Academia Journal of Educational Research 3(3): 000-000, November 2015
©2015 Academia Publishing
Instructional Elements and Online
Accepted 9th November, 2015
Online discussions (that is, online discourse) are common components in distance
education courses. Online discussions can serve to bridge the gap in student
interaction that might otherwise be compromised due to the isolation of distance
education. They also facilitate peer learning and foster the association of real
world experience from theory to application. An updated review of the literature
related to instructional interventions and participant characteristics in online
discourse was provided (Spatariu et al., 2007). Moreover, this systematized review
considers the direction of future online discourse research in an educational
climate where technologies are leading the way and the trajectory of students
receiving distance education is on a steady increase.
Key words: Terminology found in the existing literature (for example, online
discussions, online discourse, and computer-mediated communication).
A study commissioned by the National Center for Education
Statistics (2012) shows 20% of all undergraduate students
in the country have been enrolled in at least one distance
education course during 2007 to 2008. Graduate student
participation in distance education courses was reported to
be even higher in a 1999 to 2000 report as compared to
undergraduate student participation (Sikora, 2002). The
delivery mode in K-12 education is rapidly acclimating to
distance education trends. In 2009 to 2010, 53% of public
high schools reported having 1.3 million students enrolled
in distance educations courses compared to only .3 million
in 2004 to 2005 (NCES, 2012). For more recent enrollment
data by state a detailed report can be found on the NCES
website (NCES, 2014). Based on learner characteristics of
younger generations and the rapid development of
technology, it is reasonable to believe that the number of
distance education courses and degrees which are
delivered through online learning platforms will rise in
availability and attractiveness to students at all levels of
Synchronous and asynchronous online discussions have
been mainstream practice in distance education courses
serving various purposes such as general communication,
content understanding, collaborative writing, debate,
critical thinking expression (Anderson, 2002; Bonk and
Dennen, 2007; Palloff and Pratt, 2001; Rose, 2004; Rovai,
2007; Spatariu et al., 2007; Tu and McIsaac, 2002). Online
discussions have also been referred to as discussion
threads, computer mediated communication, online
collaboration, online discourse, and online chats. All
students that enrolled in distance courses have access to
some discussion medium, which is part of or adjacent to the
course, such as social media venues (for example, Facebook,
Twitter and blogs). Despite the availability of online
discourse venues in distance learning, the effectiveness and
efficiency of implementation (that is, instructional
interventions) and participation (that is, learner
characteristics) in the discussion process are not trivial or
intuitive and may be affected by several factors.
Spatariu et al. (2007) described two types of factors as
evidenced in past research: instructional interventions
(Anderson et al., 2001; Heflich and Putney, 2001; Jeong, 2004;
Jeong and Joung, 2003; Langille and Pelletier, 2003; Nussbaum
et al., 2002; Peterson-Lewinson, 2002; Poscente and Fahy,
2003; Rose, 2004) and learner characteristics
(Bendixen et al., 2003; Nussbaum, 2005). This research
Alexandru Spatariu*1, Denise L. Winsor2 and
Radu P. Mihail3
1Houston Baptist University
2University of Memphis
3Valdosta State University
*Corresponding author e-mail:
literature is the foundation for the current review paper. In
this paper, we conducted a systematized literature review
(Grant and Booth, 2009) that focused on results from 2007
and later as previous literature was covered by the
aforementioned listed research. Besides the year, peer
review criterion was used to eliminate papers not
published in a peer reviewed journal or conference. The
selection process focused on empirical studies, regardless
of the methodology employed (quantitative, qualitative, or
mixed). The review was conducted with keywords
commonly accepted for online discussions related
literature, and performed in different databases such as
ERIC, American Educational Association free paper
repository, Association for the Advancement of Computing
in Education digital library, and distance education journals
There are several factors that influence instructional
interventions related to online discussions. These include
group structure (Heflich and Putney, 2001; Jeong, 2004;
Rose, 2004), mentoring and scaffolding (Heflich and
Putney, 2001; Peterson-Lewinson, 2002), argumentative
instructions (Jeong, 2004; Jeong and Joung, 2003;
Nussbaum et al., 2002; Poscente and Fahy, 2003), and
grading frameworks (Langille and Pelletier, 2003).
