Fostering emerging online learner persistence: The role of multimodal asynchronous and synchronous discussions

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Brief Abstract

Emerging online learners are the predominant consumer of online classes. However, they have lower rates of persistence for online courses as compared to face-to-face courses. Join me in a discussion about my research that addresses their needs through the use of two different types of multimodal discussions.


Hi Everyone! I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Education and Social Work at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN. At CSS, I teach and design graduate and undergraduate courses using multiple delivery methods to include face-to-face, hybrid, and online. I am also a PhD student in Educational Foundations and Research at the University of North Dakota where I take a variety of asynchronous and synchronous online courses. My research has lines relating to online student engagement and motivation along with a new line related to open educational resources.

Extended Abstract

Emerging online learners, identified as undergraduates taking online and face-to-face courses concurrently, are the predominant consumer of online classes (Seaman et al., 2018). This should not come as a surprise because more and more undergraduates are looking for convenience and flexibility as they balance work, extracurriculars, social lives, and family (Raza, et al., 2020). While this may be true, they have lower rates of persistence for online courses as compared to face-to-face courses (Hart, 2012; Xu & Jaggars, 2011). Part of the reason could be because online classes continue to fall below face-to-face courses in terms of opportunities for student-to-student interaction (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016). Instructors often seek to address this deficit through text-based asynchronous discussion boards, even though students frequently report dissatisfaction with these types of discussions (Kauffman, 2015; Majid et al., 2015). Additionally, this wide-spread use of asynchronous text-based discussions could be why online learners many times report lower levels of social presence as compared to students enrolled in face-to-face classes (Zhan & Mei, 2013). Social presence is significant because higher levels lead to better outcomes for online learners (Joksimovic et al.,2015; Liu et al., 2009; Zhan & Mei, 2013). The way to increase social presence is through quality interactions, not a precise amount or number (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). In spite of this research, there still is not a consensus on how to design interactions for online learners in general nor distinct groups.

Thus, the task at hand is to determine how to create opportunities for interactions that allow emerging online learners to interact with their peers in a manner, as shared by Abrami et al. (2011), "that is not fake or forced but meaningful and purposeful." Some assert online instructors can perhaps address the need for more authentic student-to-student interaction, and by proxy, increase social presence, through the use of multimodal synchronous video conferencing tools (Paulsen & McCormick, 2020). These tools provide opportunities for students to have meaningful "real-time" interactions with their peers through text, audio, and video. On the other hand, some recommend the use of multimodal asynchronous tools that provide more flexibility for online learners yet still allowing for text, audio, and video communication. At the same time, others suggest that blending asynchronous and synchronous tools can assist with retaining students who otherwise fail to persist in online courses (Hart, 2012: Joksimovic et al., 2015; Leeds et al.; 2013; Liu et al., 2009; Northrup, 2009; Zhan & Mei, 2013). There seems to be a case to shift away from the heavy reliance on asynchronous text-based discussion boards. Still, the slope gets slippery when beginning to introduce synchronous tools because now the flexibility and convenience students desire becomes compromised. It might come down to the format for communicating that distinct groups of students value the most. The form they value most, in turn, motivates them (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). As a result, student values, in combination with indicators of social presence, have the potential to provide insights into the type of discussions (e.g., synchronous and asynchronous) and the blend of each to include in online courses.

To that end, the purpose of my research is to investigate the use of multimodal asynchronous and synchronous discussions as a way to address the needs of emerging online learners. The lack of clarity around how to best support online learner persistence in general and that of distinct groups was the impetus for me to create a framework to support my research. Using elements of Garrison et al's (2000) community of inquiry conceptual framework, Anderson's (2003) interaction equivalency theorem, Tinto's (1993) social integration theory, and Wigfield and Eccles (2000) expectancy-value theory of motivation, I developed the Framework for Emerging Online Learner Persistence (FEOLP). FEOLP addresses the values and needs of emerging online learners through responsive course design that has the potential to enhance social presence using student values to determine the blend of asynchronous and synchronous interactions. The aim of my mixed methods study involving approximately 50 students at a Midwestern liberal arts college is to use FEOLP as the foundation to validate previous theoretical claims and add to the empirical research base. Specifically, by adding clarity around using both types of discussions effectively to support the development of a shared understanding and application of course content while modeling inclusive practices inherent to Universal Design for Learning. Further, about how to use the discussions in tandem to provide opportunities for the authentic student-to-student interactions that emerging online learners need to persist while at the same time supporting the growth of real-world collaboration skills.


Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Bures, E. M., Borokhovski, E., & Tamim, R. M. (2011). Interaction in distance education and online learning: Using evidence and theory to improve practice. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 23(2-3), 82-103.

Anderson. T. (2003). Interaction Equivalency Theorem.

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

Garrison, D. R., & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. The American Journal of Distance Education, 19(3), 133-148.

Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11(1).

Joksimović, S., Gašević, D., Kovanović, V., Riecke, B. E., & Hatala, M. (2015). Social presence in online discussions as a process predictor of academic performance. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 31(6), 638-654.

Kauffman, H. (2015). A review of predictive factors of student success in and satisfaction with online learning. Research in Learning Technology, 23, 26507.

Leeds, E. M., Campbell, S. M., Baker, H., Ali, R., Brawley, D., & Crisp, J. (2013). The impact of student retention strategies: An empirical study.

Liu, S. Y., Gomez, J., & Yen, C. J. (2009). Community college online course retention and final grade: Predictability of social presence. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8(2).

Majid, S., Idio, C. D., Liang, S., & Zhang, W. (2015). Preferences and motivating factors for knowledge sharing by students. Journal of Information & Knowledge Management14(01), 1550004. doi: 10.1142/s0219649215500045

National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics (2016). Retrieved on December 6, 2019 from

Northrup, P. T. (2009). Online learners’ preferences for interaction. The perfect online course: Best practices for designing and teaching, 463-473.

Paulsen, J., & McCormick, A. C. (2020). Reassessing disparities in online learner student engagement in higher education. Educational Researcher, 0013189X19898690.

Raza, S. A., Khan, K. A., & Rafi, S. T. (2020). Online Education & MOOCs: Teacher Self-

Disclosure in Online Education and a Mediating Role of Social Presence. South Asian Journal of Management, 14(1), 142-158.

Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade increase: Tracking distance education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Second Edition. University of Chicago Press.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68 – 81. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1015

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. (2011). Online and hybrid course enrollment and performance in Washington State community and technical colleges.

Zhan, Z., & Mei, H. (2013). Academic self-concept and social presence in face-to-face and online learning: Perceptions and effects on students' learning achievement and satisfaction across environments. Computers & Education, 69, 131-138.

Level of Participation:

I will provide participants with a research-based yet practitioner friendly presentation about my research to include the following:

-An overview of my study to include preliminary findings

-Course artifacts to demonstrate their use for creating social presence

-A hand-out that summarizes key points along with resources/ideas for putting my research into practice and for future research

Session Goals:

Participants will be able to:

-Discuss the unique needs of emerging online learners

-Identify course design features that address those unique needs

-Utilize FEOLP along with my preliminary research findings as a foundation to support future research and the effective implementation of discussions in online courses