Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Discussions: A Student-Centered Approach

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Discussions: A Student-Centered Approach

Article excerpt


This article supports the view that online discussions should only be used for educational purposes. In the first half of the article, a heuristic for determining the educational viability of online discussions is offered. In the second half of this article, a model for determining viability is suggested. This model integrates the evaluation of online discussion into the discussion itself. In doing so, students are participating in determining whether or not the discussion has been educationally viable.


Online discussion is often viewed as an educational novelty. Instructors sometimes require students to participate in online discussion simply to maintain students' interest and to increase their enjoyment of a course. While it is virtuous to keep students interested and make courses enjoyable, greater virtue can be found in educating students, which should stretch students' interests and expand the range of educational experiences that they enjoy. Online discussion should be more than novel; it should be educationally viable. To downplay educational viability is to ethically breach the implied contract that institutions of higher education have with society (Speck, 2000).

The purpose of this paper is to offer a model for evaluating the educational viability of online discussion. I begin by offering a heuristic for determining educational viability. Then, I delineate a student-centered procedure for applying the heuristic to an online discussion.

A Heuristic for Determining "Educational Viability"

What is educational viability? For some, a viable education should "teach people to think, to use their rational powers, to become better problems solvers" (Gagne, 1980, p. 85); for others, educational viability "has as much to do with the teachable heart as the teachable mind" (McLaren, 1999, p. 50). Narrowing to educational viability in online learning adds some focus. Hacker & Neiderhauser (2000), for example, discuss the educational viability of online learning in terms of "deep and durable learning" (p. 53). Specifically, they argue that active collaboration among students, the effective use of examples, and appropriate feedback will motivate students toward educational success. Knowlton (2001) approaches the educational viability of online discussion through a connection to Bloom's cognitive taxonomy. (See Bloom, Englehart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956, for a full discussion of this taxonomy.) In short, for online discussion to be viable, students must go beyond summarizing and paraphrasing; they must also apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.

The variability in defining educational viability is important to academic freedom. Ultimately, instructors using online discussion must determine and defend their own educational rationales. Here, though, I suggest three heuristic questions for determining educational viability: Does the online discussion advance knowledge construction? Does the online discussion inspire personal narrative? Is online discussion a foundation for larger course assignments?

Does the Online Discussion Advance Knowledge Construction?

Philosophically, the notion of constructing knowledge is based on the view that knowledge and truth do not exist-or, at least, are not relevant-beyond a person's perception of that knowledge and truth (Duffy & Jonassen, 1991). Even if an objective reality exists, students can only subjectively know that reality. Therefore, knowledge is not something that students can receive from professors (Jonassen, 1991); students must "create a personal view of the world" (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, & Haag, 1995, p. 11).

In an educationally-viable online discussion, students seek opportunities to learn (Canada, 2000) and share their opinions and perspectives about those opportunities. Because of the pluralism inherent to students' perspectives (Speck, 1998), conflicting viewpoints will emerge, and students will experience cognitive dissonance. …

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