Engaging Students in Online Discussion – or not?

Elisabeth Skinner
University of Gloucestershire, eskinnner@glos.ac.uk

ABSTRACT
This paper compares engagement in communities for learning with participation in local communities. People build individual and social capacity through participation and may not recognise the benefits until they take part. There are many reasons why people remain outside arrangements for joining in local communities, reasons that can apply to students who fail to engage. Findings from research in the community governance field demonstrate the importance of reaching out to people on their own ground and appealing to their personal interests. This paper briefly examines a research project at the University of Gloucestershire reviewing the motivations of students contributing to assessed online discussion – or not. The most significant reason for late postings proved to be a lack of interest in the subject matter during the early stages. The research generated ideas for redesigning the activity to engage students in reflection on their personal interests from the outset, to appeal more closely to the variety of students’ interests and to reach out, especially to those with anxieties. If teachers are seeking to transform individuals through activities for learning then students who fail to participate cannot be ignored.

KEYWORDS
Learning design, online discussion, learning communities

ENGAGING STUDENTS IN ONLINE DISCUSSION – OR NOT?
In the autumn of 2006, only 40% of the students taking an undergraduate module in management for environmental subjects engaged in an assessed online discussion within a week beyond the advertised deadline – and some of those made late contributions. If teachers are responsible for improving students’ experiences of learning then this level of late engagement is unacceptable and more can be done to draw students into the activity. Online discussion is recognised as a useful tool for generating knowledge construction in learning communities (eg Salmon 2000) but not only by teachers; some students are

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also aware of the benefits; for example: “I feel my contributions to the discussions were respected and validated by others and I liked this aspect. I also felt seeing others’ points of view and answers to particular tasks actually made me learn more which is always good for me!” This paper considers how to draw students in to an online community of learners by examining community development literature as well as literature of teaching and learning. It reflects on the findings of an investigation into the motivation of students for participation in the assessed online discussion noted above, and suggests ways in which the activity can be re-designed to improve student learning. There is great similarity between the work of a teacher in higher education and community development work. A local community can be compared to a learning community where, in each case, some people participate in community activities and others don’t. Francis and Henderson suggest that community development is “about the creative development of people” as well as about getting things done in a community (1992:2). Community development workers are usually employed to encourage more people to participate, especially those who appear disadvantaged or excluded from traditional processes. Experts in this field therefore examine the reasons why participation should be encouraged; they identify barriers to participation and ways in which the motivation to participate can be inspired. Benefits of participation: social capital and personal development Capacity building is a concept used in the community development field to mean “training and other methods to help people develop the skills and confidence necessary for them to achieve their purpose.” (Wilcox 1994:31) Wates reinforces this point; “involvement builds local people’s confidence, capabilities, skills and ability to cooperate. This enables them to tackle other challenges, both individually and collectively” (2000:4). Gilchrist (2004) argues that individuals, especially those who are disadvantaged, need support and encouragement to become involved so that their confidence, knowledge and skills are increased. Through participation, she suggests, people learn about themselves as well as about their neighbours and their local authority. Warburton (1998) argues that capacity building can also be a political tool whereby those in power build the capacity of the disadvantaged to help the powerful to achieve their own goals. Certainly the power relationship between teacher and learner is a factor in any learning situation. In its definition of community development, the Community Development Xchange suggests that it is “about changing power structures to remove the barriers that prevent people from participating in the issues that affect their lives” (CDX 2007). Capacity building that empowers people does not occur before participation but through participation (Warburton 1998:33). The benefits of participation may be obvious to the organisers but are rarely evident to members of the community. Dalziel and colleagues,