Consistent with the research literature and compatible with
Spatariu et al. (2007) this section is comprised of two main
areas in the research literature: (1) the use of rubrics and
constructivist activities (for example, scaffolding) and (2)
research on group structure and the use of particular
discussion functions to facilitate collaboration.
Rovai (2007) reviewed literature related to the facilitation
of asynchronous online discussions and suggested the main
premises for achieving effective communication:
constructivist environments, clear expectations, and
establishing social equity and motivation. A practical
suggestion for instructors is the use of a discussion rubric
that specifies length and quality of writing, as well as, the
expectation of tone and collaboration within the online
Antonacci (2011) proposed that the use of rubrics and
direct instruction may lead to higher order thinking in
online discussions. Students in distance courses may not
notice differences in direct instructional techniques or
facilitation in terms of teacher social presence, but these
types of instructional interventions are more likely to
succeed if the teacher consistently implements certain
procedures (Garrison, 2007).
Mentoring and scaffolding
Hall (2011) investigated the use of scaffolding and
constructivist online learning environments. The evidence
showed that discussion prompt quality and the time
teachers allot to moderating play a critical role in the
quality of discourse within threaded discussions. An initial
prompt is the starting piece of scaffolding in a
constructivist-threaded discussion. Gilbert and Dabbagh
(2004) examined the structure of asynchronous online
discussion protocols and evaluation rubrics with respect to
meaningful discourse. Various degrees of structure ranging
from minimal to high were provided to online discussions
of graduate students in instructional technology courses.
The results showed that specific guidelines support the
facilitation and evaluation of online discussions that, in
turn, promote higher understanding of course concepts and
Land et al. (2007) explored instructional interventions
and their impact on discourse quality. The authors found
the following factors increase quality: presence of
procedural scaffolding to facilitate articulation, reflection
and revision of knowledge; modeling the types of
questioning processes required for productive, high-level
discourse; and structuring discourse around meaningful
questioning and responses that promoted reflection and
revision. Practical recommendations were made based on
the positive learning outcomes of different intervention
Choi et al. (2008) investigated a combination of
prompting for peer questioning and instructor modeling to
boost the quality of discourse. Results showed that both
strategies used together led to better learning outcomes
than the use of either alone. Similarly, Bradley et al. (2008)
examined how question types such as direct link, course
link, brainstorming, limited and open focal, and
applications influenced the quantity and quality of
undergraduate students' online submissions. Although,
students engaged in low overall thinking across all
treatment situations, limited focal questioning,
brainstorming, open focal and direct link type questions
more strongly influenced word count and degree of answer
completion. Course link, brainstorm and direct link types of
questions boosted higher-order thinking.
Scaffolding and group structure
Miyake and Masukawa (2000) described a type of
annotation system (ReCoNote) that allows students to
create links and relationships among notes while adding
new ones. The students conducted research and used
ReCoNote to collaborate and exchange information about
research projects. Qualitative analysis of their research
writing showed improved learning. Another study by
Hoadley and Linn (2000) analyzed the use of the SpeakEasy
collaborative learning environment where eighth grade
students debated the relationship between color and light
over a four-week period. This was a quasi-experiment with
two conditions: the control group had regular discussions
about the topic in SpeakEasy and the treatment group took
part in reciprocal teaching for a given topic in SpeakEasy.
Reciprocal teaching is an instructional activity, usually in
a small group (off or online) where students take turn to be
the teachers. Both groups achieved the learning objectives
but the treatment group learned more about the theories
and scientific reasoning behind color and light in addition
to the regular content. Rick et al. (2002) investigated an
instructional intervention in which students used a
collaborative tool (CoWeb) for writing essays. These
students out-performed the control group that did not use
the tool in the areas of organization and vocabulary.
