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First year students' attitudes to online discussion

Jeremy Keens
Alistair Inglis

RMIT University
The response of new users to online discussion was assessed through the evaluation of a task in a first year science course at RMIT. The task required students to describe, online, an item from the media that made use of statistics, and to respond to the items posted by at least two other students.

Students' views were evaluated through the conduct of two focus groups, convened before and after the activity. The focus groups explored issues that had affected their participation. These centred around relevance of online discussion in general and this exercise, familiarity with the technology, access and assessment. Students particularly balanced the last two when they decided on their level of engagement.


Asynchronous discussion groups have been used for many years in distance education, providing opportunities for interaction that may not otherwise have been available (Mason and Kaye 1989, Kaye 1989, Harasim et al. 1995, Paulsen 1995, Thompson and McGrath 1999). The increased emphasis now being placed by universities on flexible delivery has led to the use of online discussion groups being extended to courses delivered on-campus (Powers and Dutt 1996, Meisel and Marx 1999, Light et al 2000). This has resulted in more students and more staff having to become involved in discussion activity.

The concerns that arise in relation to discussion groups in distance and on-campus delivery are separate but overlapping. For example, access is regarded as an important issue in distance education (National Board of Employment, Education and Training, Higher Education Council 1997, Inglis et al. 1999). Socio-economic factors and the varying reliability of networks are recognised as representing barriers to access. Access is also an important issue in relation to on-campus use. However, the factors that limit on-campus access are different. Nevertheless, if students can't get access on-campus then their situation may be the same as that of distance education students.

Extensive material is now available to assist and guide teachers in relation to pedagogical, social, managerial and technical issues that arise in using online discussion (Berge 1996; see also Davie 1989, Comstock and Fox 1995, Harasim et al. 1995, Stoner 1996). Factors that are commonly mentioned include ensuring students are familiar with the system they will be using, are aware of discussion etiquette and rules, that they understand the purpose of the discussion activity in relation to the aims of their course and that the workload is appropriate, and is encouraged by balanced moderation.

An issue that is repeatedly raised is the need for engaging students in the process of online discussion. Barriers can be thrown up by the difficulty in gaining access to the technology, by the participants' fears concerning use of the technology, and by antipathy towards the mode of interaction.

When online discussion is used to augment face-to-face teaching, where students come into regular contact with both staff and fellow students, implementation tends to shift from general discussion and focuses on specific exercises or structured activities (Powers and Dutt 1996, Meisel and Marx, 1999, Light et al. 2000). Within such exercises, however, the level of activity varies markedly between individuals and between student groups, as does the tenor of their interactions (Light et al. 2000).

In order to gain a better understand of the students' initial attitudes to online discussion a qualitative study was undertaken of the reactions of a group of first year students to their first experience of participating in a discussion forum.

The discussion activity

The students were studying Human Biology 1 and 2, which covered cell biology and genetics in first semester and anthropometry in second. Both subjects were delivered on campus through lectures and practicals, with an increased responsibility for students' self-direction in Human Biology 2. The face-to-face teaching was augmented by the provision of online lecture notes, Internet links and announcements.

In the middle of first semester a forum was established to enable students to discuss whatever they wished. The matters that were discussed could be directly related to the subject or could be related to planning of events or to other general communication. There was no activity on the discussion forum in first semester or in second semester prior to the structured exercise.

In second semester, to provide more focussed interaction, a discussion activity was set. Students were required to summarise an instance of the use of statistics in the media and comment on its accuracy and value. They were then required to respond to the postings of a minimum of two other students. The conferencing system that was used was HyperNews and the practical groups were established within the HyperNews structure. Each consisted of approximately 20 students.

This task was the 'practical' component corresponding to a pair of lectures that are based on Stephen Jay Gould's 'Mismeasure of Man'. The lectures conclude an introduction to physical anthropology. Gould highlights some egregious examples from the history of this science of statistics being used and abused in the scientific and, to a lesser extent, the popular media. One of the points Gould makes with these examples is that while data may be generated 'objectively' by reputable academic researchers, when the data are released into the public sphere, reporting of the significance of the data is often not carried out as objectively.

The discussion activity was scheduled for weeks 9 to 11 of the 13 week semester, following the lectures. It was set down as an assessed task, but was allocated a weighting of only 4% of the final mark. In the end it was decided that all students who completed the task satisfactorily should be awarded full 4% as the quality of the participation was of uniformly high level.

Students were introduced to online learning over an extended period. Their first practical session for the year was held in the Faculty computer laboratory. During this session they were introduced to the range of resources that were to be provided online. However, the conferencing system was not then functioning. A demonstration of the conferencing system was given in a lecture in week 7 of the first semester, and students were encouraged to participate in the discussion forum from that time onwards. Prior to the commencement of the discussion activity, a second lecture demonstration of the structure and operation of HyperNews was given.

