Pedagogical Implications of Discussion Board
By: Jennifer Carson


Department of Psychology Homepage

Abstract Introduction Methods
Results Discussion References



    As technology advances, the use of online discussion boards being used at the collegiate level increases. These advances have brought challenges and opportunities to educational training, in particular, through the use of Internet-based online instruction. For many, this type of instruction is perceived as a major breakthrough in teaching and learning because it facilitates the exchange of information for all types of learners and acts as a potentially revolutionary research tool (Hill, 1997). The aim of this empirical study is twofold: 1.) To examine the differences of student responses in computer-mediated-communication as compared to face-to-face communication, and 2.) To explore whether there is an interaction between personality variables, specifically extroversion, and mode of communication. Participants were two classes of Introduction to Psychology students. One class was comprised of 11 students (2 males, 9 females). The second class was comprised of 18 students (8 males, 10 females). The first class received a set of ten questions about cults in a face-to-face class discussion forum. The second class received the same set of questions online in a blackboard discussion forum. The following day, the two classes were switched, with the first class receiving the same set of questions online, and the second class conducting a face-to-face class discussion. Students received the NEO Five Factor Inventory to assess level of extroversion after completion of the in class discussion forum. Variable coded in each situation included: number of online and in-class statements, responses to students, responses to professor, personal and factual statements, observed level of extroversion and observed complexity of statements. A 2X2X2 ANOVA was conducted. Results indicated that personality did not play a role in the significance of the variables. However, results showed that the use of both in-class discussions and online discussions are the best combination for class participation.

