All Quiet on the Discussion Front

“I hope you realize the importance of online collaboration.” “Participation in online discussions constitutes a significant portion of your course grade.” “Now that the initial stage of confusion and uncertainty has subsided, I would like you to become visible in the course by
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  • “I hope you realize the importance of online collaboration.”
  • “Participation in online discussions constitutes a significant portion of your course grade.”
  • “Now that the initial stage of confusion and uncertainty has subsided, I would like you to become visible in the course by starting to participate in the Discussion Board forums.”

Postings like these may sound familiar to online instructors who are teaching classes comprised of non-native students. I too have been sending these and many other kinds of postings to some of my online ESL students who resist participation in online discussions. In some cases such warnings work; in other cases they don’t. Even though there is a considerable increase in ESL students’ amount of participation in online discussions as opposed to regular classrooms, compared to their American classmates, ESL students appear reluctant to participate in online discussions. To solve the problem, the instructor should apply additional methods.

Why has there been a considerable increase in ESL students’ amount of participation in online discussions as opposed to regular classrooms? One of the reasons is the fact that students are no longer afraid that their poor oral communication skills, strong accent or abundance of grammar errors in speech would prevent them from getting their message across. In addition, before posting an online message, they can take as much time as they need to carefully weigh, correct and polish each word. Finally, non-native students no longer feel “overpowered” by those classmates who always have a well-articulated educated opinion about discussion topics, thus causing ESL students feel inferior.

Still, compared to their American online classmates, ESL students appear reluctant to participate in online discussions. Here, cultural limitations appear to be an important factor. Foreign students are considerably less outspoken than their American counter-parts. This “outspokenness” or always having something to say on an issue is a phenomenon that stems from a fundamental right all Americans so proudly profess — that legendary freedom of speech. Many foreign students come from countries where basic human rights were either violated or non-existent. Another factor contributing to reluctance in participation is the difference in educational systems. Most foreign students come from a different educational system with lecture-based, teacher-dominated learning environment, in which sharing ideas was never encouraged. As a result, foreign and immigrant students experience tremendous difficulties when expressing themselves in writing and discussions. Finally, language limitations play an important role in hindering non-native students’ desire to engage in online discussions. Even though online students can take advantage of increased planning time to write their messages (Warschauer, 1999), they still experience the fear of being misunderstood, and as a result, appearing less competent. All of these aspects combined contribute to lack of participation, which in turn becomes a serious obstacle in online learning where successful outcome of the whole course depends largely on students’ ability to share responses and voice opinions.

One solution to the problem is acknowledging such cultural limitations and differences. Increasing teachers' cultural awareness and knowledge as well as d eveloping an understanding of the characteristics and needs of ESL online learners might remove barriers for some students. Another solution is to create a learning environment that fosters collaborative learning and “creation of a network of distributed intelligence” (Hamilton & Zimmerman, 264). Assigning collaborative group projects will foster greater information exchange, sharing, and ultimately build a sense of community.

In addition, teachers need to set clear expectations and grading policies as well as modify instructional practices to make them more effective for a diverse population of online learners. Among strategies that instructors can employ to stimulate student participation in online knowledge community may be posting an initial hello and requesting that other students do likewise. In addition, instructors can describe a problem that students are trying to solve; then “inquire whether others have had to address a similar problem and how they addressed it. Develop a newsletter to let students know what is happening on a regular basis within a community” (Neff, 335). Other solutions include adjusting the discussion topics to match students’ interests and/or field of expertise. Instructors can introduce diverse readings to challenge students’ critical thinking ability. Also, the discussion question/topic might be connected to a project that the participant is involved in at work or a concept that he or she wants to learn more about. Finally, instructors need to be persistent in reminding and encouraging students to participate.

In the world of online information, the more learners share, the more knowledge is created. Discussion forums, with their excellent opportunities for constructing knowledge through collaboration, provide plenty of room for such sharing. Thus, it becomes an important task of online instructors to promote active Discussion forum participation of all students regardless of their cultural background.

Email:Marina Sapozhnikov

References

  1. Hamilton, S., & Zimmerman, J. Breaking through zero-sum academics. (2002). In K. Rudestam & J. Schoenholtz-Read (Eds.), Handbook of Online Learning (pp. 257-276). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

  2. Neff, M. Online knowledge communities and their role in organizational learning. (2002). In K. Rudestam & J. Schoenholtz-Read (Eds.), Handbook of Online Learning (pp. 335-352). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

  3. Warschauer, M. (1999). Electronic Literacies: Language, Culture, and Power in Online Education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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