Evaluation methods

The principal method used to evaluate students' reactions to online learning was through the conduct of two focus groups. The first focus group was conducted at the commencement of the discussion activity in week 10. The second was conducted after the activity had been completed in week 13. What were of particular interest were the shifts that took place in students' attitude over the time between the focus groups.

Students were invited to volunteer for participation in the focus groups through announcements at lectures prior to the first group, and they were offered light refreshments as an incentive to participate. The first focus group comprised six students. The second focus group comprised seven students, of whom four had participated in the first focus group. Each of the focus groups met for approximately three quarters of an hour. The discussion was guided by a series of pre-prepared questions (see Table 1). The discussion was recorded and the recording later transcribed for analysis. The transcript of the online discussion was also reviewed. In addition, subject evaluation forms included questions relating to where students generally accessed the web and their general response to various online components of the subject, and these were also reviewed.

Table 1: Focus group questions

Questions put to both focus groups
1. What problems have you been experiencing in gaining access to the online material?
2. How well do find that the online medium suits what you are needing to do in this subject?
3. What do you think about the type of task you are involved in?
4. What has interacting online been like for you?
Additional questions put to the first focus groupAdditional questions put to the second focus group
5a. How do you feel about being criticised online and do you feel that you have sufficient opportunity to contribute?5b. Now that you've completed the activity, what did you think you got out of it?
6a. What changes would you like to see in the way the subject is offered?6b. If you were doing the subject again what would you like to be different about the way it uses online learning?
7a. How do you feel about flexible delivery in general7b. How would you feel about more extensive use being made of discussion groups?

8b. Given the importance of computers where do you think we should be striking the balance between accommodating preferences and challenging you to escape from your comfort zone?

Students' attitudes to online learning in general

Before focussing on the students' experience of the discussion activity, it is worthwhile noting what they had to say about online learning in general.

Some of students were comfortable with computers and the Internet and valued the flexibility offered by the online mode of delivery:

I can email my assignments in...I find really, really useful.

Getting lecture notes and things like that. Its been really helpful.

Online is a great way to do it because it allows complete flexibility and you can do it in your own time.

However, others seemed anxious about their lack of familiarity with computers:
I'm really bad with computers, and it is good to have a bit of diversity... I think if you were spending all the time online I'd certainly get a bit disheartened.

I would like an alternative to the Internet because I don't like computers. I don't have Internet access except somewhere away from home. There's nowhere where I feel comfortable using the Internet ... If there was someone around we could say 'look when I tried to log on today'... Computers are a long way outside my comfort zone.

Comments by a number of the students indicated that they did not see a great deal of value in discussing issues online when they could quite easily conduct the same conversations face-to-face:
I live with three other biology students, so if I had a question I would just ask them. Someone who doesn't, like is away from students in the same course...that's where it would be helpful.

When you can just ring a friend it's a bit quicker than getting onto the Internet, logging onto the site.

I'd drive to Uni and speak to Jeremy before I try and get on the Internet. And it [face to face] is more immediate.

However, most acknowledged that there was a place for online learning, provided an appropriate balance was struck with face-to-face teaching:
There is definitely a happy medium. Like its good to have both. I'd be a bit concerned if it went totally online ... We're paying these fees to be taught, not to be [learning] off the Internet.

I have a bit of a problem with it because I think that the University is trying to move everything into flexible delivery, and if I wanted to study remotely I would have chosen that way.

There has to be a transition period. Like you can't just sort of turn [teaching] around.

Participation in the discussion activity

The pattern of participation in the discussion activity is indicated by the figures given in Tables 2 and 3. From the information presented in Table 2 it can be seen that while most students completed the activity as set down, few students went beyond satisfying the minimum requirement. Table 3 shows that almost all students made their postings on one or two days.

Table 2: Extent of participation (number in class = 84)
Note: The figures in columns 3 and 4 are inclusive.

Participation in the activityDid not meet
Made one or two post7

Completed the activity
Made additional posts: initial statements

Made additional posts: comments


Table 3: Number of days on which each student posted

All on one day38
On two separate days32
On three days4

Comments of participants in the first focus group showed that students were aware of interdependence of students' actions in this type of discussion:

You can't analyse people's until everyone else's put it on there and this sort of, you know, go to find that a lot of people are putting it on that first week - that's three days to finish the whole prac.

If everyone leaves it to the last minute, its going to have an effect on all.

Comments of participants in the second focus group showed that one of the most important factors determining the extent of their participation was the demand for students' time:
I knew exactly what I wanted and finished.

Just too busy [to write more].

I think I had to go to work so I just did the two and left, but I read through a few of the others.

Students' response to the discussion activity

Participants in the first focus group professed interest in participating in the discussion activity. They saw that it would provide them with access to other student's opinions. They also saw that it would give them experience in a method of interaction that was likely to become more widely used over time:
I think that it's good. If we were doing a normal type of assessment, we wouldn't interact with one another. Its good to see what other people have to say. I think it broadens your outlook on the actual assessment.

