Facilitating Discussion in Distance Learning





Clearly, there are distinctly different distant learning environments, as well as varied ages and programs available due to technological advancements. It appeared to me, and I may be incorrect in my assumption, that this discussion post refers primarily to online distant learning environments with primarily older adults in attendance.


Value of Discussion


Discussion in the distance learning environment is at least as valuable as, if not more so, than the materials and resources from which the discussion is based. It is true that the discussion is based upon certain materials and resources, however, in an online learning environment, one of the many facets of deepening and enhancing the knowledge acquired is through discussion and/or processing of the information from many different perspectives. There will be many learners who discuss the same predominant points relevant to the readings. There will also be a few learners who will find and discuss the topic from a different perspective which would not otherwise have been thought about by the other cohorts. Additionally, discussion helps create a learning community among the students, further deepening the bond between the cohorts. Yet another benefit of the discussions is that often cohorts will bring in different resources and materials they have discovered to share with the others. This allows the cohorts to learn from each other by indirectly sharing in the research.


Role of the Facilitator


In a distant learning environment, successful development of a community of learners becomes integral to achieving successful learning outcomes. Instructors take on the role of facilitator, allowing the learners to construct and process information collaboratively, which is a more student-centered approach. The instructor provides parameters for the discussion indicating expectations regarding depth and breadth. Thereafter, the instructor facilitates ongoing discussion by clarifying important points, and addressing misconceptions. Early in the course, the facilitation may involve more interaction between instructor and students as they are “building a community of understanding” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, p, 186) Further, the instructor needs to ensure that the learners “have read the instructor’s clarifications and explanations . . . to ensure that misinformation is not accepted as fact, and that the thread does not get off track” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 186-187) . As the course evolves, student-to-student interactions predominate and the instructor takes a more passive role monitoring and observing. I was very surprised to discover that it is recommended that instructors respond to 1 out of 4 posts in early discussions and only 1 out of 10 in later discussions. I had never realized there was a “rule of thumb” regarding number of facilitator responses to student’s posts. In retrospect the vast majority of my instructors through Walden have followed this particular guideline. I have had a couple who did not and who responded to each learner in the beginning, tapering off as the course went on. I have to admit, I preferred the early extra-interaction with the instructor. It gave me the feeling that I was on the right track with my discussion response. This is especially the case if my post gets few, if any, responses from other cohorts. There are many more students in our class than is typically advised, which tends to result in fewer interactions for each individual cohort, or more for some than others do.


The metaphors of educators presented in “Learning and Knowing in Networks: Changing roles for Educators and Designers” presents significant alterations in the roles of educations from teacher-centered to learner-centered (Siemens, 2008).


John Seeley Brown’s “Educator as Master Artist… Expertise is still present; not to direct learners to an intended target, but to inform and offer perspective shifts based on the work of the masters from generations past as well as emerging forms of art” (Siemens, 2008, p. 15).


Clarence Fisher’s “Educator as Network Administrator … a primary task of the educator is to assist learners in forming connections and creating learning networks These learning networks should assist learners in developing competence to meet the objectives or outcomes of a particular course…Gaps in the learning network are addressed by both learner (self-directed by active participation in the network and through self-reflection) and educator (through evaluating, with the learner, the nature and quality of the learning network [external] and how key concepts are related and understood [conceptual])” (Siemens, 2008, p. 16).


Curtis Bonk’s “Educator as Concierge … serves to provide a form of ‘soft’ guidance – at times incorporating traditional lectures and, in other instances, permitting learners to explore on their own” (Siemens, 2008, p. 16).


Lastly, George Siemens “Educator as Curator… educators must assume dual roles: experts with advanced knowledge of a domain and guides who foster and encourage learner exploration. Educators create learning resources that expose learners to the critical ideas, concepts and papers within a field … creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored and connected” (Siemens, 2008, p. 17).


Effective interactive strategies


There are several methods of engaging students in meaningful conversation. First and foremost, specific expectations regarding defining characteristics of a “substantive” posting versus a superficial posting are necessary. Unfortunately, these expectations often vary with instructor. One instructor required a certain number of words for the initial posting to qualify as substantive, as well as a specific word count for responsive postings to others. That instructor also made clear that superficial, complimentary postings would not count towards the required number of postings for the week. Another instructor required a certain number of posts over TIME, preferably one per day, more than three days per week, indicating exceptional participation. Another instructor required original resources in addition to the instructional materials, indicating additional investment, higher level of learning and sharing on the part of the learner. Yet another instructor required extensive evidence specifically from the instructional materials. In any event, with the exception of Rosemary, most of the instructors leave it up the to the learner to determine from the rubric what is expected in the discussion forum, and which generally only becomes more clear after the first week’s discussion posts are graded. One thing is certain, in each of these instances the instructor is attempting to ensure meaningful conversations are occurring in the discussions.


Problem based learning, Webquests and debates are credited with requiring additional involvement and engagement (Simonson et al., 2009). Personally, I have discovered I prefer analysis of case studies to typical discussion posts because they require a deeper level of analysis. For instance, the material still needs to be read, absorbed, processed, and synthesized. But, it then needs to be applied to the case study in order to take a position regarding some aspect of the case study in relation to the topic. This type of applied analysis and discussion became very involved and the learners seemed very “into” the discussions. Further, many different perspectives came out, more so than in a traditional discussion forum. For example, in examining the value of discussion for our post it is clear that it is valuable, that the materials present a point of view regarding its value, and as the learners we are to add our experience as additional evidence to its value. In this case, although the experiential anecdotes will be different, much of the information will be similar and repetitive, as we have all read the same materials.


I would note, however, that despite the recommendations of our many resources in this class and others, the utopian distant learning environment has not yet reached fruition. To date, there are still many institutions which hire instructors/facilitators for previously designed courses and then put additional constraints on the instructors as to what they can modify or not. In these types of situations, it is the administration and bureaucracy limiting the engagement of the learner, rather than the instructor. I know that if I were given an online course to teach I would prefer to provide problem based situations and/or case study analysis for the students to base their discussions; however, this may not be an option dependent on the school and/or program.


Role of the Student


Perhaps the generation gap has biased my brain, but I have always seen education as a complex partnership between the instructor and student, with the instructor providing guidance, but the bulk of the responsibility for learning is on the student. An online learning environment would certainly be no exception. In fact, it becomes even more important in that if the student does not contribute to the discussions, learning cannot occur for themselves, and worse still, they are negatively affecting the learning of their cohorts. It is the student’s responsibility as part of the group, to provide a substantive response to the discussion post and to put forth significant effort and reflection in responding to others. This also goes beyond the superficial. As much as I appreciate when people read my posts and responding complimentarily to them, I also really enjoy questions regarding my thoughts and thinking patterns. When other students quote materials from different resources I look them up and that helps me learn as well. It is one of the reasons I try to find alternative materials to support my posts. The class is a community searching for information regarding the same topics, some of which is different from that of the others. That is when the learning really gets enjoyable.




Siemens, G. (2008). Learning and knowing in networks: Changing roles for educators and designers. ITFORUM for Discussion, January 27, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.tskills.it/userfiles/Siemens.pdf


Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education. (4th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/recordDetail?accno=ED445216


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