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in a report for the Department of Communities and Local Government, found that some individuals saw for themselves “the impact of getting involved through personal development and a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction” (2007:41). They also noted that although some people recognise the personal rewards from participation “these benefits are somewhat intangible and it is likely that people will be unaware of these benefits until they take part” (2007:26). The same applies to participation in a learning activity. Students enter a learning situation with a conception of what learning is (Entwistle 2003). Some will already understand that learning is a form of personal development achieved through a deep approach to learning that welcomes participation in learning activities. Others will not yet have realised that learning can be more than the acquisition of knowledge. Barnett and Coate (2004:164) argue that the curriculum should address a student’s “knowing, acting and being” with ‘being’ the most significant because a student needs a “firm sense of self”. Some students come with established self-confidence and commitment to their personal development and “the curriculum needs to be designed to accord students time and space to come into a positive relationship with their experiences, [or] the necessary commitment and engagement just will not occur” (Barnett and Coate 2004:139). Students who lack confidence are less likely to appreciate the benefits of participation until they engage in a positive group experience. The issue remains, as it does for community development workers, how to persuade people to take part when they lack the confidence or skills for doing so and are unaware of the benefits. Barriers to participation There is considerable concern in the community development field that many people remain outside the processes that provide opportunities for personal development, empowerment and collective action. Moseley argues that people are disadvantaged if they are unable to participate fully in social settings that provide benefits and opportunities; this is, he suggests, “the squandering of a considerable resource” of human and social capital (2003:90). Henderson and Thomas believe that people may appear apathetic, unenterprising or depressed but this is an illusion; community development work can find “the vigour, initiative and skills which in fact exist in them” and “the willingness to be involved may need sparking.” (2002:106) Both teachers and community developers need to know why people fail to participate so that they can help remove the barriers and spark people’s motivation for being involved. Dalziel et al argue that governance roles are perceived to be for people who are “welleducated, articulate, ‘well-to-do’ and had time on their hands” (2007:6). Similarly Skidmore et al, researching community participation for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found that community spaces are dominated by a small group of wellconnected insiders with easy access to the community governance structures (2006:6). They also found that those in power prefer well-connected participants with links to other organisations, and sometimes exclude new participants because they have

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confidence in those who are already inside the system. On the other hand, they suggest, people willingly exclude themselves because they find existing enthusiastic participants off-putting, they depend on the activists to address common problems or they are uncomfortable with the system. Fraser notes that some people in a community are hard to reach, “ordinarily sidelined from public policy debates; people who are otherwise understood not to possess the requisite education, skills, time or motivation to be ‘active’ citizens.” (Fraser 2005:295) According to Dalziel et al (2007:25/26), people lack awareness, confidence and time for contributing; they fear repercussions and alienation from their peers and they want financial rewards or guaranteed outcomes. Other barriers relate to fear of the unknown, fear of using the wrong language, fear of being talked down to or fear of being new to a group (2007:30/31), while places where people are expected to participate (such as public meetings) may be “inhospitable places where people felt intimidated” (2007:17). Perhaps students have related fears and can feel similarly excluded. Motivations for participation Of course, participation is a matter of choice in class as well as in local communities. It is therefore useful to find out why people decide to get involved. Sanoff, for example, notes that people choose to participate in local communities in response to a specific interest (2000:17). He agrees that participation is a trade-off between top-down (the authority designing the participative activity) and bottom-up (the individual choosing to participate) (2000:7). Henderson and Thomas (2002) also make links between individual needs and the needs of the community. Community development work “seeks to develop people’s sense of power and significance in acts of association with others that may also achieve some improvement in their social and material well-being” (Henderson and Thomas 2002:22). Dalziel et al (2007:21-23) found that personal interest was central to participation. People are motivated to get involved if they feel strongly about something, either for or against, especially if they know they can influence outcomes; they may also be looking for useful experiences or ways in which they can advance their careers; they may even feel guilt, or an enthusiasm for giving something back into the community. Webster also acknowledges that people are motivated by self-interest and organise around “issues that they define as important to them” (in Banks et al 2003:163) Godfrey and Obika (2004), researching local communities in Angola, recognise that people in a community are not a homogenous mass but a variety of individuals. A simplistic view of communities masks people’s interests and needs and “within apparently homogenous groups, there was a multitude of power relationships based on geographical, political, linguistic and gender differences” (2004:157). It is tempting to see students as a body of similar people but age, gender, experience, education, background, needs and interests for example, can create different approaches to learning.

