Permeable Online Discussion Groups: New Moves for Building Community Online

Concurrent Session 2
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Brief Abstract

Drawing on feminist theory (hooks, 1994) and social presence (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005), this research focuses on relationship-building and social interactions in online learning. Sharing our findings around rejuvenating online courses through the inclusion of relational-focused small groups, rather than transactional discussions, we name opportunities to expand accessibility and 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.

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 hybrid models over exclusively face-to-face experiences with the preference for online learning even stronger for Women and Black learners. This growth and interest is 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, studies show students have lower persistence rates for online courses than 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 (Seaman et al., 2018). 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 widespread use of asynchronous text-based discussions could lead to reports of lower levels of social presence for students in online learning as compared to students enrolled in face-to-face classes (Zhan & Mei, 2013). Social presence is significant because higher levels lead to an increased sense of community and better outcomes for online learners (Joksimovic et al.,2015; Zhan & Mei, 2013). The way to increase social presence is through quality interactions, rather than a precise amount or number of interactions (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. In this qualitative research (Erickson, 1986) study, we trace our curriculum innovations that include student-led small group discussions and analyze student outcomes in order to reflect on opportunities for students to engage with their peers and its impact on students’ persistence. 

Within our research, we recognize issues of equity and inclusion that arise in online courses must be addressed as a central part of our practice and in the ways they contribute to lower 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 hybrid 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 that 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. An opportunity exists for instructors to place value on collaboration, communication, and relationships that are supported in any learning environment by utilizing small learning communities (Plotts, 2020a, 2020b; Woodley et al., 2017). Aligned with feminist theory (hooks, 1994; Kamler, 2001), we see a need for students’ interactions to be recognized as collective and flexible, rather than individualized processes of learning. Unfortunately, opportunities for small learning communities may be more limited in online courses compared to face-to-face classes and the research-based in this area is limited. 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. 

The purpose of this presentation is to describe our research process and findings around the development of student-led small group discussions that center on relationship and community, in both fully online and blended courses. We will discuss previous research around students’ experiences in online and hybrid learning. Drawing on feminist theory (hooks, 1994) and the role of social presence (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005), we will share our qualitative study (Erickson, 1986) of 30 undergraduate students enrolled in two different teacher preparation courses (one online and one blended) at a small midwestern liberal arts college. This discussion will focus primarily on the design of the small group discussions (to include sharing of discussion guidelines/rubrics), student perceptions of their experiences, and recommendations for practitioners and future research. 


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.

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.

Erickson, F. (1986). Qualitative methods in research on teaching. Handbook on research on teaching. 3rd ed. Ed. M. Wittrock. New York: Macmillan.

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).

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge. 

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.

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

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 share our research in a practical and interactive manner that is interspersed with an inclusive community building activity, pause and reflection, time for questions, and opportunities for planning the implementation of student-led small group discussions.

Session Goals:

Participants will be able to:

1. Describe (a) the line of research leading to the development of student-led small group discussions in online and blended settings (b) research evaluating these types of discussions (c) research-informed modifications. 

2. Identify the steps and process of implementing student-led small group discussions in online and blended settings.

3. Begin to plan for the implementation of student led-small group discussions in online and blended settings, which focus on opportunities for relationship and community building.