Cohort-specific Online Discussion Experiences: A Collaborative, Multidisciplinary Approach to Improving Engagement and Learning

Concurrent Session 6

Brief Abstract

The purpose of this proposal is to determine if there is an opportunity to improve student engagement and learning in asynchronous online discussion boards by optimizing the number of students in each discussion.  Research suggests that the optimal discussion group size ranges from approximately 4 – 12 students (Berry 2008; Schellens & Valcke, 2006), yet many of our University’s general education courses contain approximately 25 – 35 students.  In addition, students and faculty have expressed an ongoing desire for more individualized interaction and instruction in the discussion boards.  Our idea for solving this challenge is to implement cohort-specific online discussion experiences in our high-enrollment courses.  This solution design would require the collaboration of an interdisciplinary University team, including faculty, instructional designers, assessment analysts, and learning technology specialists.  We are optimistic that the successful implementation of cohort-specific online discussions would positively impact the teaching and learning experience for our students and faculty.


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.
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. Justin Harrison is the Dean of General Education at Ashford University. He received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Loyola University, Chicago. Similar to Eric and Adam, Justin is continually thinking creatively and working collaboratively to develop strategies and solutions for improving teaching and learning in the Division of General Education.
Josh is the Director of Learning Technology for Ashford University. He received his graduate degree in computer science from National University. Josh's responsibility is to plan, develop, implement, and maintain systems and applications related to instructional technology.
Chris is a Learning Technology Specialist for Ashford University. His daily work includes collaboration with curriculum developers, instructional designers, and data analysts to address and overcome design challenges.

Extended Abstract

A major focus of Ashford University’s strategic plan is to develop, implement, and assess innovative, multidisciplinary approaches to student learning and success.  In an effort to continuously improve the quality of our University’s course design and delivery, this team recently reviewed the literature (Berry, 2008; Du, Derrington, & Matthews, 2007; Levin, He, & Robins, 2006; Schellens & Valcke, 2006) on discussion forums, surveyed faculty and students, assisted in the development of a conceptual framework for online asynchronous discussions, and shared recommendations with University leadership that resulted in several specific strategies.  One such recommendation was to implement a cohort-based model of discussion forums in our high-enrollment general education courses.

At Ashford, discussion forums create a substantial venue for interaction, dialogue, and the collaborative construction of knowledge in our online courses.   Furthermore, it is commonly accepted among researchers and educators that asynchronous discussions can enhance online learning.  During the course of our review of the literature, as well as our thorough assessment of curriculum quality, faculty teaching, and student success data, we determined that the optimal course size for increased student engagement and learning is likely approximately 4 – 12 students per discussion.  While many of our upper-level undergraduate courses closely align with this recommended course size, the majority of our general education courses consist of approximately 25 – 35 students.

Fortunately, the fusion of learning technology, data analytics, and curriculum and innovation has fostered a culture of evidence-based decision-making at our University.  In order to address this challenge, a multidisciplinary team of academic leaders, faculty, instructional designers, assessment analysts, and learning technology specialists collaborated to develop a potential solution.  Specifically, we hope to improve student engagement and learning in discussion boards by creating cohort-specific discussion experiences in our high-enrollment general education courses.  Additionally, in order to evaluate the success of this solution, we plan to employ a variety of direct and indirect measures, including learning assessment through rubrics and end-of-course surveys for students and faculty.

Berry, G. (2008). Asynchronous discussions: Best practices. In 24th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning.  Madison: University of Wisconsin System. Retrieved from

Du, J., Durrington, V. A., & Matthews, J. G. (2007). Online collaborative discussion: Myth or valuable learning tool. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3, 94 – 104.

Levin, B., He, Y., & Robbins, H. (2006). Comparative analysis of preservice teachers’ reflective thinking in synchronous versus asynchronous online case discussions. Journal of Technology and Teaching Education, 14, 439-460.

Schellens, T. & Valcke, M. (2006). Fostering knowledge construction in university students through asynchronous discussion groups. Computers and Education, 46, 349-370.