Rejuvenating Online Discussions to Foster Inclusive Online Communities

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

This panel explores moves toward online instruction focused on relationship-building and social interactions. Sharing our ongoing work to rejuvenate online courses through the inclusion of relational focused small groups, rather than commonly-used, transactional formats of discussion, we name how this work can expand accessibility and opportunity for equity. 





I am an Assistant Professor in the School of Education and Social Work at The College of St. Scholastica and a Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Foundations and Research at the University of North Dakota. I teach and design graduate and undergraduate courses using multiple delivery methods to include face-to-face, hybrid, and online. Before moving into higher education, I worked in both urban and rural K-12 schools for nearly 20 years as a teacher for students with emotional/behavioral disabilities, elementary classroom teacher, instructional coach, and special education administrator. I am an advocate for quality online instruction as an avenue to provide access to higher education for students who live in rural areas, historically underrepresented communities, and to address teacher shortages in rural communities. My research utilizes quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods designs with social justice and equity lens to study the scholarship of teaching and learning, online learning, open educational resources, and teacher preparation. I present at the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), OpenEd, and AERA National Conferences. I am also widely published. I recently published a model of persistence for online learners and I have two forthcoming book chapters about designing and using equitable online discussions. Further, I am a 2020-2021 William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Open Educational Resources Fellow.
Nikki Schutte is the Senior Instructional Designer at The College of St. Scholastica. In her role, she collaborates with academic departments and faculty in the creation of engaging online courses which reflect the Benedictine tradition of the college. She is also an adjunct instructor for the Masters of Education program and teaches Universal Design for Learning.
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

The online student population continues to grow as students look for convenience and flexibility, with the COVID19 pandemic accelerating transitions from face-to-face to online modes of delivery. To illustrate, the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights (2020) surveyed 22,000 diverse American learners of all ages. Findings indicate 59% of learners prefer online-only or blended models over exclusively face-to-face experiences with the preference for online learning even stronger for Women and Black learners. This growth and interest are promising as online courses are often equivalent in quality to face-to-face courses (Bowers & Kumar, 2015) and provide access to higher education for students who otherwise may not attend. However, some studies show students have lower persistence rates for online courses than face-to-face courses (Hart, 2012; Xu & Jaggars, 2011). We see this moment as an opportunity to expand access, equity, and persistence rates in online learning by reflecting on and creating new opportunities for online course design.

Today's online learners differ from online learners of yesteryear, which contributes to the low online persistence rates. The iconic distance learner of the 20th Century/early 21st Century who was independent, geographically isolated or bound, an older adult, self-motivated, and goal-oriented is no longer as prevalent. As we move deeper into the 21st Century, and technology continues to evolve rapidly, the distance education population is shifting to learners that are more diverse, tentative, and younger (Bawa, 2016). For example, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 45% of online learners were undergraduates living on-campus (or within proximity), taking a mix of face-to-face and online courses due to the flexibility online courses afford students (Raza et al., 2020; Seaman et al., 2018). In 2019, that percentage increased to 51%. (Dana, 2019). The COVID-19 Pandemic is likely to accelerate the demand for flexible course options as more students than ever now have experience with online and blended courses and are accepting of this form of instruction. It is also essential to note today's online learners understand, value, and engage in social interaction and collaborative learning and possess strong interpersonal and communication skills (Bawa, 2016). This is key because interactions and collaboration are deemed critical to student success and necessary for post-secondary persistence (Tinto, 1993). Fostering these relationships are easier in face-to-face courses and often lacking in online courses (Callister & Love, 2016; Cherney et al., 2018). Instructors often seek to address this deficit through text-based asynchronous discussion boards, which often include long threads with students responding in a transactional manner, even though students frequently report dissatisfaction with these types of discussions (Kauffman, 2015; Majid et al., 2015). Additionally, this widespread use of asynchronous text-based discussions aligns with many online learners’ reports of 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; Zhan & Mei, 2013). Social presence increases through quality interactions, rather than a precise amount or number of interactions (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005). As a result, it may be difficult for online students to become part of an institution's social fabric, which is critical for student success and retention, thus, impacting online student persistence.

