A practice-based guide for e-moderators on fostering participatory engagement within discussion boards for online students in higher education

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).

Still with me? Great! Let’s continue!

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.

Media example #1
Media example #2

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.

Reframe example #1
Reframe example #2

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:

cognitive presence
social presence
teaching presence.

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.

Works cited:

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

AdvanceHE Online Curriculum Symposium

I am thrilled to share that I have been invited to deliver my presentation ‘Innovating academic feedback with screen-casted audio/video feedback design’ as part of Advance HE’s Online Curriculum Symposium on 14 July alongside other academics.

This discussion aims to contribute to the on-going conversations surrounding innovations within higher education, particularly as it relates to the digital learning environment. The discussion will strive to support the benefits of focused, clear and personal feedback whilst promoting academic staff to demonstrate their commitment to engaged learning, innovative and scholarly teaching and reaching more students by improving access and flexibility.

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Academic Advising in Online Higher Education

Higher education students are confronted with a large number of academic choices during their studies. Which units should be taken next? How much study load can be successfully engaged with? What should a learners do when they are not progressing satisfactorily? Can they still complete the program in their expected number of years? All these decisions are often taken without complete knowledge of the intervening factors or their short, medium, and long-term consequences. To help students make better decisions, most universities offer an academic advising as a student service. Academic advising is a decision-making process that assists students in the clarification of their academic goals and the development of an educational plan for the realisation of these goals through communication and information exchanges with an advisor. The professionalisation of academic advising in higher education has increasingly gained importance. As a result, academic advising has become more student-centric; students’ needs and expectations for their personal and professional lives are part of the advising process. Student Advisor, Quanita Nathan, shares her experience in her role of academic advisor and offers a unique academic support perspective as we navigate the impact of COVID-19 in higher education.

What are the most common concerns of learners commencing online study?

As online study is relatively new, students have a variety of concerns surrounding the delivery methods and support available to them during their studies. Education has remained relatively stable over decades and students have a set expectation in their mind to how higher education is supposed to look like. Most students feel that they do not have the same level of support available to them as there is no face-to-face component. They also feel that they are left to their own devices as there is no set times for classes. Students have to take a little more responsibility over their studies, however, there is a multitude of support available to them via a range of online methods. The delivery method is slightly different to on-campus studies as the majority of it is done via an online platform with videos and reading often substituting face-to-face classrooms. Most students, especially those who have studied before face an adjustment period in order to get used to this new way of studying. However, they soon realise that online studies affords them the flexibility and freedom to fit their studies into everyday life that on-campus study does not have the capacity to do so.

Do you feel there is a way information could be made available a factual, interpretative, and/or reflective level to allow both Student Advisors and learners to take a more active and engaged role and viewing their own personal academic journey?

I think an interactive course planner that marks off a student’s course progression might be extremely useful to both students and student advisors. If we could create an online live course planner that highlights exempted, passed, and currently enroled units whilst also providing any extra information a student may need to provide (i.e. WWCC) to enrol in a unit. I also think that usage of videos and graphs or timelines will be useful for online students to assist them in feeling more in control of their academic journey. Overall it is important to discern information in an interactive way which is easy to understand and helps create more engagement for students.

What kinds of queries have you seen come through as a result of the repercussions of coronavirus?

The coronavirus has affected students a variety of ways. We have had students who are no longer able to study due to increase workloads and on the flip-side, students able to give more time to their studies due to some industries unfortunately being negatively affected by the coronavirus and leading to redundancies. We have also has students progression being affected by not being able to attend any placements they may have had planned. As this was such a sudden event that affected such a wide scope of life in general, the queries have been just as expansive. Many of these queries had to be viewed on a case by case basis, but the university has been extremely supportive and many exceptions have been giving in this trying time.

What patterns or information do you rely on to discern/address these queries and concerns?

We rely on the information provided by Program Directors, Academics, and general government protocols to ensure we are providing students a wholesome answer. Any concern that is out of the ordinary will be investigated so that we can provide students with a range of information that will hopefully assist in discerning their concerns. Under normal circumstances we have processes in place, so that students are provided with the correct information. However, as the past couple months have proven processes do not always function in times of change. We have learnt to look at every case individually and lean towards a little more leeway.

How have you effectively addressed these concerns?

The starting point is always to come from an understanding perspective and to advocate for students. We did not have answers for the questions that were being asked, when all of changes occurred due to the coronavirus. The way that we effectively addressed these concerns was to escalate concerns to the correct people and to ensure that the outcome was in the best interest of the students. Personally, there is probably more that could have been done to address some of the more specific concerns of students, but given the current circumstances, we have assured students that their progression and studies will not be halted and alternatives are being put in place so that students can continue with this aspect of their life.

Professional academic advising creates a vital connection between students and their education – helping them to become more reflective and strategic about the choices they are making and the learning they are engaged in.

Nudging in Higher Education

Economist Richard Thaler has studied how people are motivated and how they make decisions; he has been involved in research that connects persuasion with design principles to form the theory of behavioural economics

Image Source: UX Collective

Nudges are ‘subtle contextual changes without increasing the reward, limiting the freedom of choice, or needing a time-intense implementation’. The greatest benefit of nudging is the shift towards good decision-making which is in the users’ interest. Inspired by behaviour economists Thaler and Daniel Pink, I have been looking at reframing the issue of late or non-submissions by nudging those who have not yet submitted (but the deadline has not yet passed) and sending simple ‘thank you/’well done’ messages to those whom have submitted prior to the deadline.

A key aim of the Swinburne Online first year curriculum is to support all commencing students to adjust successfully to online study. Taking the concept of nudging and implementing it in academia may increase pass rates, retention and overall student satisfaction. Nudging can be especially effective for first year students whom may need to further develop their time management skills.

Proactively sending messages to students whom have not yet submitted their assessment may assist learners in effectively managing their workload; the nudge should act as a call to action – prompting them to submit, request an extension (if applicable), or finish by reviewing the learning materials to ensure a quality submission. 

Deployed appropriately, nudges can steer learners to make better choices. Well-tailored digital nudges can help improve unit pass rates and retention; when thoughtfully written, they can also lead to increased student satisfaction.

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What are your thoughts and experiences? Can we nudge adult learners to make better decisions, gently pushing behaviors in the desired direction?