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    As technology advances, criticisms regarding instructional quality and effectiveness of traditional face-to-face educational environments increase in number (Relan & Gillani, 1997). New advances in technology have brought challenges and opportunities to educational training, in particular, through the use of Internet-based online instruction. For many, this type of instruction is perceived as a major breakthrough in teaching and learning because it facilitates the exchange of information for all types of learners and acts as a potentially revolutionary research tool (Hill, 1997). Harasim (1990) has suggested the introduction of online education may open unprecedented opportunities for educational interactivity. Similarly, it has been argued by Littleton & Hakkinen (1999) that information and communication technologies offer new forums in which collaborative knowledge construction can take place.
    As participation in class becomes an increasingly larger percentage of one's grade, especially in higher education, the question of fairness arises. Is it fair to be punished academically because one's personality does not allow one to speak aloud their thoughts and opinions for fear of criticism from fellow classmates? The aim of this study is twofold: 1.) To examine the differences of student responses in computer-mediated-communication as compared to face-to-face communication, and 2.) To explore whether there is an interaction between personality variables, specifically extroversion, and mode of communication.
    Computer-mediated communication (CMC) refers to exchanges, which takes place between two or more individuals by way of a computer.The use of CMC has dramatically increased in recent years, due primarily to the increased use of the Internet (Haythornthwaite, Wellman, & Garton, 1998). The State of the Internet Report showed in 1993, most Americans outside of government and academic circles were completely unaware of the Internet as it then existed.  Perhaps fewer than 90,000 people worldwide used the net at that time on a regular basis.  In the summer of 2000, industry monitors estimate more than 300 million people worldwide are using the net on a frequent basis (United States Internet Council and ITTA, 2000). With the increasing Internet usage, the effects of new educational technologies have profoundly altered the learning process of higher education (MacFarlane, 1995). More and more students are required to manage their own learning processes, to use the rich resources of the learning environment to their advantage, and to self-structure and self-pace their own learning.
    Computer-mediated communication can occur either as synchronous or asynchronous (Guiseppe, 2001). The synchronous mode occurs at the same time between two or more users but from different locations, as in any telephonic or face-to-face conversation. Asynchronous mode is produced when communications are not simultaneous, and can occur at different locations over a computer medium. It has been shown that online discussion forums increase participation and collaborative thinking through the provision of asynchronous, non-hierarchical and reciprocal communication environments (Ruberg, Moore, & Taylor, 1996).
    Tiene (2000) conducted an informative, foundational study by administering a twenty-item Online Discussion survey to 5 graduate level classes in the Industrial Technology program of a mid-western university over a period of two years. His results included survey items on various topics including the experience of class listervs, asynchronicity disadvantages and advantages, role of writing, visual cues, and physical presence.
    Tiene found several advantages and disadvantages to Computer-mediated communication versus face-to-face communication, which are discussed below.
    An important difference is in the timing with which the discussions take place (Tiene, 2000). A listerv discussion is asynchronous. Participation can occur at any time, over a lengthy time frame, thus giving a student ample opportunities to consider the issue before responding. This may be convenient, but unfortunately, the delays between responses may weaken the discussion.  For the most part, Tiene (2000) found that the students didn't feel it was a critical issue. Technology has been shown to support active learning and learning where students must articulate and negotiate their developing knowledge structures (Greening, 1998). Through the use of online discussions, (Harrington, 1992) students participate in learning where they were confronted by a variety of different perspectives, engaged in critical reflection and many change their outlook as a result of the exercise.
    A third difference is that online listerv contributions are written, not spoken. It has the advantage of being available in their original and complete form for later reference by both parties without any loss of information due to listening skills and memory. The written communication generally allows for more careful articulation of ideas than does the spoken word, which offers little opportunity for revision. However, writing is more time consuming and cannot replicate the uniqueness of the human voice, which can convey the tone of the conversation.
    Finally, the visual cues involved in face-to-face discussion, are largely lost in the online experience (Tiene, 2000). Keyboard symbols, that represent faces [:)], called, "emoticons" can substitute somewhat for facial expressions. However, they may not be able to sufficiently communicate the range of conversational subtleties normally associated with expressions, gestures, and body language. In a face-to-face encounter, the fact that participants can see each other, may affect their levels of motivation, amount of anxiety, group conformity, or the degree to which they feel they are effectively communicating. However, not being able to see the respondents' faces sometimes relieves inhibition.
    Differences in meta-accuracy between CMC and FTF may also arise from the degree to which people are active participants in the conversation. Gilbert and Krull (1988) assert that people's ability to process language during face-to-face interactions is restricted by the cognitive demands of managing one's own impressions, recalling, relaying, and analyzing information. As a result, people make more automatic inferences based on nonverbal cues. Kluger and DeNisi (1996) further propose that verbal feedback involving the salience of another person decreases attention to the task information being communicated, whereas this is not the case with written feedback. Thus, the absence of visual and auditory distractions in CMC may improve the accuracy with which feedback is understood in that medium. Further, it is often suggested that the lack of nonverbal cues, and the associated depersonalizing of communication allows for a more egalitarian mode of communication (Willis, 1991, Ruberg et al., 1996). As research has also found, introverted students are more likely to benefit from computer-mediated communication than extroverted students, as introverted students find it easier to express themselves in the depersonalized form (Straus & McGrath, 1994). This research aids in the formation the latter part of the two-part hypothesis: the exploration of whether extroversion plays a role in mode of communication.
    Past research study has revealed that a moderator's role in CMC is significant for electronic interaction success. Ahern and DeNisi, (1992) designed three divergent mediator roles each representing different types of teacher discourse in a computer mediated discussion: questions only, statements only, and conversational. Of the three, they found that the conversational condition produced greater participation and more complex student interaction. However, little mention was made in regarding the quality of the students' electronic comments and the depth of cognitive processing. This study will combine the moderatorís role of conversational and questions only.
    McKenna and Bargh (1998) have suggested that there are two main motivators behind the tendency to interact with others on the Internet: self related motives and social-related motives. Those for whom these needs are not satisfied through daily social interaction may attempt to fulfill them through the Internet. McKenna and Bargh (1998) focused on the self-related needs and argued that, when the self cannot be expressed in the immediate environment, the individual will strive to find a social framework in which he/she can express his/her personality and needs. McKenna and Bargh (1998) have based their concept of the real self on Rogers, who argued that the discovery of the true self is an essential part of therapy. To achieve personal satisfaction, a person has to be able to express his/her real self in social interaction and receive social recognition for it. To assess the ability to express the personality layers significantly in communication with others, McKenna and Bargh (1998) created an indicator called the "real me." This stands for the degree of ability to express fully the real self in a social environment. Their work, included two extensive surveys that comprised of four questions focusing on how much subjects opened up to their Internet friends versus their real-life friends. Through Internet users and two laboratory experiments, they were able to suggest that the tendency of people to build close and meaningful relationships to the net is mediated by the location of their "real me" on the Internet, rather than in the "real world."
    One personality theory that may be related to the concept of real-me and may give it a broader perspective is the theory of the extroversion and neuroticism scale. Hamburgher and Ben-Artzi (2000) demonstrated that extroverts and introverts, neurotic and non-neurotic use different services in different ways when on the net. It was found that introverted and neurotic people locate their "real me" on the Internet, while extroverts and non-neurotic people locate their "real me" through traditional social interaction. This would suggest the idea that students who score low on extroversion scales would respond more online than in-class discussions.
    The Five Factor Model of personality suggests there are five categories in which a person's standing on each of these areas can lead to a description of personality (Costa & McCrae, 1992). The NEO examines neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. This study will only focus on the Extroversion scale of the individual.
    Extroversion is a trait in which a person takes interest in other people and external events. These people venture forth with confidence to experience new things (Ewen, 1998, p. 289). As stated before, extroverts prefer to interact through traditional social interaction (face-to-face).
    While using the Five Factor Model of personality, with a main focus on level of extroversion, this study will examine the personalities of the individual students to see if personality plays a role in class participation in class (FTF) or online (CMC).
    There are two purposes of this study. The first is to compare the discussions of undergraduate students in online and face-to-face discussions to see if students who rate low on extroversion really do participate more online than in face-to-face conversations. If this is the case, then one would expect the use of online discussion board usage to increase in all classrooms to lessen discrimination on those students who want to speak out in class, but may be too timid to do so.
    The second part is to look at the differences of student responses in computer-mediated-communication versus in class, face-to-face communication. By providing two sessions, one with a face-to-face discussion followed by an online discussion, and another with an online discussion followed by an in class face-to-face discussion, one may find one version better to aid in overall class action and stimulation. Also, it may give students ample time to think over certain topics, not just during class time, and not just during an online session. Students will give topics a considerable more amount of thought and may be able to take what they or other people say in class or online and further form their opinions. The students are given a chance to deliver their opinions a second time after consideration of others' opinions. This study is looking to see if there is a better way for those who have class participation as a part of their overall grade to ease the pressure for people to give their opinion without the uneasiness of speaking in front of a crowd.

