivation and engagement of students in active learning��� (p. 7) and
Distance Education 341 includes responsibilities such as ���identifying areas of agreement/disagreement, seek- ing to reach consensus/understanding, encouraging, acknowledging, or reinforcing student contributions, setting climate for learning, drawing in participants, prompting discussion and assessing the efficacy of the process��� (p. 8). According to Hewitt (2005), ���These kinds of operations are thought to foster higher levels of student���student interaction, increase the connections between participants��� ideas, and reduce the likelihood that discussions will become sidetracked or terminate prematurely��� (p. 569). When looking at the importance of a teacher���s presence in online learning environ- ments, much of the research has focused on facilitation roles of instructors (Hara, Bonk, & Angeli, 2000 Zhu, 1998). For instance, when investigating the relationship between student perceptions of others in an online class, Russo and Benson (2005) found a significant correlation between students��� perceptions of teacher presence and their satisfaction with learning. Therefore, instructors��� moderation has been identified as an important factor for effective online interaction (Hara et al., 2000 Zhu, 1998). Research also identified some of the shortcomings of instructor-led facilitation of online discussions. For example, instructors may not be able to fulfill all the facilita- tion responsibilities because of the high time commitment required (Rourke & Anderson, 2002). Managing a large discussion group online may be overwhelming. Although instructor-led discussions do not necessarily result in instructor-dominated discussion, having the instructor as the center of the discussion may create an ���authoritarian presence��� (Rourke & Anderson, 2002, p. 4) not conducive to genuine conversations. Although in their community of inquiry model Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) assigned most of the moderation activities to teachers, they acknowledged that teaching presence can also be achieved through a meaningful interaction among students. In this line of reasoning, facilitation is a shared responsibility among instructors and students, changing the traditional role of the instructor from having ���total control of the teaching environment to sharing with the student as fellow learner��� and giving ���more emphasis on students as autonomous, independent, self-motivated managers of their own time and learning process��� (Collins & Berge, 1996). Peer facilitation in online discussions Although students��� participation in online discussions is important in supporting group discourse and communication, the dialogue does not innately result in learning. Social learning may occur via peer interaction and social presence, but these do not guarantee the co-construction of meaning and mediated learning. As Dennen and Wieland (2007) explained, ���Learners must interact in some particular ways, engaging with each other and course material at deep (as opposed to surface) levels, which lead toward negotiation and internalization of knowledge rather than just rote memoriza- tion of knowledge��� (p. 283). According to Tagg (1994), a direction from within approach requires a reconsid- eration of facilitation roles that are traditionally linked to ���leadership��� and gives students the power to take practical and meaningful roles in the online classroom (p. 45). Peer facilitation in online discussions may encourage students to ask questions and challenge the statements of others freely without being inhibited and/or intimidated (Rourke & Anderson, 2002). Peer facilitation does not hinder teaching presence but provides the instructor with a strategy to increase his or her level of participation in