Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Asynchronous Discussion Forums: Success Factors, Outcomes, Assessments, and Limitations

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Asynchronous Discussion Forums: Success Factors, Outcomes, Assessments, and Limitations

Article excerpt

Introduction

The process of discussions is a critical dimension of the learning process. Moreover, the learning experience itself has been shown to be enhanced through the regular participation in discussions (Kolb, 1984). Whether these discussions take place in a traditional classroom or through online teaching using electronic means, their importance is integral to both learner achievement and learner satisfaction (Fulford and Zhang, 1993; Zhang and Fulford, 1994). Because of the development of faster computers, improved telecommunications networks, and the development of readily accessible software the availability of courses and programs through online teaching has been growing exponentially.

Regarding the growth of offerings in online education, Tucker (1995) found that the percentage of colleges and universities in the United States offering online education went from 3--30 percent, 1990--1995; and Gubernick and Ebeling (1997) found that the number of institutions in the United States offering online education increased from 93 to 800, 1993--1997. No doubt, in more recent years, the growth continues to be exponential, not only in the scale, in terms of how many colleges and universities are offering some form of online education, but in the scope of courses and programs that are available in each of those institutions.

In a more recent study funded by the National Center for Education Statistics that investigated the 2000--2001 academic year, Waits and Lewis (2003) found that 90 percent of public post-secondary institutions in the United States offered distance education, with 90 percent of those institutions undertaking asynchronous online courses. These numbers led to more than 3 million learners (82 percent undergraduates) being enrolled in almost 120 000 credit-granting courses (76 percent undergraduate) that year--over 127 000 courses if one considered non-credit courses (Waits and Lewis, 2003). Additionally, and important for this review, of those institutions that would offer or planned to offer distance education within the next three years, 80 percent stated that they would increase or start using asynchronous online education as the primary mode of dealing with those courses. Though no study was found that measured online education in Canada, similar percentages are expected. As such, understanding the nature of asynchronous online education is critical because of its widespread use and expected expansion; in particular, it is important to understand the determinants of effective learning in an asynchronous online discussion because these discussions are the equivalent to the face-to-face discussions common in the traditional classroom that Kolb (1984) found to be critical in the learning process.

There are some obstacles to overcome that are specific to an asynchronous online discussion and, hence, its learning process. All distance education, whether online or not, is defined by having the instructor and learner separated in space (Mood, 1995); with the added dimension of an asynchronous discussion, they are also separated by time (Carswell and Venkatesh, 2002)--of course, it is possible that multiple learners and the instructor may be online at the same time enabling an asynchronous discussion to occur very close to "real time". Consequently, the asynchronous discussion forum must be specifically analyzed in order to enable the asynchronous discussion to be as (or more) effective as the traditional face-to-face-discussion if high levels of learning are to take place--some of the benefits of the asynchronous discussion that may make it more effective than the traditional face-to-face discussion are that it allows those people who need more time to participate to contribute to a discussion, a discussion participant cannot be "cut off", and there is a transcript of the discussion for study purposes after the discussion takes place.

Despite this need for analysis of the asynchronous discussion forum, the literature is growing, but relatively small and spread across a wide array of disciplines ranging from education to physics to philosophy. …

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