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Prosser and Trigwell (1999) show how each student has a unique experience when they enter a learning setting. Each responds differently to a variety of factors including their own approach to learning, their prior experiences of learning, their perceptions of the situation and its different aspects such as other students, the teacher, the environment and the task. What is more, these factors are present simultaneously in a student and in varying degrees at different times (Prosser and Trigwell 1999). Encouraging participation The next step is to find out how community development workers encourage greater participation among such diverse communities. Moseley argues that it is not the people but the systems that are wrong when people are excluded and it is the systems that must change (Moseley 2003:90). “Simply encouraging more people to participate seems a somewhat forlorn hope given the range of forces helping to perpetuate the current division between insiders and outsiders” (Skidmore 2006:xi). Community development workers expect to reach out to people and to meet them on their own ground instead of trying to “corale people” into existing systems (Skidmore 2006:50). Gilchrist (2004:20/21) and Moseley (2003:97) also stress the importance of reaching out, and of providing the right space in which communication and co-operation can occur. The environment in which participation takes place is a key factor. Randell (2004) notes that the organiser should create a “safe, rich ‘nutrient’ environment … [for people] to exploit.” Moseley suggests that the nutrients might include access to support, information and skills within appropriate policy frameworks (Moseley 2003:95/96). Barnett and Coate agree; the curriculum is a collective and interactive experience cocreated by teachers and students where students generate a collective space in which they feel safe (2004:141). In fact, they suggest, the space is generally the students’ and the teacher intervenes in that space, sometimes unsettling students but stimulating them to think in new ways (Barnett and Coate 2004:147). Personal contact in the appropriate environment is essential. Wates (2000) presents a range of different methods for persuading people to engage in local activity and notes that personal contact using the right language is important. Dalziel et al (2007) also found that informal contact was effective because it made people feel more comfortable; it was easier to respond to people’s strengths and feelings of social responsibility (2007:32). One-to-one contact allows initial concerns or questions to be answered and allows a first hand account of what is expected to be discussed. … Being told that you are suitable and capable of understanding such a role is flattering and can motivate people to get involved. (Dalziel 2007:41) Personal contact inevitably takes time and Webster argues for a gradual process of developing full community participation; this starts with auditing the existing state of play

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and then establishing a clear rationale, goals and relationships (in Banks et al 2003). This sounds very similar to Salmon’s five-stage model of e-moderating by which students are gradually introduced to knowledge construction in an online learning community (Salmon 2000). However, “No amount of planning and preparation will enable the worker to predict all the variables in a turbulent community environment that will shape and distort her work, and so the worker’s guided intervention needs to remain responsive to the influences and events encountered when making contact with local residents.” (Henderson and Thomas 2002:103) Indeed, despite careful planning using Salmon’s model, a specific online discussion failed to engage many students in a timely and beneficial way. The research project aimed to examine this experience. The student experience Twenty five students taking the module Management at Work in the autumn of 2006 were involved in the research focusing on their motivation for online discussion. They were in their first term of their first year studying environmental, heritage, community or landscape management at the University of Gloucestershire. The assessed activity introduced online discussion using Salmon’s five-stage model. Five activities (each comprising two tasks) were completed over eight weeks with a published deadline for each activity. The intention was to develop a sense of community among students from the same discipline and to provide opportunities for constructing knowledge of management in their subject areas. Students were assessed on the quality of responses to the task and responses to other students. An audit using a short questionnaire was conducted in the first week to make an initial assessment of students’ levels of skills and confidence for online discussion. In the second week, the students were introduced to WebCT and its discussion tool with practical activities at computers. This was extended in the third week to ensure that all students knew what to do. Instructions for the assessed activities were printed in a module guide and reinforced in class. Student performance was then monitored and feedback was provided after each activity to boost confidence and help students to improve their writing, referencing and argument. Reminders were sent by e-mail to students who missed deadlines. The final activity asked students to reflect on whether they had achieved their goals for the assignment and on their motivation for the activity. On completion of the module seven students offered to be interviewed to provide a deeper understanding of their attitudes to the activity as a way of learning. It did not take long for students to get behind in terms of deadlines. Only four students (16%) were never late while another four were late every time, two of whom stopped contributing midway through the assignment. Significantly 72% of students were late in contributing to activities two, three and four; most of these students realised the importance of the final deadline for activity five where only 22% were late contributors.