Moreover, there are issues of equity and inclusion that arise in online courses that must be addressed as part of our pedagogical responsibility and the awareness that they negatively impact persistence rates. The concerns begin with a disconnect between what students indicate are their preferences for learning and how they are represented in classes. As mentioned earlier, Black learners indicate a preference for online and blended learning, yet both Black and Latinx students are underrepresented in higher education and even less well represented in online courses (Cheslock et al., 2018; Ortagus, 2017). Even when students from historically underrepresented groups attend online courses, their persistence rates are lower than for face-to-face courses (Kaupp, 2012). We argue the current situation of inequality was not an accident; it was designed. The first step in unpacking inequality in online spaces is to acknowledge that it exists by design. Some examples of the challenges specific to online courses that exist for historically underrepresented groups include bias and microaggressions, absence of their culture, and access to technology. An opportunity exists to address these challenges by placing value on collaboration, communication, and relationships through utilizing small learning communities (Plotts, 2020a, 2020b; Woodley et al., 2017). Unfortunately, opportunities for small learning communities are limited in online courses compared to face-to-face classes. In order to improve persistence rates for historically underrepresented groups while also making classes more accessible to all, it is important to rejuvenate online courses to include more opportunities for relational-type small group discussions rather than those that are transactional. 

In this panel presentation, we share our ongoing work and experiences with rejuvenating online courses through the inclusion of organic, student-led, small group discussions in fully online and blended courses. Through the creation of a classroom culture grounded in culturally responsive pedagogy, universal design for learning, and opportunities for transformative learning, we lay out how instructors can create equitable small group online discussions that foster persistence using multi-modal synchronous technologies. We also share accommodations that address bandwidth and access to technology. Through a proactive approach, we share how to build off student strengths and minimize difficulties while also using any challenges that may arise as opportunities to promote growth.


Bawa, P. (2016). Retention in online courses: Exploring issues and solutions—A literature review. Sage Open, 6(1).

Bowers, J., & Kumar, P. (2015). Students' perceptions of teaching and social presence: A comparative analysis of face-to-face and online learning environments. International Journal of Web-Based Learning and Teaching Technologies (IJWLTT), 10(1), 27-44.

Callister, R. R., & Love, M. S. (2016). A comparison of learning outcomes in skills‐based courses: Online versus face‐to‐face formats. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 14(2), 243-256.

Cherney, M. R., Fetherston, M., & Johnsen, L. J. (2018). Online course student collaboration literature: a review and critique. Small-Group Research, 49(1), 98-128.

Cheslock, J. J., Ford, K., Zhang, L., & Dillon, J. M. (2018). Online Course Taking Behavior for On-Campus College Students. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 19(4), 37–50.

Dana, C. G. (2019). ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, Louisville, CO. Available from: https://www. educause. edu/ecar.

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.

Kaupp, R. (2012). Online penalty: The impact of online instruction on the Latino-white achievement gap. Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, 19(2), 3-11.

Majid, S., Idio, C. D., Liang, S., & Zhang, W. (2015). Preferences and motivating factors for knowledge sharing by students. Journal of Information & Knowledge Management, 14(01), 1550004.

Ortagus, J. C. (2017). From the periphery to prominence: An examination of the changing profile of online students in American higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 32, 47-57.

Plotts, C. (2020a). The space between: Identifying cultural canyons in online spaces and the use of LatinX culture to bridge the divide. DBD Publishing, Sandston, VA.

Plotts, C. (2020b). The space between: Identifying cultural canyons in online spaces and the use of Black cultural attributes to bridge the divide. DBD Publishing, Sandston, VA.

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. https://doi: 10.21621/sajms.2020141.08

Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group.

Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights (2020, July 29). The value of online education.

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

Woodley, X., Hernandez, C., Parra, J., & Negash, B. (2017). Celebrating difference: Best practices in culturally responsive teaching online. TechTrends, 61(5), 470-478.

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:

We will provide participants with a highly interactive research-based yet practitioner-friendly panel. To establish a foundation for our discussion we will offer participants a brief community-building experience (e.g., polling, etc.). Then we will build off that collective experience as we share the rationale for how we structure student-led small group discussions along with successes, pitfalls, and faculty and student perspectives. To end, we will provide attendees resources/ideas to support the development of truly inclusive communities and learning environments in online spaces. For example, a link to the guidelines that we created to use in our courses and our favorite articles, podcasts, blogs, etc.

Session Goals:

Participants will be able to:

1. Understand the importance of inclusive communities and learning environments in online spaces.

2. Describe the impact of culture, bias, and microaggressions, and access to technology on the creation of community.

3. Use our lessons learned along with the resources, and use them to curate inclusive communities and learning environments in online spaces via student-led small group discussions.