Jorczak and Bart (2009) implemented discussion tasks in
collaborative online groups to promote higher order
thinking. Findings revealed that conceptual conflict led to
higher order discussions while degree differences in task
context and outcome did not have a significant effect on
discourse quality. The task concept differences referred to
the degree of information presented in the actual task that
could be slightly or highly detailed and realistic. Rourke and
Anderson (2002) conducted a study on groups of students
who were empowered to lead the discussion in lieu of the
instructor’s lead. Their findings showed that a shift in
leadership supported the students’ ability to meet the
learning objectives and was conducive to improved
Chen and Chuang (2011) explored the effects of prior
knowledge as well as, collaborative strategy, and
open-ended versus problem solving strategies on the
quality of primary school students discourse online. Prior
knowledge and the problem-based forums played an
important role in the learning process. Similarly, Du et al.
(2011) looked at a combination of question prompts and
the use of collaborative learning. Their analysis indicated
that learners (graduate students) who received question
prompts from the instructor had enhanced self-efficacy
related to problem solving ability and achieved higher
Baran and Correia (2009) did a qualitative study to
explore student-led strategies used to overcome the
challenges of instructor-dominated facilitation and enhance
the sense of learning community. Results showed that three
facilitation strategies: inspirational, practice-oriented, and
highly structured were influential in generating new ideas,
increasing motivation to participate in discussions and
establishing a friendly, risk-free online environment.
Another collaborative learning activity was implemented
by Tawfik et al. (2014) to explore case-based reasoning.
Participants had to resolve ill structured problems with or
without a case base. Results revealed enhanced
collaboration with the case-based instructional
intervention in place.
Based on the study of Spatariu et al. (2007), learner
characteristics that have been examined in online
discussion settings include: personal epistemology
(Bendixen et al., 2003) and personality characteristics
(Nussbaum, 2005). This section discusses additional
research on learner characteristics such as cognitive styles,
learning communities, learning style, and gender.
Cognitive styles and gender
Jablokow and Vercellone-Smith (2011) examined the
impact of students’ cognitive styles on social networks in
online discussions. Results revealed that students formed
what the authors referred to as cliques that were not based
on similarity of the students’ cognitive style. This finding
has implications for the capabilities of distance
environments to homogenize cognitive differences of
Correia and Davis (2008) explored two corresponding
communities within distance graduate course practices.
One group was formed by instructors and program
instructional developers, and the second group created by
students and instructors. This qualitative analysis found
group dynamics were based on interactions and participant
characteristics. Authors suggested that functioning learning
communities need to be open to sharing common practices,
ease integration of new members by giving them time to
pitch in, manifest cultural awareness and openness, and
encourage conflict resolution development.
Learning styles and gender
Jeong (2007) examined the effects of intellectual openness
and gender with respect to the extent to which students
engage in dialectic critical discourse in online
argumentation. Among the results were indications of
differences between more- versus less-open students in the
number of personal rebuttals posted in response to direct
challenges. Further, there was a significant difference
between males and females in the number of rebuttals
posted with males posting more. These results support the
inclusion of such personal characteristics in course design
as they play a role in argumentative discourse structure
Jeong and Lee (2008) examined how message-response
exchanges, produced during interactions between active
and reflective learners affected the frequency of rebuttals
to arguments and challenges in argumentative online
Figure 1. Discussions structure and quality.
discourse. This study found that the exchanges between
reflective learners produced more responses than the
exchanges between active learners.
This suggests that reflective students are more likely to
generate more critical discourse leading to practical
implications. For instance, one could implement particular
ways of structuring the discussions for different types of
students, such that discourse achieves optimal learning
The visual depiction of the instructional interventions
and learner characteristic related to online discussion
structure and content is represented in Figure 1.
Table 1. Data sources and evaluation method.