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    Participants were two classes of Introduction to Psychology students at a small liberal arts college in the northeast. One class was comprised of 11 students (2 males, 9 females). The second class was comprised of 18 students (8 males, 10 females).

    The NEO Five-Factor Inventory developed by Costa and McCrae (1992) was used (See Appendix A). It is a 60 item self-report scale measuring the facets of the big five model of personality including neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. It was developed as a short form of the NEO Personality Inventory. Internal consistency calculated for the NEO-FFI was .86, .77, .73, .68, and .81 for neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness respectively (Costa & McCrae, 1992). The 60 items are measured on a 5-point likert scale ranging from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree. "

    Both classes were given the opportunity to sign an informed consent form providing them with their rights as participants, being assured they were able to stop at any time, and their confidence will be completely ensured during all aspects of the study
The same professor taught both sections of the Introduction to Psychology class, during the spring of 2003. The experimenter observed each class.
    Class A, which met at 9:30, was assembled into a small room with a video camera. The class was informed that the researcher was researching student opinions about cults as part of a unit on social psychology. The professor conducted class in an informal, face-to-face, class discussion. She asked a total of ten questions in regards to cults using a conversational mediating role. She did not overly participate in the discussion and stuck to the questions on the sheet as students volunteered opinions and facts. After a half hour of discussion, the researcher re-entered the room and distributed the NEO-FFI to the students to fill out. The following day, the class was asked the same questions online during an asynchronous, discussion board session. The questions were spaced approximately three hours in between before posting the next question. The class was then debriefed on the real reason for the study, the hypothesis, and applicability to real life.
    Class B, which met at 11:30 simply switched the two occurrences. They answered the questions about cults online first in an asynchronous discussion board. The following day they had an in-class, face-to-face discussion, followed by the NEO-FFI and then received a debriefing session. The same prompts were asked by the moderator online and face-to-face.

