In my present academic roles I facilitate teaching, plan guidance and implement training and support sessions at the tertiary level as an eLearning Advisor (eLA) in higher education and vocational educator assessor; I work with mature age learners who are commencing their first year of university. This post will provide five tips and practical examples of ways to build and sustain participatory engagement within online discussion forums by incorporating : media, affiliative humour and storytelling (personal/professional experiences that align to concepts being taught), Socratic questioning, weekly ‘reframes’ and ‘weaving’ within discussion forums to tone down competition and demonstrate and encourage interaction and support.
These aspects relate to cornerstones of our work as online instructors and facilitators. Our work is about utilising the insights about the three types of presence in learning from the ‘community of inquiry’ framework (Garrison, 2006).
Increasingly, higher education (HE) cohorts are comprised of mature age learners commencing their first year of HE online. The term ‘mature age’ refers to adults who enter their course based on work experience or have not studied recently (Western Sydney University, 2020). ‘This is supported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (2010, 2016) consistent use of the age category of 15–24 to define and measure young people’s engagement with both education and the workforce and its use of 25 and over to measure the engagement of older learners and employees’ (Stone & O’Shea, 2019, p. 58). The average age of university students in Australia is 26 year and 11 months (Edwards & van der Brugge, 2012, p. 2).
According to the Australian Government Department of Education and Training (2017b), the number of fully online students grew from 17.5% in 2010 to 21.9% in 2015 (Stone & O’Shea, 2019, p. 57). ‘Available data indicate that mature age students are generally more strongly represented in online than face-to-face studies’ (Open Universities Australia, 2015 as cited in Stone & O’Shea, 2019, p. 57). Furthermore, the 2019 Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching indicated that students aged 25 and over demonstrate the lowest positive ratings of learner engagement (The Social Research Centre, 2020). When comparing internal (on-campus)/mixed (blending) learning to external (online) study modes, positive ratings for engagement were 62% less overall for online learners (The Social Research Centre, 2020).
Ultimately want to have students who are engaged with their learning, leading to them being successful in their units. Participation tends to drop off as the teaching period progresses, so a challenge is starting off in a way that develops a culture of sharing and contributing on the discussion forums, and then using facilitation to maintain the best possible levels of discussion board engagement throughout the teaching period.
Tip #1 – Incorporate media
Use media meaningfully to pique students’ interest and reduce posting walls of text if this can be avoided. There are many tools that you can use to integrate media, but a selection of these are: Canva, Powtoon, video or audio recordings, GIPHY and Unsplash.
Contrast and color use are vital to accessibility. Users, including users with visual disabilities, must be able to perceive content on the page. If you are unsure if your text or media meeting accessibility requirements, please use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
Tip #2 – Use affiliative humour and story-telling
We all have a unique story to tell. When online instructors incorporate storytelling and ‘affiliative humour’ (Pundt & Herrmann, 2015), rapport can be more rapidly built with their cohort. I like to do this by using GIFs and memes in my replies to students; I’ve found it breaks down the power differentials and students feel more at ease. Further, they tend to respond with media which makes the forums dynamic and engaging.
Whilst scholarly, peer-reviewed information is a vital guide to building foundational academic skills, such literature can be difficult to relate to, absorb and recollect. Personal narratives establish human connection which students can more deeply appreciate. The mature age learner cohort may recognise similarities in their own life more quickly, recall key content more easily, feel a sense of belonging within the digitalised environment and be more compelled to engage with the wider group.
Tip #3 Embed Socratic questioning
The Socratic approach to questioning is based on intellectual, introspective dialogue; the early Greek philosopher/teacher, Socrates, believed that thoughtful questioning enabled the student to examine ideas rationally (Payne, 2021, p. 4).
Socratic questioning encourages student agency and self-regulated learning. This table from Intel (2007) demonstrates how student interactions may be adjusted so that they probe, encourage, empathise and engage. ‘The Socratic probing technique is not used to intimidate, nor to patronize students, but instead for the very reason Socrates developed it: to scaffold critical-thinking skills in students and empower them to approach their learning with an academic lens’ (Payne, 2021, p. 6).
Tip #4 Introduce reframes
Plan out meaningful reframes (introductory posts) each week that guide the student through the formative activity.
