Asynchronous Discussion in a Traditional Classroom

By Jason D. Baker
December 1997

Case Study:
Asynchronous Discussion in a Traditional Classroom

As a proponent of distance education, I?ve often wondered how some of this same technology might fit into a more traditional educational setting. I had the opportunity to participate in such an endeavor ? the integration of Web-based conferencing into an undergraduate class at Loyola College in Maryland, to see whether it would enhance or detract from the learning experience. Since Loyola strives to maintain an educational tradition of cura personalis ? educating the whole person ? there has been resistance to any technology which wouldn?t fit into this philosophy. Many instructional technology concepts, such as online and distance education, have been largely rejected because they would fail to deliver a true Loyola education. However, incorporating technology into the traditional classroom is encouraged, and this is where this project fits in.

Instructional Activity

In Fall 1997 Loyola?s Political Science department offered a new course entitled Religion and Politics in America. The professor and I spoke about the possibility of using an asynchronous Web-based conferencing system within the course. We discussed how the conference could be set-up, how he would receive the various administrative privileges necessary to manage the site, and the possible uses of the program. My interest was essentially to see how well an electronic communication forum fares in a traditional undergraduate classroom. More specifically, I was interested in hearing the reactions of the students. Would they feel that it adds or detracts from their learning experience? Would they learn the material better thanks to the Web conferencing? Or is this simply a technology that doesn?t readily apply to the traditional setting?

The mechanics of this instructional activity were quite simple. Based on discussions with the professor, he tailored some of the activities for use in an asynchronous mode. Rather than having the students write up short papers and submit them directly to him, the students will post their reports to the asynchronous conference board. Then students will read each others posts and respond accordingly. In order to facilitate interaction, there will be a few mandatory responses. Others would be at the discretion of the students. (There are a total of four mandatory postings.) Originally these same essays were simply going to be submitted to the instructor, so the use of use of an asynchronous discussion board opened up the opportunity for student to student interaction that had not previously been available. To help the students get acclimated with the software, we established areas for students to practice posting and to ask questions of the instructor. We also monitored the conference regularly to ensure that there weren?t any problems.

Asynchronous Discussion Software

We used the NetForum software developed by the University of Wisconsin Biomedical Computing Group. NetForum is a Web-based asynchronous conferencing package which behaves like a computerized bulletin board. Participants post and read messages, which are arranged by topic and time of posting, and can respond as desired. Like physical bulletin boards, the students are free to post messages at any time and all messages remain posted until someone clears the board off. Since NetForum is Web-based, and runs as a server-side CGI script, it can be accessed from any computer on or off campus which has Internet World Wide Web access.

One of the strengths of NetForum is its simplicity. When a user approaches a NetForum discussion forum, they have the opportunity to start new discussion threads (if that privilege has been granted to them), add new messages to existing threads, or reply to messages already posted. Since messages can contain HTML tags, they can include formatting such as bold, italic, or bullet lists or they can embed hypertext links to other Web pages. For users who aren?t fluent in HTML, they can request NetForum to automatically translate their text into HTML format. Discussion threads are displayed in an easy-to-read manner and users can expand or compress message listings as desired. NetForum does lacks some of the advanced features found in other conferencing packages. For instance, NetForum does not have a spelling checker built into it. Furthermore posted messages cannot have attachments, such as Excel spreadsheets or PowerPoint slides. Search capability is another feature lacking from NetForum. It would be helpful if one could search through the various posting and find messages by keyword or phrase.

Student Audience

The student audience was a standard undergraduate class that consists of 27 people, none of whom are freshman. All of the students are political science majors and have thus taken previous courses in their major. Since this is an elective course, it could not necessarily be considered representative of all political science majors, but rather those who are interested in the intersection of religion and politics (or who simply need an elective course in order to graduate). However, there was nothing particularly unusual about this group of students, so informally they could be considered typical undergraduates.

Teaching Strategy

The basic strategy is simple: create the NetForum and require students to use it. On a more philosophical level, the NetForum software was used to supplement and improve the classroom interaction. Traditionally, this class would contain a high level of teacher-student interaction through the class lectures. However, there would be significantly less student-student interaction except as permitted when the lecture ended early. By introducing NetForum, and requiring students to post and respond to various essays, the level of student-student interaction could be increased. Previously, since the essays would have been submitted directly to the instructor, the assignments would have simply resulted in additional teacher-student interaction. But with this new approach, even though it?s asynchronous, the opportunities for student-student interaction are increased. Ideally, the increased student-student interaction would increase comprehension and even enjoyment of the material in this class.

Expectations and Evaluation

To be honest, I wasn?t exactly sure what outcomes to expect. I suspected that many students, especially the introverts, will find the NetForum conference a valuable way to increase interaction and improve their classroom experience. However, I wasn?t sure how students will react to this new technology being thrust into their traditional classroom experience. Perhaps, since it appears that undergraduates generally like the Internet, they would be excited about the "high-techness" of the course. When the course was complete, I had the students fill out a brief ten question evaluation of their asynchronous learning experience. Using a combination of multiple choice, Likert-style, and freeform questions I hoped to get a good feel for their learning experience.

