Peer Interaction and Engagement Through Online Discussion Forums: A Cautionary Tale
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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.
KeywordsStudent engagement Online discussion forums First-year experience Group-work Retention
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