    After the classes were observed, the online discussions were coded for level of extroversion as well as complexity. The in-class, face-to-face discussions were transcribed and also coded for number of online and in-class statements, responses to students, responses to professor, personal and factual statements. In addition, two students unfamiliar with the study observed the videotape of the face-to-face discussions and also the online, asynchronous, discussions. These students coded for level of extroversion of the speaker as well as how complex the statements were (See Appendix D).

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    A 2 (order: class-online; online-class discussion) X 2 (extroversion level: high or low) X 2 (format: class or online) mixed model analysis of variance (ANOVA). The ANOVA was conducted for the different dependent variables in this study. The seven different variables included: talking, personal statements, factual statements, response to students, response to professors, observed complexity statements, and observed extroversion level (Table 1 for means and standard deviations by format).
    The ANOVA for talking revealed that, there was a significant main effect for format, [F (1,25) = 4.39, p<.05]. The means showed there was more talking in class (M=3.83, SE=1.25) compared to the online talking (M=1.31, SE=.19).
    There was also a significant main effect for format for response to professor, [F (1,25) = 9.47, p< .05]. The means revealed that there were more responses to the professor online (M=6.55, SE=.99) compared to in class discussion (M=2.76, SE=.95).
    There was a significant main effect for format for observed complexity statements, [F (1, 25) = 10.10, p< .05]. The means revealed that there were more complex statements observed in class (M=3.37, SE=.28) compared to online discussion complexity (M=2.19, SE=.26)
    There was also a significant main effect for format for observed level of extroversion, [F (1,25) = 7.30, p<.05]. The means revealed that the observed extroversion level online was higher (M=2.20, SE= .15) compared to observed extroversion level in class (M=1.59, SE= .17).

Table 1. A reanalysis of means and standard deviations for the dependent variables.

                                                           Class                        Online
Variable                                            M                 SE                M             SE             F
Talking                                            3.83               1.25            1.31           .19         4.39*
Personal Statements                        2.33               .81              3.42           .57        1.52
Factual Statements                          5.36              1.78             3.44           .66        1.25
Response to students                         .60                 .27              .36             .18        .45
Response to professors                      2.76               .95             6.55           .99         9.47*
Observed complexity statements      3.37               .28             2.19           .26       10.10*
Observed extroversion level             1.59                .17             2.20           .15        7.30*

df (1, 25)

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     As was discussed in the introduction, the aims of the study were twofold: 1.) to examine the differences of student responses in computer-mediated-communication as compared to face-to-face communication, 2.) To explore whether there is an interaction between personality variables, specifically extroversion, and mode of communication.
    The latter of the two areas of study involved level of extroversion and to see if students who rated low on extroversion would participate more in online discussions than in-class discussions. Unfortunately this was not the case. Level of extroversion did not play a role in student participation online or in-class. This finding goes against the findings of Hamburgher and Ben-Artzi (2000). It was found that introverted and neurotic people locate their "real me" on the Internet, while extroverts and non-neurotic people locate their "real me" through traditional social interaction. This would suggest the idea that students who score low on extroversion scales would respond more online than in-class discussions. It was unfortunate that this was not found true in this study.

