[Abstract]: This study investigates the contribution of asynchronous, online discussion forums to student learning in an Australian, online postgraduate course. The study of online forums is an emerging field of research and therefore calls for a methodology suited to the context where knowledge and application is still at the exploration stage. Grounded theory – an open, qualitative methodology – was chosen as an appropriate method to explore the nature of the interaction in the online forums.
The grounded theory analysis of the data revealed that participant interaction did generate instructional design knowledge across a range of conceptual levels. The study also showed that interaction was effectively facilitated through the use of asynchronous text-based forums, and that participants used the online interaction to build a learning community and to generate knowledge within the learning community. These findings, although from a small case study, help to justify the widespread use of discussion forums in higher education.
The research findings revealed that participant interaction was a key component that enabled the teachers and learners to build and participate in an online learning community. The subcategories that emerged from participant interaction – teaching role, building a learning community and generating knowledge – were all contributing categories to the core category: interaction as a facilitator of learning. Research revealed that the teacher had an important role in managing and facilitating the interactive online learning environment, through both design and implementation of the course. The teaching role was complex and integral in the building of a learning community and facilitating knowledge generation.
One outcome of particular interest for online researchers is that most of the categories that emerged from the data in this study strongly correlated to the categories in the Interaction Analysis Model (IAM); as well as categories identified by the Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research (CIDER), the research arm of the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University. The grounded theory approach in this study generated similar categories to CIDER and IAM, despite the research being conducted without any reference to categories existing in the literature. The correlation between the CIDER, IAM and my categories provides credibility to each set of research outcomes. Also, it can be argued that the correlation between findings of independently conducted research studies means that these categories can be more confidently generalised to other online contexts. While the CIDER categories are now being applied in a number of empirical studies, I suggest that further research in a range of contexts is required to confirm whether these are “the” important variables in online interaction.
The grounded theory approach generated categories unique to this research and provided a framework for the design and implementation of interactive online learning. From these findings, the literature, and personal experience, recommendations are presented in regard to design principles, a design framework, and implementation strategies and tactics. The implications of online learning for institutional policy and practice are outlined, and a reflection on the online teaching role is presented – one that challenges some existing conceptions of a diminished role for online teachers. The debate surrounding the role of teaching in learning-centred pedagogy is an important discussion for higher education.