Changing the Conversation: How New Approaches to Online Discussion Can Improve Student Success

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session Community College/TAACCCT Research

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Brief Abstract

How can online discussion foster intrinsic student motivation—by supporting peer-to-peer interaction, helping students formulate inquiries, and encouraging them to assume a teaching role?  This panel will explore a forthcoming study from 10 institutions finding that inquiry-based discussion can drive greater student engagement, increase faculty satisfaction, and, ultimately, improve academic outcomes. 




Extended Abstract

A robust body of research indicates that quality online discussion can lead to better discussion quality and interaction, greater faculty satisfaction, and improved course outcomes. And getting discussion right is especially critical—both during and well beyond the Covid-19 crisis—as online education continues to grow, along with the use of online discussion to support blended and fully in-person courses.


But strong outcomes are far from guaranteed, and the model for discussion has a major impact. Pedagogy that supports intrinsic student motivation—by supporting robust peer-to-peer interaction, asking students to formulate and pose inquiries, and encouraging them to assume a kind of teaching role with peers—can be especially powerful. Last fall, researchers at the University of North Texas conducted an initial pilot study that examined the role of technology in facilitating such an inquiry-based, motivation-focused approach to pedagogy. That pilot found that AI-enabled platforms, which include “features that mimic a social networking site as opposed to the traditional discussion forums in a learning managements system,” led to measurable improvements in metrics like citation of sources that correlate strongly with the quality of discussion. 


While this pilot and other existing studies on such approaches are promising, the research is far from complete. A forthcoming research study, which will be published in spring 2021 in the Online Learning Consortium’s special-edition COVID-19 issue, aims to add to our understanding of online discussion and how to maximize it to improve outcomes along with the faculty and student experience. To do so, 10 institutions participated in a research study with Packback, an inquiry-based discussion platform powered by AI, in fall 2019 and spring 2020. The study, which involved 5,000 students, 100 instructors, and analyzed more than 100,000 student discussion posts, compared the inquiry-based platform to LMS discussion boards the institutions were already using. 


Results from the study’s fall cohort show that AI-enabled discussion can drive greater student engagement than traditional online discussion tools—and that, in turn, increases faculty satisfaction and engagement and, ultimately, student grade attainment. Similar findings have been replicated in independent studies. This speaks to the power of this particular tool and package of faculty support services, but also more broadly to the efficacy of inquiry-based discussion and the use of AI. In particular, it extends our understanding of the role of online discussion in driving outcomes in face-to-face courses. The need for effective online discussion is well established for online courses, and this study has shown that asynchronous inquiry-based student discussion has similar value within face-to-face courses.

This panel will feature Dr. Adam Fein, who led the initial pilot study at the University of North Texas, in conversation with institutional leaders who participated in the full research study, as well as faculty who have themselves implemented AI-enabled discussion in online and face-to-face classes. Participants will learn more about not only the research itself, but also how to effectively implement inquiry-based discussion pedagogy in their own online classes -- an issue that has taken on ever greater importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.