Difference Between Online and Face-to-Face Discussion
    There were significant results for talking. There was more talking in class than online, which would be expected. Tiene (2000) points out that visual cues are important for students to converse freely and feed off each other's comments. Thus it would make sense that there would be more in-class talk than online talk.
    Online there were significantly more responses to the professor's questions than responses to student answers. This would also make more sense. Students are more formal online than in-class and are more direct in answering the question as opposed to making conversation, which is seen in class. Tiene (2000) states that online discussions are usually more formal and theory-education based, so therefore the student would naturally look at the question of the professor and answer the problem directly. The student may or may not look at their peersí responses, depending on how much effort they want to put into their answers.
    This leads into the significant results that there is more observed complexity of discussion in class than online. Students can jump back and forth between topics and delve into further discussion in face-to-face discussions. There is the use of emotion, hand gestures, and visual cues to aid one in discussions. The written communication allows for more careful articulation of ideas than the spoken word, however, Tiene (2000) found that the actual presence of another person to convey the tone of conversation, which allows students to feel more included in the atmosphere of discussion. Tiene (2000) also found that the written communication generally allows for more careful articulation of ideas than does the spoken word. It also gave students time to read the comments made by their peers and the time to develop their own responses. One may or may not find it surprisingly that in-class discussions were more complex than online discussions. The literature supports both.

Extroversion and Class mode
    There were no significant results for level of extroversion in comparison with personal statements, factual statements, or response to student comments. Also there were no significant results for amount of talking. There could be a few reasons for why there were not significant results for this.
    The first reason is the low variability in extraversion scores. Of the 29 subjects, 2 had low extroversion scores, 7 had average extroversion scores, and 20 had high extroversion scores. It would be interesting to see if this study had different results if it was replicated in a larger university with a more diverse group of students (differing levels of extroversion, ethnicity, larger population size, or even equal gender).
    Future studies might also want to explore the questions at differing points throughout the semester. This study only examined the students once per mode of discussion at the end of the semester. Often times, students fall into habits of those who speak a lot in class and those who do not. It would be interesting to see if these habits start from the very beginning of the semester or if they are likely to change throughout.
    Yet another area that could be more constant was the amount of people in the classes. The classes were split, however one class had 11 students (2 males, 9 females), and the other class had 18 students (8 males, 10 females). This might have been a problem area.
    Another problem area could have been the actual topic. The students involved may have had a very strong or very weak opinion of cults. If there were multiple topics looked at throughout a semester, perhaps there would be more significant results.
    A final problem is that there was only one in-class discussion and one on-line discussion. Depending on the student that day, determined the results of the study. Perhaps the students were having a bad day and did not feel like talking, or perhaps they were not interested in the topic at hand. Maybe the student forgot to participate online, or did not have access to a computer. Conversely, perhaps the student was having a terrific day and wanted to participate because he/she had a great deal to say about the topic of cults. It is important to investigate multiple in class or online ideas to determine if specific findings of this study can be generalized.
    A final problem was that of the moderator. The moderator played two roles. In the class discussion, she was using a more conversational role, inputing more than just a question only style, which was used online. This might have played a role in studentsí answers or participation.

Conclusion and Implications
     Through this study, it has been found that there are many pedagogical benefits found in both online and face-to-face discussions. From a teaching perspective, one would deduce that the best teaching style would be a combination of using both online discussion boards and in-class discussions, regardless of the personality of the students. There was more talking in class than online. Not only was there more talking, but the statements given were observed to be more complex. In face-to-face group discussions the learners share a common focus. The contributors in group discussions generally interact with the group as a whole, and most students participate in the one developing discussion. While this topic may shift in emphasis or topic, students are engaged together in the development of a shared understanding. However, among these statements, there were more factual statements in class, whereas the personal statements were left online. One might infer that a student may feel more comfortable giving a personal statement online without the fear of classmatesí stares or possible rejection. Also, there were more student directed responses in class than online. Thomas (2002) has found that although messages in an online discussion forum might appear to be interactive, in as much as they make reference to a previous message, the branching structure of threads promotes an incoherent development of ideas amongst the group of students. Individual students do not engage with a group, but with the isolated contributions of individual students. So if a teacherís objective is to find more complex, factual information, use group in-class discussion. If a teacherís objective is to find more personal opinions use online group discussions.
     The goals of a professor usually include reaching out to students and developing their thinking and communication skills. After looking at the results of this research project, these goals can successfully be accomplished by using a variety of methods including in-class, face-to-face discussion in which the students are able to interact with each other on more complex and diverse topics, or online discussion boards in which students are able to give straight, opinionated responses to the questions or topics at hand. Either mode of communication will aid in complementing a studentís participation grade as well as a well-rounded educational experience.

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