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These findings suggest that there are faults with the design of the activity that need to be addressed. A closer look at activities where students were very late in contributing (more than a week beyond the published deadline) suggests that specific activities gave particular cause for concern. For example, 40% of students were very late in contributing to activity two; 24% were very late for activity three; a substantial 60% were very late for activity four and only 12% were very late for activity five. This suggests that the students may have found activities two and four particularly difficult to complete. Students’ thoughts on the whole assignment, provided as part of activity five, suggest additional reasons for re-designing it. The students were candid in their reflections and honest about their own performance. The most striking discovery was that 50% of the students confessed that they found it difficult to motivate themselves for the activity for the first two or three weeks because of its emphasis on management. For example, “I entered this assignment with minimal motivation having found in lectures that I really had no clue about management and its principles.” In fact 25% of students in the class had indicated their lack of motivation for the module in their response to the audit carried out in the first week but this was not immediately understood or addressed. Over half of the students demonstrated that they needed determination to complete the activities: “without self motivation and wanting to succeed I would not have found the solutions to the potential problems” and “I could then justify to myself that making the extra effort is worth it and pays in the long run.” Some students (at least 36%) explained that their motivation increased gradually (and especially by activity three) as they discovered the relevance and value of the discussion. I was sceptical of this assignment and so my motivation was nil. However, once I gave it a chance I found it really interesting. It is beneficial to hear about what other people in your own field think and it’s good to reflect on your own feelings. I entered this assignment with minimal motivation. When I found out I was in a small group who were all doing heritage, and that many of the tasks involved applying management principles to heritage, my motivation for this assignment improved greatly. Other barriers to participation became apparent from the discussion underlining students’ individual interests, attitudes and needs. Two students were put off because a few of the tasks required library searching before they made their contribution; another lacked motivation because she felt that she was not in control and a third explained that the activity did not suit her personality. Two more students noted how they were having difficulty adjusting to student life; another admitted that he “liked to procrastinate” and a third thought he knew it all already!