Results: Evaluation Data

The overall feeling of the students, based on the evaluations and comments back to the professor, was that the NetForum experience was positive and they felt that it contributed to the learning environment. In order to get more specific feedback from the students, I wrote a brief survey instrument for them to fill out during the last class period. I used a combination of multiple choice, Likert-style, and free-form questions. I attempted to acquire both demographic and result information in hopes of drawing some correlation between the type of student and their response to the Web conferencing software. The survey questions, along with the results (in percentages), are shown below:

  1. Were you comfortable using the World Wide Web before taking PS 321?
    Yes: 81.5%
    No: 18.5%
  2. Did you find the NetForum conferencing software difficult to use?
    Yes: 0.0%
    No: 92.6%
    Two write in answers: "Somewhat" and "At First"
  3. Approximately how many messages did you post to the NetForum conference?
    This was a write-in question. The answers break down as follows:
    1: 3.7%
    4: 14.8%
    5: 29.6%
    6: 11.1%
    7: 7.4%
    8: 14.8%
    9: 3.7%
    10: 14.8%
  4. Did you participate in any free-form NetForum discussions? (In other words, did you post any messages that you were not required to for a grade?)
    Yes: 40.7%
    No: 49.3%
  5. Do you consider yourself to be an introvert or an extrovert?
    Introvert: 37.0%
    Extrovert: 55.6%
    Two people left this question blank
  6. Based on your experiences in this class, are you more comfortable participating in a discussion in the classroom or online?
    Classroom: 70.4%
    Online: 22.2%
    Two people left this question blank
  7. Did the NetForum discussion board make the class more or less enjoyable?
    More Enjoyable: 37.0%
    Less Enjoyable: 3.7%
    No Effect: 59.3%
  8. Do you believe that you learned the material better or worse due to the use of the NetForum discussion board?
    Learned Better: 66.7%
    Learned Worse: 0.0%
    No Effect: 33.3%
  9. Do you believe that you would have learned the material as well if you submitted your assignments directly to the instructor rather than posting them to the NetForum discussion board?
    Yes: 18.5%
    No: 44.4%
    No Difference: 37.0%
  10. Would you like to see this technology used in more of your undergraduate classes?
    Yes: 85.2%
    No: 11.1%
    One person left this question blank

The final unnumbered entry read: "Please feel free to share any additional comments that you may have about the use of this technology in the classroom." Eight of the students wrote additional comments in response.

Results: Lessons Learned

I?m hoping to be able to similarly incorporate asynchronous discussion software into their classes so we can gather more data about the effectiveness of this educational technology. I would like to be able to do some serious statistical analysis of the data presuming that we can get more than our current pool of 27 evaluations. However, even with this limited sample size, there are a number of points that become evident from the preliminary analysis of the data:

  • Most students enter the classroom familiar with the World Wide Web.
  • The students found the NetForum software easy to use.
  • Although a noticeable number of students engaged in Web-based discussions, almost half never participated more than required for their grade.
  • The majority of students find classroom discussion preferable to online discussion.
  • While most were neutral about the "enjoyment factor" of the NetForum software, over a third felt that it improved their class experience.
  • While two-thirds felt that they learned the material better due to the NetForum discussion, over half believed that it would have been just as effective if they had submitted the essays to the professor.
  • The majority of students would like to see NetForum used in other classes.

A few of the points stood out as particularly interesting. One was that discussion was generally driven by grades. Not surprising, most students seemed content to post the minimum necessary to meet the syllabus requirements. It would be interesting to compare this to courses which use in-class discussion as a grading criteria: do students only participate at the level necessary to get an A in the class discussion category? Regardless of whether the students considered themselves to be introverts or extroverts, they overwhelmingly prefered classroom discussion over its online counterpart. This is an area where NetForum could possibly detract from the classroom experience if professors use this technology as an excuse to reduce in-class discussions.

It appears that simply writing the essays was perceived to be the significant learning experience rather than the process of posting them to NetForum and interacting thereafter. Although it should be noted that almost half credited NetForum with helping them better learn the material. It?s also interesting to observe that while almost sixty percent found the whole NetForum experience to be neutral in their enjoyment of the class, the vast majority would like NetForum incorporated into other courses.

Except for one negative comment, most of the handwritten comments were very positive of the use of NetForum. The one repeated complaint related to difficulty the software itself (how to create paragraph breaks). One student captured the flavor of the comments when they said, "I thought the Web page in general, especially the NetForum, were a very valuable asset to the class."

Conclusions

This was truly an interesting experience. Despite the mixed data regarding the effectiveness of NetForum within a traditional classroom, there is a clear call from the students for more use of it. It?s also clear that for those who have a strong opinion, either for or against NetForum, the majority believe in the value of NetForum for both increased learning and increased enjoyment. Within the distance environment, NetForum offers something that would otherwise be missing: interaction. However, within a classroom environment, NetForum can either supplement or replace face-to-face interaction. If a professor uses NetForum as a replacement, then clearly we?re putting technology ahead of pedagogy. If, however, it serves as a supplement then there is much potential for NetForum. I hope that this trial is the first of many that I can be involved in, for I believe that there is much to be gained by studying this type of educational technology in the classroom. While I?ve often been skeptical about the use of the Web in the classroom, this experience tells me that the students want it. Clearly, the challenge is to maximize its effectiveness.

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