Academic journal article Journal of Interactive Learning Research

A Taxonomy of Learning through Asynchronous Discussion

Academic journal article Journal of Interactive Learning Research

A Taxonomy of Learning through Asynchronous Discussion

Article excerpt

This article presents a five-tiered taxonomy that describes the nature of participation in, and learning through, asynchronous discussion. The taxonomy is framed by a constructivist view of asynchronous discussion. The five tiers of the taxonomy include the following: (a) passive participation, (b) developmental participation, (c) generative participation, (d) dialogical participation, and (e) metacognitive participation. This article concludes with implications for pedagogy and suggestions for the direction of future theoretical and empirical research.


As Internet-based teaching and learning have proliferated, researchers, theoreticians, and pedagogues have recognized that an educationally-viable environment requires students to interact with content, and with each other. This realization has lead to the widespread use of asynchronous discussion conducted through e-mail listservs and web-based bulletin boards. Anecdotal evidence and empirical research offer insights about both the benefits and the problems associated with asynchronous discussion (cf., Brown, 1997; Merryfield, 2001; Pena-Shaff, Martin, & Gay, 2001). Also, instructional theory can help instructors at all levels aim for the benefits and avoid some of the problems (cf., Goodyear, Salmon, Spector, Steeples, & Tickner, 2001; Knowlton, Knowlton, & Davis, 2000; Miller & Miller, 1999; Moller, 1998; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Prestera & Moller, 2001). But, this body of literature does not fully consider the educational possibilities of asynchronous discussion. Missing from the literature is a description of learning that may come from asynchronous discussion.

This article puts forth a taxonomy that describes possible types of learning through asynchronous discussion. Both social cognitivism and constructivism are theoretical frameworks that might support asynchronous discussion; but because the online classroom has been heralded as an environment conducive to promoting a type of student-centered learning (Knowlton, 2000) that allows knowledge construction among students (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, & Haag, 1995), this taxonomy is based in a constructivist view of asynchronous discussion. This constructivist frame is appropriate because, in spite of the fact that most theoretical literature about asynchronous discussion focuses on prescriptions of how instructors should structure and facilitate an asynchronous discussion, constructivism emphasizes descriptions of how learning occurs. A descriptive analysis is consistent with the purpose of this taxonomy. In fact, a description of learning through asynchronous discussion must precede sound prescriptions of instruction. Perhaps putting such descriptions ahead of prescriptions would provide insights into unclear definitions and vague explanations of designing toward prescriptions. For example, as Bannan-Ritland (2002) pointed out, terms associated with prescription are often not defined carefully. After this taxonomy is explicated, implications for both research and pedagogy are offered.


The taxonomy presented here provides a descriptive foundation for different levels of participation within asynchronous discussion and grounds those levels within learning theory. The goal of this taxonomy is not solely to report connections that are already evident through research; rather, the goal is to create the structure for a new framework that might be useful in describing learning within an asynchronous discussion context. Offered within each level of the taxonomy are discussion participants' likely perceptions of three central tenets of constructivism: (a) the educational utility of the environment, (b) collaboration, and (c) knowledge construction. Focusing on these three tenets as the macrostructure of each level begins a bridging of the gap between the asynchronous environment itself and the types of knowledge construction valued by constructivists. …

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