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Fostering Connectedness in the Asynchronous Online Environment

Sally Clemenson, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Ellen Johnson, Minnesota State University, Mankato


Keywords: Connectedness, Asynchronous, Online Learning

 

Key Statement: Connectedness in the asynchronous online environment can be difficult to establish. Faculty can make a difference by creating opportunities to engage in transformational educational experiences in the online discussion board.

 


Background

 

The online classroom provides flexibility, but can leave students feeling isolated. Creating an environment where students are engaged and connected with one another helps foster success in the course and in the program. The online discussion board is a (and sometimes the only) critical opportunity to create connection in the online asynchronous environment; it is often the only interaction among students within this environment. Identifying strategies to enhance interactions has the potential to increase feelings of connectedness among students as they converse with one another about topics within the course.

 

Faculty must deliberately plan to enhance the opportunity for connectedness in the asynchronous online environment; as we have seen, it does not happen by chance. Without connectedness, students can feel lost, disengaged, and unmotivated. Integrating strategies within the discussion board to promote an asynchronous community of learners is essential as distance education solidifies its place in higher education post-pandemic.

 Photo courtesy of authors via a Creative Commons License



Factors to Influence Course Design

 

Online discussion boards are common in online education. Discussion board assignments, without careful planning and consideration, can have a minimal effect on actual learning and connection. Traditionally, discussion boards pose a question or questions to students. Students are required to answer following strict criteria, including responding to a certain number of their classmates, word count expectations, and citation expectations. Full engagement is possible, but often the conversations stop there. Students simply complete the requirements and move on to the next item. However, online discussions can be extremely engaging, promote critical thinking skills, and facilitate connection among students. A key component to enhancing the online discussion experience is to create an environment in which the online discussion mimics a face-to-face interaction (Khan et al., 2017). For example, techniques such as student facilitators, debates, and live video discussions can increase communication among students as well as increase communication with the instructor.

 

            Incorporating active and collaborative learning strategies that create a community within asynchronous online learning is imperative to enhance student connectedness (Khan et al., 2017). As educators prepare to provide meaningful and lasting knowledge to the millennial student and Generation Z (Gen Z) student, they must first understand the needs of these students. The millennial student tends to learn less effectively with traditional PowerPoint lectures and responds better to active learning strategies (Bennett, 2018). Gen Z learners bring technology to the forefront of their educational experience, seeking virtual social interactions (Chicca & Shellenbarger, 2018). Mezirow’s transformative learning theory encourages students to view situations in multiple ways using real-world situations (Bennett, 2018). Encouraging students to see situations from a different point of view transforms thinking from simplistic, black-and-white thinking to working through real-world situations and complex dilemmas (Bennett, 2018). Bringing this awareness to the asynchronous online discussion board facilitates the learning needs of the millennial who seeks engaging situations (Bennett, 2018) and Gen Z learners who focus on real life situations and technology for social interactions (Chicca & Shellenbarger, 2018).


Bringing Mezirow’s theory to the discussion board is possible if students consider real-world situations that they must discuss amongst their peers. This type of discussion board activity opens the door to an environment where differing opinions can be discovered and debated. 


To complement Mezirow’s theory, consider the lens of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) theoretical framework, where three domains form the educational experience: Affective, Cognitive, and Teaching (Figure 1). With the application of each of these elements to the discussion board, the end result forms a transformational educational experience where students can feel connected to their peers and faculty members (Grant, 2016). This method of building connectedness within the discussion board allows the student to gain the perspectives of others, hold constructive conversations about real-world situations, and interpret this knowledge to future practices (Bennett, 2018; Grant, 2016).


Figure 1. Community of Inquiry Framework: Affective, Cognitive, and Teaching Domains.

Image courtesy of Giulia Forsythe via CC by 2.0 Deed.


Sample Strategies to Enhance Connection in an Asynchronous Discussion Board

 

Consider the following compilation of strategies that could help enhance community in an online, asynchronous course. Many were used in the authors’ case study, and are discussed in more detail below.  

 

  1. Discussion questions:

    1. Create discussion questions that encourage thoughts and feelings about a situation or topic. Include questions that may spark different responses across multiple generations (Panteli & Marder, 2017).

    2. Create questions that are geared toward common interests or familiar situations. Help bridge the gap between generations.

    3. Incorporate experiences that the students have encountered. Use real-world, transferable concepts.

    4. Ask open-ended questions. Ask yourself, “Is this a conversation starter?”

  2. Technical Requirements:

    1. Review the requirements that are set in your current discussion forum. Is there room for flexibility in these requirements?

    2. Is the goal of the discussion board to ensure students are following proper APA/MLA format or is the goal to encourage interactions about the content of the course?

    3. Review your word count policy. Do you need a word count? For some students, a word count is necessary, but this could be a suggestion versus a strict rule. Experience has shown that a lack of a word count coupled with questions that include thoughts, feelings, and real-world situations, students often go far above and beyond previous word count requirements.

