Online Discussions: When Enough is Enough

Concurrent Session 11
Streamed Session

Brief Abstract

In this session, participants will learn about the optimal number of discussion assignments in accelerated, online undergraduate courses, their importance to student satisfaction, and their usefulness in improving student achievement of learning outcomes.  Experimental research results and implications for future research and practice will be discussed.


Dr. Adam Selhorst is the Executive Dean in the College of Liberal Arts at Ashford University. He received his doctoral degree in environmental science from Ohio State University. As part of the College's strategic plan, Adam is working collaboratively across multiple departments and divisions in the University to help determine and implement learning design techniques to improve student success.
Dr. Eric Klein is an Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts at Ashford University. Eric is also a Clinical Psychologist, having earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Prior to arriving at Ashford, Eric was a Staff Psychologist in the Counseling Center at Lehigh University, and he also served as the Director of Alcohol and Drug Programs for Lehigh. Eric is actively involved in several professional and community organizations, as he currently serves on multiple committees for the American Psychological Association, as well as the Behavioral Health Advisory Board for San Diego County. Eric is also a Founding Member of the San Diego Leadership Alliance, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization formed to develop the next generation of progressive leaders in San Diego. Eric also maintains a strong interest in research and scholarship. Since arriving at Ashford in 2012, he has presented at numerous regional, national, and international conferences on the topics of assessment, academic program review, learning communities, and other areas related to teaching and learning.

Extended Abstract

Over the past twenty years online learning design has maintained focus on communication between students and faculty as a key component, typically taking the form of online discussion assignments. Early on, discussion assignments were modeled after face-to-face classroom discussions and often substituted for consideration of “seat time,” satisfying concerns about students “actually being in the classroom.” Later, as theories of online learning developed, especially the Community of Inquiry Model, discussion assignments came to be understood as one of the primary means through which social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence take place (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000).

At Ashford University, accelerated courses of only five weeks require students to engage in many assignments in a short time period. For most of its ten year history, Ashford courses have included a standardized approach to design that include two discussion assignments per week in master versions of courses that are copied out to sections for multiple faculty to teach classes of students. This approach has allowed for a standardized and high quality student experience, as well as a means to use sophisticated learning analytics to ensure that learning outcomes are achieved, as measured separately from grades. Over the past three years, increased focus on retention and graduation rates has led to curricular revisions to improve student persistence and question the efficacy of a course design model that includes two discussions per week.

In the past year, fifty pilot projects were initiated across Ashford’s four Colleges (Business, Education, Health, and Liberal Arts) and the Division of General Education in courses with high enrollment and lower than average retention rates.  The purpose of these pilot projects was to determine which specific types of curricular changes, particularly changes to instructional design, might demonstrate the greatest success. Success was measured through improvements in GPA, learning outcomes achievement, persistence, and end of course survey results. Previous results of a quasi-experimental design pilot project, in a non-statistically significant sample in a course in the College of Liberal Arts, showed a 7% improvement in course completion rates when discussion assignments were reduced from two per week over a five-week course to one per week. It is hypothesized that the same positive results in GPA, learning outcomes achievement, persistence, and end of course survey will be measured with a larger, statistically significant sample.

The current experimental study of online courses in the College of Liberal Arts and Division of General Education include a large sample size (N= 1400) in which courses sections are randomly selected to be the control (2 discussion assignments) or experimental (1 discussion assignment) groups to expand on the original quasi-experimental study.  To meet the courses’ learning outcomes and ensure equivalent credit hours and rigor, the courses will be revised such that current discussion assignments each week will be replaced by one or more of the following: extending or replacing current assignments, adding additional required reading assignments to supplement the achievement of weekly learning outcomes, and revising of the one discussion to incorporate the second.

Courses will run in this manner for a five-week period with the following results measured: GPA, learning outcomes achievement, persistence, and end of course survey.

As the results are shared and discussed, audience participation will be encouraged to consider a wide range of interpretations and inclusion of alternative scenarios in which discussion assignments are included in online learning.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.