Academic journal article International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology

Online Debating to Encourage Student Participation in Online Learning Environments: A Qualitative Case Study at a South African University

Academic journal article International Journal of Education and Development using Information and Communication Technology

Online Debating to Encourage Student Participation in Online Learning Environments: A Qualitative Case Study at a South African University

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The use of computer-mediated communication in higher education presents opportunities for students to be part of an online learning community irrespective of their geographical location. However, students do not always avail themselves of this opportunity and pedagogic strategies for encouraging participation are therefore constantly being explored. One potential strategy to encourage participation is the use of the structured format of online debating. This paper proposes an underlying epistemological perspective on and an informing learning theory of online debating and its potential as a pedagogic strategy to encourage participation in online learning environments. The paper reports on student and staff perceptions of an online debate used during a BEd (Hons) course at a South African university. The findings underline the importance of providing explicit procedures to pave the way for student participation and highlight the potential value of an online debate as a pedagogic strategy to support the development of argumentation and to encourage reflexivity.

Keywords: Computer-mediated communication, online learning environment, online learning community, online participation, online debating

INTRODUCTION

Internationally there is a growing trend for universities to use computer-mediated communication to facilitate discussion between geographically dispersed students. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is a "generic term now commonly used for a variety of systems that enable people to communicate with other people by means of computers and networks" (Romiszowski & Mason 1996, p. 438). It includes the use of e-mail, computer conferencing, discussion lists, bulletin boards, videoconferencing, internet relay chat as well as more specific educational applications such as computer-mediated seminars and case study discussions (Romiszowski, Jost & Chang 1990; Romiszowski & De Haas 1989); virtual classrooms (Hiltz 1994); virtual learning teams (Johnson, Suriya, Won Yoon, Berrett & La Fleur 2002) and learning circles (Riel 2002). While each of these strategies has the intention of encouraging participation, they differ in the way online discussion is managed and to what extent participation is specifically required.

Despite that fact that these online communication strategies are intended to replicate or augment face-to-face group communication, students do not always avail themselves of the opportunity. In attempting to account for the reasons why students are reluctant to participate as frequently or substantively as they could, some researchers have focussed on student-related issues, while others have focussed their attention on the role of the lecturer or on course-related concerns. Bures, Abrami and Amundsen (2000) found that students who are concerned about their performance relative to that of others send fewer messages when online activities are not assessed. Masters and Oberprieler (2004) note that students need incentives to participate in online discussion, while Pilkington and Walker (2003) recommend that students take on different dialogue roles in order to encourage participation. A study that focussed on the role that the online lecturer plays found that "frequent posting by instructors did not lead to more student postings, and the more the instructors posted, the shorter were the lengths of the discussions overall" (Mazzolini & Maddison 2003, p. 237). From a course-related perspective, Mason and Bacsich (1998) emphasise the influence of integrating online collaborative learning within the structure of the course and Macdonald (2003, p. 377) underlines the importance of assessment in "ensuring online participation". While these factors possibly all play a role in encouraging online participation, an additional challenge is how to encourage students to provide thoughtful and considered responses rather than posting ill-considered, poorly articulated or hasty responses. …

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