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What Factors Promote Sustained Online Discussions and Collaborative Learning in a Web-Based Course?

Although the pedagogical advantages of online interactive learning are well known, much needs to be done in instructional design of applicable collaborative learning tasks that motivate sustained student participation and interaction. This study investigates the factors that encourage student interaction and collaboration in both process and product-oriented computer mediated communication (CMC) tasks in a Web-based course that adopts interactive learning tasks as its core learning activities. The analysis of a post course survey questionnaire collected from three online classes suggest that among others, the structure of the online discussion, group size and group cohesion, strictly enforced deadlines, direct link of interactive learning activities to the assessment, and the differences in process and product driven interactive learning tasks are some of the important factors that influence participation and contribute to sustained online interaction and collaboration.

Do you participate in online discussions? Anyone who frequents blogs, forums, or other social feeds knows the power of online conversations—as long as they remain constructive, of course.

But for anyone still on the fence as to whether you should join in online discussion and use them in your classrooms, meetings, or other learning spaces, etc.


Why do you think it’s important for students to participate in online discussions? What are the benefits?

Written responses provide time to reflect and synthesize information before writing. This is a more complex process than speaking in class discussions and more effective for learning. The sheer act of having to write your response rather than say it is important.

Also, online conversations minimize the risk that someone will dominate the conversation. The people who talk more online may not necessarily be the same people that are talking in class; for example, Harvard studied their own online discussions and found that female students talk more online than in face-to-face conversations. Online discussions also increase the involvement of introverted students who are reluctant to speak out in class.

One thing about online discussions is that students can’t hide. Either you say something or you don’t. Either your post is there or it’s not. And people have to respond to you.

Another nice part of online discussion is that it provides a record of the students’ thoughts, so a teacher can look back and see what the student understands and what she might not understand. You can’t do that in a discussion where people are just talking.

Learning within the online environment, often termed as “eLearning”, differs from the traditional classroom learning community. Unlike traditional classroom learning opportunities, online learning environments foster additional learning experiences where learners can interact, collaborate, and take ownership of their own learning. Developing effective collaborative online activities begins with understanding the research and how learners process information when online. Educators of online learning environments must focus on instructional and pedagogical best practices in order to deliver effective online instruction.


Theoretical Frameworks

Behaviorism, cognitivist, connectives, and constructivism are the most common learning theories utilized when developing online learning environments.

Constructivism

 views learning as a process in which the learner actively engages in new ideas through collaborative grouping situations. Given the context of eLearning, constructivism and connectives seem to be the theories that acknowledge the impact technology has on learning the most. Constructivism is a good theoretical framework for eLearning because it ensures learning happens among all learners.

Collaborative Group Activities

Group activities range from informal discussions to highly structured collaborative grouping activities. Collaborative group learning is one way for learners to establish communication with others in the course. Research and practitioners of online learning environments largely support the benefits of true collaboration through discussions and sharing of new information.


Final Words

Finally, collaborative eLearning activities present learners and instructors with both challenges and benefits, which must be considered to successfully participate in collaborative online learning. 

Constructivism and connectives best support eLearning because they focus on making connections with new information through learner and technology interactions. Collaborative learning is complex and should allow time and support to encourage the development of online learning communities. Additionally, creating collaborative activities requires sound pedagogy, motivation, and proficiency to be successful. As students, instructors, and technology advance, so do collaborative learning activities.


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