I think you get a broader view of other people's opinions, which is important.

A sharp learning curve of how to use a web discussion because we're being forced to, and I think that if you're learning something that's a good thing.

It's the way would use it if they weren't forced.

Participants in the second focus group were positive in relation to the process and reflected the overall view of the class as expressed in subject evaluations:
I think it's the best, one of the best ways of doing something like that... you can do it all hours of the day and night.

It was good for a change.

It sort of motivated me. It was interesting.

I feel the way this assignment was done struck a fairly good balance. You didn't have to be a computer genius to do it.

In the class evaluation one student indicated that they considered the discussion too rigid.

Tone of the discussion

When dealing with each other, the discussion itself was restrained and civilised: most of the posts either agreed with the initial statement made and congratulated their fellow student on identifying the problem. While students were aware of the possibility of becoming more aggressive on line, most did not, and stated any disagreements politely. The fact that so few people returned to comment on comments meant there was no on-going exchange. In the first focus group students acknowledged the possibility of heated exchange.
Basically people just argue online which I find very interesting.

You're a little bit more anonymous. So you can be as cutting back and not sort of care.

By the time of the second focus group students seemed to have become more accepting:

If someone was noticeably poor, I'd criticise what they said not the fact it was noticeably poor. Whereas in a newsgroup I'd say 'it was noticeably poor'.

I think as long as its constructive.

Most of mine were pretty agreeable...I couldn't really be bothered abusing anyone.

There was one series of exchanges that led to the only instance of an author of an original posting returning to reply to a comment:
Please keep in mind before making these wonderful and insightful remarks that these are only comments, anything said here is not going to change the way that our government runs the country. Thank you for your expression of interest in my piece, although taking a few comments so seriously surely isn't good for your stress levels.
As it happened the student who made the initial comment that was taken further by other students was part of the focus group. This person explained their feelings about the rejoinder:
Somebody wrote something after my criticism. Somebody else wrote something and then the original person wrote something and I thought 'This is ridiculous'...I thought I had a valid comment to make in the end someone added to that who was very harsh ... on the original.

Degree of engagement

As the questions in Table 1 indicate, we were interested to discover why students had not engaged in more extensive interaction and discussion. The comments of participants in the second focus group offered two insights into why this may have been so. The first possible explanation was that the topic that had been set for discussion was not sufficiently relevant. On the matter of relevance participants commented:
I don't think it was relevant to biology though.

It was pretty irrelevant in the scheme of things but it was an interesting medium.

If we had an assignment but had to answer certain questions, and you could answer them into the discussion group.

I'd be prepared to do a much more detailed analysis - like put a lot of effort into it - if I felt it was more relevant. [repeated and agreed]

The second possible explanation related to the marks allocated to the assignment.
It was one of the smallest assignments we you're not going to put too much into it.

I think they are very time consuming and I'd have an issue if there was more of it and I spent a lot of time on this one little piece of assignment work.

The questions been raised by a lot of people as to whether it was a good idea because people who did do it [but] didn't put as much effort in ...[got] marks or full marks for it.


An issue brought up in both focus groups was the problem of access to computers.
I found that I had to get online from home which I didn't want to because of the cost involved - because I can't always get computers out here. Lack of resources is a big problem

You know, it would be a nightmare not having a computer - an absolute nightmare

For instance, if it was worth ten percent of the final mark and I couldn't get on a computer, that would be very stressful.

A lot of people are struggling to get access from home.

In fact, subject surveys indicate that only half of the students have Internet access at home, and all students regard on-campus facilities as the principle point of access. However, the laboratories are not always available when they were needed.

Will there be weekend access available, because at the moment there isn't any?

[When] we have a sort of three hour break and that's when I want to use it and that seems to be peak time.

In the peak hours of your day its're walking round and can't get on or you have to wait half an hour or waste half an hour walking round trying to get a terminal.

Its particularly frustrating when you see people there who are chatting on Yahoo! chat. However, some students had identified quite effective strategies for ensuring that they were able to obtain access - coming in early or late in the day, or coming in on Friday when it was less busy.


The results of this study suggest that students recognise the relevance of online discussion both to their current learning and future engagement in discussion and debate. They are therefore quite willing to engage in these types of activities so as to gain experience. However, it appears that the level of their engagement is determined by a range of intertwined factors as reported by the students: Making topics more relevant may necessitate choosing topics that are more obviously related to the subject matter of the course. In this course the connection between the historical use of scientific data was not sufficiently closely tied to the more general use of statistics in today's society.


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Contact details: Jeremy Keens, Human Biology and Movement Science, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Bundoora
Phone (03) 9925 7308 (direct) (03) 9925 7607 (department office) Fax (03) 9467 8589

Please cite as: Keens, J. and Inglis, A. (2001). First year students' attitudes to online discussion. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 379-388. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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