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The interviews provided an opportunity for understanding individual students in a way not normally available to teachers. “Learners see the same interactions through the lens of their own personal journey through learning and life experiences” (JISC undated); the interviews generated insights into deeply personal perspectives and individual capacity. The students who had a more sophisticated understanding of learning as personal development (rather than the straightforward acquisition of knowledge) were more determined to overcome barriers to participation. For example, Daniel, a mature student who identified himself as severely lacking in confidence through the skills audit and then experienced a panic attack when faced with the computer in the ICT workshop, was sufficiently driven by his conception of learning as personal development to overcome his difficulties and participate effectively in the online discussion. On the other hand, Jo, who also identified herself as lacking confidence and skills in the initial audit, wanted to be reassured by being told what she needed to know and was therefore unwilling to engage in an activity where she had to find things out for herself and express her own views: “With all my other work it got pushed back and back. It was more general stuff instead of technical stuff. I’m used to technical stuff from school and college. I took A-level in environmental science and you get a lot more information.” The interview also gave Jo an opportunity to show where her specific environmental interest lay; “I’m into energy at the moment”. She also provided clues to her overall motivation: “I don’t really have any set goals; I just want a job that I like, not just any job but one I actually like” and to her conceptions of learning: “I like doing something practical; you learn more from doing it. I want to do lots of practical things. But then I understand you have to read and … I’m not a big reader.” It is clear from this investigation that many students remained excluded from timely and therefore effective co-operation. They were slow to recognise the benefits because, in terms of personal needs and interests, they were not immediately obvious. Re-designing the activity Most significantly, the design of the activities suffered from a simple but damaging mistake; it failed to draw on the students’ natural enthusiasm for their own field of study such as heritage or environmental management. Instead, the focus was on management in general (because this was the theme that they all had in common) and they found this uninspiring. Activity three asked the students to consider the issues for managers in their field and this began to spark their interest but some students had already been left behind. Thorpe and Godwin (2006) found that “the start of the course was critical to its success”. Indeed, the activity should be re-designed to capture individual enthusiasm from the outset. Considerable time was invested in understanding and developing the students’ capacity for online discussion before the activity started through the skills audit and ICT workshops. Although this investment was useful, it also missed the point. Knowing

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how to do online discussion did very little to help the students who were not sufficiently motivated by the subject matter. Similarly it did little to demonstrate the benefits of online discussion that are unlikely to be understood by many students before the activity. This was particularly demonstrated by comparing Daniel’s response to the activity with Jo’s. Daniel lacked the skills, even after the skills development workshops, but still engaged in the activity, while Jo said she had no difficulty with technical aspects but was unable to get to grips with the subject matter. Participation is the key to capacity building; at the end of the assignment in activity five, some students noted how participation had strengthened their ICT and writing skills and gave them confidence in their own ideas. “It has increased my confidence of talking to others and my confidence in my own ability” and “I have learned how to use WebCT and being made to express my opinions in writing has helped my skills in this area.” Crucially Henderson and Thomas (2002) note that community development workers must give individuals time for reflection, a key tool in personal development, to check their progress. Barnett and Coate (2004) argue that students need time and space to strengthen their understanding of the self. It was clear from the students’ responses that participation requires an effort of will that depends on a good sense of self. Where students lack confidence they need personal encouragement and benefit from space in which to think about who and where they are. However, this can be a long and gradual process. Anderson (cited 2006) examines Argyris and Schon’s theory on congruence and learning drawing attention to their idea that “we put in place defences which hamper our discovery of the truth about ourselves” and that we may be “unwilling to admit to our motives and intentions” (Anderson 2006:7). Such difficulties cannot be addressed in a single activity in the students’ first term but the activity can be designed to give students time and space to begin or to continue thinking. In this respect activity five, where the students reflected on their performance and on their motivation, was a productive element of the online discussion. Perhaps the initial task, instead of touching on the students’ experiences of management, should reflect on their subject-based enthusiasms. The early stages are crucial. Ignoring students who might be full of anxieties and paying too much attention to those who are already strong, reinforces the actions, perceptions and attitudes of students and traditional power relationships. Opportunities for personal development and for empowering students are squandered. The class is not a homogenous group; each student is an individual with different needs, different interests and different approaches to learning. “It is the students as individuals that have to be uppermost in [teachers’] minds” and “the self has continually to be nurtured through curriculum design as a creative but continuing process” (Barnett and Coate 2004:148). Once they take part, students can find that the online discussion is a space in which they feel safe and supported and in which their own views are acknowledged and valued. Some students in the research study stressed the importance of feedback and support from other students and from the teacher: “it was a great motivator to have

