The goal of any learning environment is to engage students with one another so they develop a sense of community and learn together. When the learning environment is solely web-based, instructors must be intentional on how they develop these learning communities so they are effective in developing a sense of community. Oftentimes this is solely done via asynchronous communication methods. Communication in an asynchronous, online-based learning environment is typically done via discussion threads and email. These are referred to as communication-mediated communication (CMC).
To facilitate effective online discussions, the author of this article uses the constructivism framework (Rovai, 2007). Some of the strengths of asynchronous CMC are that they can provide personal and timely feedback to the students and that it offers students an opportunity for reflective discussion (Rovai, 2007). There are also potential weaknesses, such as reduced motivation by the students to interact, but the author posits that skillful facilitation can reduce those weaknesses. They continue the article by outlining a strategy for designing and facilitating online discussions. Figure 1 found on page 86 of the article (Rovai, 2007) shows a visual depiction of the strategy which outlines the components of both design and facilitation that lead to the ultimate goal of construction of knowledge.
- The first area the author outlines for effective online discussions is course design. Four provisions are outlined.
- Motivation—Create a learning environment where students are motivated to interact with positive social interactions. Create extrinsic motivation through structured discussions and interpersonal connections.
- Expectations—Share expectations with students. Use a discussion rubric, which allows students to see the expectations and an evaluation of those expectations.
- Provision for socio-emotional discussions—Develop personal relationships and build a sense of community. Develop separate discussion boards where students are able to get to know one another and freely discuss topics that are of personal interest.
- Provision for task-oriented discussions—Construct online discussions that adult learners see as relevant challenges connect with their experiences. Manage the size of group discussion by not having them be too small or too big.
- The second area the author outlines for effective online discussions is course facilitation. Again, five provisions are outlined.
- Social presence—Engage students in online interactions that are seen as valuable (i.e., being read). Foster social relationships amongst students that increases familiarity.
- Emphasis on student-to-student interactions—Facilitate peer learning through student-to-student interaction. Instead of responding or answering all of the posts, ask probing questions and address disruptive communication.
- Cultural communication patterns—Be aware of cross-cultural communication styles and facilitate discussions to decrease potential negative interactions. Create social awareness and engage all students in discussions.
- Gender-based communication patterns—Be aware of potential gender-based differences in communication patterns. Create an environment that focuses on collaboration and cooperation.
- Student status—Create a learning environment where all students are equal. Assign roles to students and emphasize that everyone one has something to contribute to the work.
Designing and facilitating discussions in an asynchronous learning environment differ from that of a traditional face-to-face learning environment. It is important for online instructors to understand these differences. Rovai (2007) developed a strategy to assist instructors in effectively facilitating online discussions. The emphasis is on two components: design and facilitation.
A strategy that is woven throughout both the design component and the facilitation component is developing a sense of community. While this is also true for a face-to-face learning environment, it is developed differently in an online environment. The instructor can design discussion boards at the beginning of the learning experience that allows the learners to share more about themselves and their interests. This not only starts to create a sense of community, it also facilitates an opportunity for students to get to know one another. This can help with establishing social equity amongst students as they learn more about their fellow students. Having these social interactions and connections at the beginning, helps set the stage and playing field for the remainder of the online learning experience.
- Which one of the four provisions for designing effective online discussions would be easiest for you to incorporate into your work? Which would be the most difficult? Why?
- Some of the facilitation provisions focus on social equity (cultural communication patters, gender-based communication patters, student status). As an instructor or trainer, what strategies would you use to decrease potential negative interactions in online discussions?
- Establishing a sense of community in an online learning environment is crucial for shared learning and knowledge development throughout the experience. What tactics could be deployed to develop a sense of community throughout the entire experience?