Online Discussions: When Enough is Enough

Concurrent Session 11
Streamed Session

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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 L. Selhorst currently serves as the Executive Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Ashford University. Previous academic experiences include positions as a Fellow at the National Science Foundation, Lecturer at the Ohio State University, Lecturer at Leeward Community College, Researcher at the University of Hawaii, and Student Research Scientist at Kenyon College. He holds a PhD and MS in Environmental Science from the Ohio State University, an MA in Public Policy and Management from the Ohio State University, an MBA in from Ashford University's Forbes School of Business, and a BA in Biology from Kenyon College. While past research has focused on mitigation techniques for slowing global climate change, he currently focuses on innovation in online education and strategies aimed at enhancing student success and satisfaction with in online classrooms.
Dr. Eric Klein is Dean of the Honors College at Ashford University in San Diego, California. He has held several administrative positions throughout his career in higher education, and has been described as a visionary, inclusive, and collaborative leader. Dr. Klein has also received numerous awards and recognition, including the Alfred Noble Robinson Award at Lehigh University in 2010, which is awarded annually to one member of the University in recognition of outstanding performance in the area of service and unusual promise of professional achievement. Dr. Klein is actively involved in several professional organizations, including as a member of the Board of Directors for Education First, a non-profit organization that provides college scholarships to students attending high schools with historically low percentages of college applicants. He is also a member of the Editorial Board on the Journal of Instructional Research, as well as a founding member of the San Diego Leadership Alliance. Additionally, Dr. Klein serves as Chair of the Partnerships Small Grants Committee for Division 2 (Teaching of Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. In recent years, Dr. Klein has presented at numerous regional, national, and international conferences on the topics of assessment, academic program review, course design, data and decision-making, student retention strategies, and other areas related to teaching and learning. He is also a strong believer in leadership studies, continuing education, and professional development. For example, he has participated in the Management Development Program through the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, as well as the Executive Leadership Academy at UC Berkeley, and the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning at Penn State University. Finally, Dr. Klein also serves as a mentor for SXSWedu, with a focus on providing mentorship in areas such as networking, interpersonal skills, and career development for young professionals and emerging leaders in higher education.

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.