  3. Faculty Engagement:

    1. Engage in the discussion board with your students. Students want to hear about your experiences, thoughts, and opinions.

    2. Probe students to critically think about the application of content to real-world situations. The discussion board holds a prime opportunity to enhance learning beyond the required content of the course.

  4. Grading:

    1. Provide qualitative feedback when grading.

    2. Point out the students' strengths as well as areas needing improvement.



Reaction

To determine the effectiveness of the COI Framework and Mezirow’s transformative learning theory when implemented into the discussion board setting, the authors adjusted the criteria for the discussion board to mimic face-to-face conversations. Key elements that were adjusted included faculty engagement within the discussion board and grading, eliminating the word count on all discussion board postings, decreasing the number of citations required, and adjustment of the discussion questions to inquire about past experiences as well as thoughts and feelings as they pertain to situations related to the weekly content.


IRB approval was granted by the PI’s University to allow for anonymous, voluntary participation in this study. Participants enrolled in a course with the PI were included in the study while those not enrolled in the PI’s courses were excluded. A total of 77 students were recruited via email and course announcements to complete the study, and a total of 38 students participated.

Student feedback was analyzed to determine their thoughts about the discussion board and what components make them feel connected within the discussion board assignments. Summaries of student responses to each strategy were as follows:


  1. Faculty engagement

    1. Students appreciate:

      1. Faculty engagement within the discussion board

      2. Asking questions and posting additional content and information

      3. Detailed feedback when grading

  2. Eliminating word count

    1. Students appreciate:

      1. Freedom to discuss without worrying about the technical aspects of writing

      2. Lack of word count and citations to help the discussion feel more like a conversation

  3. Decreasing the number of citations required

    1. Students appreciate:

    2. Freedom to discuss without worrying about citations

  4. Use of questions which inquire about past experiences as well as thoughts and feelings as they pertain to the weekly content

    1. Students appreciate:

      1. Discussion questions that are personal (beliefs, thoughts and personal life or work experiences)

      2. Posts and responses that feel more like a conversation than an assignment (feelings and thoughts)

      3. Open questions, greater flexibility in what the student can write 

 

Student reactions to these strategies allowed faculty to take actions to improve the student experience and increase connectedness within the asynchronous online environment. Consider the following two sample discussion questions:

 

  1. Describe authoritative leadership. Now describe where you would use authoritative leadership.

  2. Describe a situation where a leader/manager exhibited a leadership style that you have learned about this week. Did the leader/manager use this type of leadership appropriately? How did you/others react to this type of leadership?

 

Both of these questions provide the instructor with valuable information as a means for evaluating whether the students have met the learning objective for the week. The second question provides the students with an opportunity to assess a situation that they have experienced. It also provides a forum where students can discuss a real-world situation and opens the door for constructive debate surrounding real-world situations. Question two transforms the learner’s method of thinking about leadership, enhances the ability for students to form connections with their peers and instructors, and leads the way toward critical thinking, integration of personal experiences, and connects learning to real life.

 

 

Next Steps

 

Implementation of new discussion board strategies is a continual process. Faculty have the obligation to continue to gather student feedback and adjust their discussion questions accordingly. Reviewing student responses to the discussion board questions can open the door to further enhance open communication and build community in your asynchronous courses.

 

 

Discussion Questions

  1. How can you engage in the discussion board (Teaching Presence of the CoI) and role model discussion expectations, yet not hold yourself to unrealistic expectations such as responding to every student each week?

  2. In your field, how can you write effective discussion board questions with varying complexity and levels of student understanding to encourage student connectedness and a sense of community?

  3. Upon review of the strategies discussed, which strategy (that you are not currently using) might you consider implementing in the future? Why does this strategy stand out based on your teaching philosophy?

 


References

Bennett, H. (2018). Engaging the 21st-century student: Beyond the lecture. International Journal of Kinesiology in Higher Education, 2(3), 87–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/24711616.2018.1474083


Chicca, J., & Shellenbarger, T. (2018). Connecting with Generation Z: Approaches in nursing education. Teaching and Learning in Nursing, 13(3), 180–184. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.teln.2018.03.008


Grant, K. (2016). The transformational use of video in online learning. In W. Kilgore (Ed.), Humanizing online teaching and learning (chapter 8). Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. https://pressbooks.pub/humanmooc/chapter/the-transformational-use-of-video-in-online-learning/


Khan, A., Egbue, O., Palkie, B., & Madden, J. (2017). Active learning: Engaging students to maximize learning in an online course. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 15(2), 107–115.


Ozogul, G. (2018). Best practices in engaging online learners through active and experiential learning strategies. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 12(1), 45–48. https://doi.org/10.7771/1541-5015.1764


Panteli, N., & Marder, B. (2017). Constructing and enacting normality online across generations. Information Technology & People, 30(2), 282-300. https://doi.org/10.1108/ITP-06-2015-0134


About the Authors


 


 

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