Liverpool Law Review

, 32:149 | Cite as

Peer Interaction and Engagement Through Online Discussion Forums: A Cautionary Tale



Following an very inspiring presentation from the REAP (Re-Engineering Assessment Practices in Scottish Higher Education) team, I attempted to address problems of attrition and non-engagement amongst first year law students by introducing online small group activities based around discussion forums into the level 4 (first year) Legal Method course. The idea was to build student engagement through teamwork online, thus moving towards a constructivist theory of learning (Jonassen et al. in Am J Distance Educ 9(2):7, 1995), and to increase formative feedback to students at an early stage in their course without unduly increasing my workload. (The benefits of early formative feedback are well documented. See, for example Yorke in Leaving early; Undergraduate non-completion in higher education, Falmer, London, 1999; Yorke and Longden in Retention and student success in higher education, SRHE and Open University Press, 2004). The students were randomly divided into groups of between 8 and 12 students using the WebCT group function. WebCT was at that time the university’s main virtual learning environment and available to all students enrolled on courses through the university portal system. Group discussion forums were provided for a series of activities, complementing the normal lecture pattern of two hours’ lecture plus one hour’s seminar each week. This paper considers the results over 2 years of introducing this system in a widening participation university. It did not prove possible to reproduce the success experienced in the REAP project. This paper attempts to unravel the various reasons for this, technical, pedagogical and practical. This case study is an example of action research, as I was both dismayed and intrigued by the negative reaction of the students and attempted to discover the reasons for it. The findings and conclusions drawn from them will be used to remodel this aspect of the course in 2010–2011.


Student engagement Online discussion forums First-year experience Group-work Retention 


  1. Alexander, P. 2002. Teamwork, time, trust and information. Proceedings of SAICSIT 65–74.Google Scholar
  2. Beaudoin, M. 2002. Learning or lurking?: Tracking the “invisible” online student. The Internet and Higher Education 5(2): 147–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Buckley, C.A., Pitt, E., Norton, B., and Owens, T. 2010. Students’ approaches to study, conceptions of learning and judgements about the value of networked technologies. Active Learning in Higher Education 11(1): 55–65.Google Scholar
  4. Chan, C., and Scott-Laden, B. 2008. Collaborating within the risk zone: A critical reflection. Active Learning in Higher Education 231. doi: 10.1177/1469787408095848.
  5. Clarke, S. 2008. Learning from discussion, Learning from the learners’ experiences, elearning@greenwich post-conference reflections.
  6. Curtis, D., and M.J. Lawson. 2001. Exploring collaborative online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5(1): 21.Google Scholar
  7. Dennen, V. 2005. From message posting to learning dialogues: Factors affecting learner participation in asynchronous discussion. Distance Education 26(1): 127–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fahreaus, E., Bridegman, N., Rugelj, J., Chamberlain, B., and Fuller, U. 1999. Teaching with electronic collaborative groups. Report of the ITiCSE’99 working group on creative teaching of electronic collaborative learning groups.
  9. Gerbic, P. 2006. To post or not to post: Undergraduate student perceptions about participating in online discussions. Proceedings of the 23rd annual ascilite conference.
  10. Goold, A., et al. 2006. Learning in virtual teams: Exploring the student experience. Journal of Information Technology Education 5: 477–490.Google Scholar
  11. Goold, A., et al. 2008. The student experience of working in teams online. Proceedings of the 25th ascilite conference, Melbourne.
  12. Hardy, J., et al. 2009. ICT & the student first year experience: A report from the LEaD project, March 2009.
  13. Hunt, L., Thomas, M., and Eagle, L. 2002. Student resistance to ICT in education. Proceedings of the international conference on computers in education, ICCE’02.Google Scholar
  14. Johnson, D.W., and R.T. Johnson. 1996. Cooperation and the use of technology. In Handbook of research for educational communications and technology, ed. D.H. Jonassen, 1017–1044. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan.Google Scholar
  15. Jonassen, D., et al. 1995. Constructivism and computer-mediated communication in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education 9(2): 7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kirkwood, A. 2006. Getting networked learning in context: Are on-line students’ technical and information literacy skills adequate and appropriate? Learning Media and Technology 31(2): 117–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Laurillard, D. 1993. Rethinking university teaching: A framework for the effective use of educational technology. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. Moore, M. 1993. Three types of interaction. In Distance education: New perspectives, ed. K. Harry, M. John, and D. Keegan. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. Nichol, D. 2006. Increasing success in first year courses: Assessment re-design, self-regulation and learning technologies. Proceedings of the 23rd annual ascilite conference. Available at
  20. Orton-Johnson, K. 2007. The online student: Lurking, chatting, flaming and joking. Sociological Research Online 12:6.
  21. Ramsden, P. 1992. Learning to teach in higher education. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Yorke, M. 1999. Leaving early; undergraduate non-completion in higher education. London: Falmer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Yorke, M. and Longden, B. 2004. Retention and student success in higher education. Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of GreenwichLondonUK

Personalised recommendations