Specific tests, social network analysis
Instructor and student posts and replies;
analysis of replies to the instructor as well as
to other students
Content analysis with 8 indicators of direct
instruction based on Garrison, Anderson &
Choi, et al., 2008
Instructor and student posts as well as
Qualitative and quantitative analysis of
students’ posts as responses to instructor
Content analysis using a revised Bloom’s
Bradley et al., 2008
Repeated measures ANOVA examining higher
Baran and Correia, 2009
Content analysis, few different experimental
Jorczack and Bart, 2009
Two way ANOVA, prior knowledge and
problem-based group versus open-ended
Chen and Chuang, 2011
Student discussions and reflections,
instructor observations as well as other
course related documents
Naturalistic case study
Correia and Davis, 2008
ANOVA looking at arguments and
Jeong and Lee, 2008
ANOVA looking at male/female intellectual
openness as reflected in discussions
DISCUSSION AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR RESEARCH
Periodic reviews of the literature such as this one are
imperative for maintaining best practices in distance
education, especially in the area of online discourse given
the rapid changes in technology and increased student
participation at all levels of online learning. This paper
summarizes recent research focused on factors that
influence the quality of online discussions to enhance
learning; specifically, this review examined findings in the
areas of instructional implementation and learner
Additionally, this review contributes to understanding
much needed directions for future research in online
discourse such as the need for a methodical meta-analysis
(Glass et al., 1981). Once more, quantitative data is
available from empirical studies within each of the
identified elements succinctly presented in Figure 1. At this
point, a meta-analysis would be premature since not all
aspects of online discourse are studied equally thoroughly,
and the studies are not always quantitative. Moreover, even
when quantitative data are available within a published
study, it is not always the case that a measure of effect size
was included to statistically justify the effect a particular
intervention has on a specific outcome. Table 1 illustrates
this point by listing the type of methodology (quantitative,
qualitative, and mixed) as well as, the type of analysis.
The framework utilized here to synthesize the research
findings on online discourse includes instructional
interventions and learner characteristics. Examples of
instructional interventions are the following (Baran and
Correia, 2009; Chen and Chuang, 2011; Du et al., 2011;
Heflich and Putney, 2001; Hoadley and Linn, 2000; Jeong,
2004; Miyake and Masukawa, 2000; Rick et al., 2002; Rose,
2004; Rourke and Anderson, 2002), mentoring and
scaffolding (Bradley et al., 2008; Choi et al., 2008; 2007;
Garrison, 2007; Gilbert and Dabbagh, 2004; Hall, 2011;
Heflich and Putney, 2001; Land et al., 2002; Rovai 2001),
argumentative instructions (Jeong, 2004; Jeong and Joung,
2003; Jorczak and Bart, 2009; Nussbaum et al., 2002;
Poscente and Fahy, 2003; Spatariu et al., 2007) and grading
frameworks (Antonacci, 2001; Gilbert and Dabbagh 2004;
Langille and Pelletier, 2003). Learner characteristics such
as personal epistemology and learning style (Bendixen et
al., 2003); personality characteristics (Jablokow et al., 2007;
Jeong and Lee, 2008; Nussbaum, 2005); learning
communities with common interests (Correia and Davis,
2008); and gender (Jeong, 2007). Although, extensive
searches were done of the literature related to online
discussions, the current paper does not claim to present a
complete analysis and classification of the research. Some
examples are the works of Mihail et al. (2014), Kwon and
Graber (2010), Wise et al. (2013) and others who measured
students’ satisfaction, word counts, or other aspects of
discussions that were not commonly referred to in existing
literature as essential to discourse quality. However, they
are not to be discounted, but rather followed to see how
their research evolves.
The complexity and multitude of these factors can be
challenging for instructors and researchers. Research
issues may arise from confusion in terminology. For
example, some research on personality characteristics
overlaps with that on learning styles. This literature review
can be used as a foundation to underpin future research
aimed toward gaining a more in-depth understanding of the
complexity and subtleties in the use of online discourse to
improve learning as well as, foster socially productive
learning communities. It may also promote discussion
among researchers about how to unpack similar or
overlapping variables, and clarify operational definitions of
variables within the field.
Regarding the integration into course design and
teaching using the reviewed research, one needs to
consider their own knowledge and preferences, the
students, and the leverage provided by the relevant
institutions (that is, prescribed curriculum versus a blank
learning management system). Based on this review, there
are several other considerations that fall within the scope
of discussion here. First, instruction needs to be tailored to
the desired learning outcomes for different types of
discussions; for example, argumentation, problem solving,
and understanding course concepts. Secondly, one should
use appropriate strategies to achieve the proposed goals;
for example, prompts, group work, grading rubrics, and a
combination of different interventions. Student
characteristics are a critical variable that need not be taken
lightly. Thirdly, one should consider time management and
the type of data that can or need to be collected from
students. For example, it may be difficult to adjust
instruction to particular learner characteristics if there is
not enough time to determine what those characteristics
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