Feature: Does Learning Really Occur In The Online Discussion Forum?

By Prof Dr Latifah Abdol Latif (latifah@oum.edu.my)

Advances in all fields of knowledge and the explosive growth of information at the beginning of the 21st century have affected human lives and their ability to cope with changes. In the education sphere, Knowles (1980) identified four forces which have influenced educational practices:

  • Purpose of education: The main purpose of education is to produce educated persons, which is an end in itself. But education is also, for most countries, the route to development. The educational mission is to produce a competent workforce that is able to adapt to change and continue learning on its own.
  • Shift from teaching to learning: The teacher's role has changed from a knowledge transmitter to a learning facilitator; that is, from one who controls and directs all aspects of learning to one who gives learners more options and responsibilities for their own learning. Today, learners are no longer seen as recipients of knowledge but active participants in the learning process and co-constructors of knowledge. Solitary learning, too, has been replaced by collaborative learning.
  • New delivery systems: Delivery of education must be flexible (non-traditional, continuing education, online learning, networked learning, etc.) and need not be housed in an educational institution. The task of a learning organization is to link learners with learning resources.
  • Lifelong learning: Learning is a lifelong process, whereby compulsory education must be concerned with the development of inquisitive skills, while tertiary education must be concerned with the provision of resources and support for independent/self-managed learning.

OUM, just like any other educational institution, has to adapt to the aforementioned forces. The inherent nature of distance education has given it the extra edge; it provides a more flexible and accessible delivery of education to all who are interested in improving their knowledge and skills, even to those who do not meet the conventional minimal entry requirements.

In catering to working adults, who are naturally more diverse compared to conventional on-campus learners, OUM has built in elements of creativity and innovation in coming up with ways and means of effectively delivering education to the masses.

The successes of OUM over the past 10 years have been attributed, among others, to the blended delivery mode, in which courses are delivered via a blend of face-to-face tutorials, online learning and self-managed learning. However, the successes did not come easy; various issues had to be addressed, and the experiences have provided useful lessons on how best to improve and move forward.

The time has come, though, for OUM to leverage on the various possible combinations of the blended mode, which stretches from the fully face-to-face mode at one end of the continuum to the fully online mode on the other end.

In order to provide greater flexibility, to better cater to the diversity of learners, and also to reach out to more learners, OUM has decided to move away from the standard blend and to introduce various blends ranging from less face-to-face and more online right up to the fully online mode. The criteria for selecting a course to be offered fully online are based on the "stability" of that particular course: the module must be of good quality; the passing rate for the course and the course completion rate must also be high.

In moving closer towards fully online teaching-learning, one of the most crucial factors that requires attention is the online discussion forum, which actually replaces real- time interactions that typically occur during face-to-face tutorials. The online discussion forum can be a great way for learners to enrich their learning. Discussing topics online asynchronously can be just as beneficial, if not more so than the traditional, synchronous, in-class discussion.

In an online environment, learners can thoughtfully add to a discussion and think, deliberate and reflect on other learner contributions-something that learners may find difficult to do in a conventional classroom situation. Learners will benefit from discussions initiated by other learners, seek clarification from other learners and build a sense of community through the vibrant exchange of ideas and comments on certain topics of the course.

Now, the question is how do we ensure that the online discussions are vibrant, active and engaging?

In order to make effective collaborative learning possible for learners, online discussions must be appropriately planned and moderated. Learners cannot simply be "given" an online forum and told to use it. Such an approach may just result in very little collaborative learning.

During the planning stage, the following three factors should be considered: the organization of the forum; the motivation of learners to participate and the ability of learners to participate effectively. The forum discussion should be organized by topics, which works well for OUM learners, since that is how their learning materials are structured.

However , there appears to be some confusion in terms of tracking their posted questions and answers; at times the discussions appear repetitive. Perhaps it would be useful to have, within each topic, pre-established threads within which arguments could be clustered. This will allow for a more focused and in-depth discussion, thus engaging the learners. Concerning motivation, learners need to be made aware of the goals and purposes of online forums. As well, they should be provided useful feedback. Inputs should be rewarded, negative feedback should be avoided, and communities should be developed to avoid lurking.

To ensure that learners are able to participate productively in forum discussions, the scaffolding approach, wherein learners are led through the different stages of learning, should be used. The first stage is access and motivation, followed by online socialization. This will then be followed by the information exchange stage, knowledge construction and finally knowledge development. After having gone through these various stages, learners should be more comfortable and better able to take full responsibility for their learning.

An equally important and crucial matter requiring consideration is the assessment of online discussion forums. Rightly learners' participation in the forum should be evaluated, as it enables intensive feedback to be provided to learners. This means that the purpose of the assessment, the criteria for assessment and the intended outcomes must be established.

Since the purposes of online discussion forums are to enable learners to demonstrate their learning, to enhance reflective learning and to promote collaborative learning, then these elements ought to be assessed. The techniques used for assessing the discussions could then include a ref lective summary, online survey, self-tests, peer assessment and problem solving scenarios. Whichever technique is used, it is important that it is fair and reliable.

In conclusion, online discussions can be a valuable way of assessing learners' learning, particularly when the course is offered fully online. However, this can only be valid if the discussion forums are carefully structured and managed. Ultimately, the success of online discussion forums lies in the active roles played by learners, tutors, e-tutors, academic staff, IT personnel and administrators.

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As a tutor, I believe that I can help learners to create learning spaces by:

Encouraging them to think independently by giving them short essay tests
Encouraging them to work as a group
Adding variety to the assignments and encouraging them to think from a different perspective
Ensuring that the tutorial room is always conducive for the learners
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