Navigating a slippery slope: Blending two types of discussions to meet the unique needs of emerging online learners

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Brief Abstract

Emerging online learners, undergraduates taking online and face-to-face courses, 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 us in a discussion about addressing their needs through the use of two different types of multi-modal 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.
Dr. Murzyn is currently an Associate Professor and Director of Special Education Programs at the College of St. Scholastica. She has a Doctorate degree in Teaching and Learning from the University of Minnesota. Her work at the College has involved the development of a graduate, on-line special education licensure program, a graduate certificate in special education, and an on-line undergraduate special education minor. Amy’s research interests focus on equitable teaching and learning practices in online environments, Universal Design for Learning, and the integration of virtual learning communities in online environments. Amy holds teaching licenses in Minnesota in the areas of K-12 Special Education-Learning Disabilities and K-6 Elementary Education. Her background in K-12 and higher education have afforded her a unique perspective in teaching and learning as they relate to students with disabilities, knowledge of adult learning practices, building a community of learners, and best practices within special education and K-12 public schools.

Extended Abstract

Emerging online learners, identified as undergraduate students living on-campus (or within proximity), taking online and face-to-face courses concurrently, are the predominant consumer of online classes (Seaman et al., 2018). However, students have lower rates of persistence for online courses as compared to face-to-face classes (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 often report dissatisfaction with these types of discussions because they lack the real-time authentic interaction and feedback they get in face-to-face courses (Kauffman, 2015). Some assert online instructors can address the need for more authentic student-to-student interaction through the use of synchronous video conferencing tools (Paulsen & McCormick, 2020). Others suggest that blending asynchronous and synchronous tools can assist with retaining students who otherwise fail to persist in online courses (Leeds et al., 2013). The slope gets slippery when beginning to introduce synchronous tools because now the flexibility and convenience students desire becomes compromised. What are instructors to do?

We will share how to navigate this slippery slope and strive to meet the needs of emerging online learners. Specifically, how we use asynchronous discussion boards along with learning communities that use synchronous video conferencing technology. Both tools provide for multi-modal communication through text, audio, and video that is used to support the development of community, and to facilitate the development of a shared understanding while modeling inclusive practices inherent to Universal Design for Learning. Further, the discussions in tandem, 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. All while respecting emerging online learners' desire for flexibility and convenience. These two types of discussions can be layered over any content or discipline. Come and join us for a fun and lively session to help you increase your background about emerging online learners and ways to support their persistence in online courses through course design that incorporates two different types of discussions.


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.

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

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

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

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

Level of Participation:

We will provide participants with a research-based yet practitioner friendly presentation about two different types of online discussions via VoiceThread. The discussion will include examples and lessons we have learned along the way. We will also provide attendees with a hand-out that clearly and succinctly summarizes key points from our presentation along with resources/ideas for implementing both types of discussion in online courses. For example, a link to the guidelines and rubrics that we created to use with our discussion boards and learning communities.

Session Goals:

Participants will be able to:

-Discuss the unique needs of undergraduate students dually enrolled in face-to-face and online courses

-Identify course design features that address those unique needs

-Articulate the pros and cons of each type of discussion format critical in course design 

-Provide a rationale to students and those in leadership about course design decisions

-Utilize tools to effectively implement discussion boards and learning communities in online courses