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people comment or question your contributions and be able to do the same in response to theirs”. The better participants also noted how much they learned from other students confirming that eventually, the activity became ‘nutrient rich’; this was especially valuable, for those who conceived of learning as the acquisition of knowledge. In summary There are benefits to participation such as the building of social capital and personal development that may not be realised until people engage in community activities. Some people feel comfortable inside the systems for participation while others remain outside and there are many intrinsic and extrinsic barriers that prevent people from joining in. People are motivated by personal needs or self interest as well as feelings related to community and influence. Participation remains a choice, so simply asking people to join in is not sufficient. The very beginning of an activity must be designed to draw people in, mainly by recognising individual needs and appealing directly to personal interests. An initial investment can identify and then reach out to students lacking confidence or skills by making personal contact and showing concern. The activity for Management at Work will be redesigned to touch on students’ enthusiasm for heritage, environmental, landscape and community right from the start. It will also give students time to reflect on their feelings about their subject and what they want to learn at the beginning. Taking management in general as the focus for discussion was a mistake. Participation needs a rich and safe environment in which people are supported and their needs, interests and skills are understood. The design of the activity should bear in mind ways of bridging the gaps between the included and excluded, the strong and the weak. Essentially it is important to avoid seeing a class as a homogenous mass and making assumptions about students who fail to participate. The opportunity for reflection afforded by this study demonstrates how easy it is for the teacher to make simple mistakes when trying to guess what is in students’ minds. Students who fail to participate cannot be ignored if teachers are seeking to transform individuals through activities for learning.

REFERENCES
ANDERSON, L., undated. Argyris and Schon’s theory on www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/arp/argyris.html [accessed 22.11.06] congruence and learning.

BANKS, S., BUTCHER, H., HENDERSON, P. and ROBERTSON, J., 2003. Managing Community Practice. Bristol: The Policy Press.

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BARNETT, R. and COATE, K., 2004. Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education. Maidenhead: Open University Press. CDX (Community Development Xchange), 2007. www.cdx.org.uk/about/whatiscd.htm, [accessed 20.03.07] What is community development?

DALZIEL, D., HEWITT, E. and EVANS, L., 2007. Motivations and Barriers to Citizen Governance. London: Department of Communities and Local Government. ENTWISTLE, N., 2003. Occasional report 3: Concepts and conceptual frameworks underpinning the ETL Project. Edinburgh: ETL Project FRANCIS, D., and HENDERSON, P., 1992. Working with Rural Communities. Basingstoke: Macmillan. FRASER, H., 2005. Four different approaches to community participation, Community Development Journal, 40(3), pp. 286-300 GILCHRIST, A., 2004. Community Cohesion and Community Development: Bridges or Barricades. London: Community Development Foundation. GODFREY, S., and OBIKA, A., 2004. Improved community participation: Lessons from water supply programmes in Angola, Community Development Journal, 39(2), pp.156-165 HENDERSON, P., and THOMAS, D.N., 2002 3rd ed. Skills in Neighbourhood Work. London: Routledge. JISC, undated. Understanding my Learning: Background and rationale. www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/understanding_mylearning.doc [accessed 27.11.06] MOON, J., 2004. A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning. London: Routledge Falmer. MOSELEY, M., 2003. Rural Development: Principles and Practice. London: Sage PROSSER, M., and TRIGWELL, K., 1999. Understanding Learning and Teaching: The experience in higher education. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press. RANDELL, M., 2004. Constructing participation spaces, Community Development Journal, 39(2), pp. 144-155 SALMON, G., 2000. E-moderating: the key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Page. SANOFF, H., 2000. Community Participation Methods in Design and Planning. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Inc. SKIDMORE, P., BOUND, K. and LOWNSBOROUGH, H., 2006. Community participation: Who benefits? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. THORPE, M., and GODWIN, S., 2006. Computer mediated interaction in context, Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education: Who’s Learning? Whose Technology? 3-6 December 2006, Sydney, University of Sydney, pp. 813-823 WATES, N., 2000. The Community Planning Handbook. London: Earthscan. WARBURTON, D., 1998. Community and Sustainable Development. London: Earthscan. WILCOX, D., 1994. The Guide to Effective Participation. Brighton: Partnership Books.

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