Tip #5 – Integrate weaving
It is the role of the unit facilitator to guide students in weekly discussions involving effective summarising and ‘weaving’ of, and responding to, student posts.
A weave is a discussion board post which acknowledges student contributions and earlier discourses (mentioning students by name), expanding upon the conversation through Socratic questioning and prompting students to engage with their peers to deepen learning and establish a sense of community. Weaves can and should incorporate relevant and/or witty multi-media such as GIFs, memes, audio and/or video.
For additional examples of summarising and weaving, read E-Moderating: A model for collaborative online learning by Gilly Salmon.
It is vital to be responsive and adaptable to students’ needs. Dewey (1997) advocated for empowering learners by honouring their experiences. In a democratic education, educators get to know their learners’ situations and experiences. One must ‘have that sympathetic understanding of individuals as individuals which gives him an idea of what is actually going on in the minds of those who are learning’ (Dewey, 1997). It’s equally important to maintain a presence on the forums.
Next, I’ll briefly share and direct you to Community of Inquiry model which highlights three types of ‘presence’ or posting that e-moderators might draw from to make a meaningful post in their discussion boards for the week if students aren’t posting.
Three types of presence
A cornerstone of our work as online instructors and facilitators is about utilising the insights about the three types of presence in learning from the ‘community of inquiry’ framework (Garrison, 2006). These consist of:
They are particularly relevant in online learning, and the following diagram from Garrison (2006) shows how they overlap to provide a balanced and optimised educational experience. I find these categories useful in the event that things are quiet in the discussion boards, as a way to brainstorm ideas for meaningful posts that add value to the student experience.
The Swinburne Online learning model is based on social constructivism framework. Social constructivist model empowers students to learn through dialogue, teamwork, collaboration and problem-solving skillfully facilitated by the online facilitator.
Dialogue is crucial to the student experience. A personal, engaging and conversational tone initiated by unit facilitator may assist students in better understanding the content as there is a likelihood that less academic jargon is incorporated into the exchange.
Learning experience should encourage students to have their own interpretations of the content and make connections. ‘This experience tends to not be as encouraged in traditional, didactic education’ (Payne, 2021, p. 3). This involving approach enables students to take ownership over their learning process (Gosper & Ifenthaler, 2014).
Online instructors should strive to provide group and individual responses where appropriate, while maintaining a strong visual presence in the discussion boards for the group; this means demonstrating a continuous stream of communication and providing timely and detailed responses (Jarvenpaa, Knoll, & Leidner, 1998, p. 47). Online instructors should aim to post in their discussion forums at least every 48 hours (even if there is little active engagement).
The student discussion board learning experience should encourage participation and connections – both with between experiences and content and with peers. Ultimately, we aim to have students who are engaged with their learning, leading to them being successful in their units. This aims to feed into student retention, progression and ultimately successful attainment of a tertiary qualification.
Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Garrison, R. (2006) A Blended Faculty Community of Inquiry. Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education. 32(2). DOI: 10.21225/D5XK57
Gosper, M., & Ifenthaler, D. (2014). Curriculum Design for the 21st Century. Springer Science, 1-14.
Intel. (2007). The Socratic Questioning Technique. Retrieved from Intel Teach Program: https://www.intel.com.au/content/dam/www/program/education/us/en/documents/project-design/strategies/dep-question-socratic.pdf
Jarvenpaa, S. L., Knoll, K., & Leidner, D. E. (1998). Is Anybody out There? Antecedents of Trust in Global Virtual Teams. Journal of Management Information Systems, 14(4), 29-64. doi:10.1080/07421222.1998.11518185
Payne, A. L. (2021). Technology-Enhanced Feedback in Higher Education: Source-Recipient Relationships in a New Dialogic Paradigm. EdArXiv [preprint], 1-16. doi:10.35542/osf.io/9ehgb
Salmon, G. (2011), E-Moderating: the key to online teaching and learning, 3rd edn, Wiley, EBL Ebook Library.
The Social Research Centre. (2020). 2019 SES National Report. Canberra: The Social Research Centre.
Western Sydney University. (2020, March 20). Mature age students. Retrieved from https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/currentstudents/current_students/services_and_facilities/mature_age_students