My digital teaching practice and opportunities for change 2/5

As a result of this module, I have been trying to find ways of using digital technologies to extend student learning beyond the classroom and create opportunities for students to exchange experiences online.

I teach a group of ten students on the MA International Journalism (not an online course). Because they come from so many different parts of the world and so many different journalistic backgrounds, I see the “group” as a valuable learning resource. To take advantage of this, I have set up discussion threads in Blackboard, encouraged them to share material on Twitter using our course hashtag and we also use a blogging platform, Creative Hive, for students to create and share content.

However, in spite of these different technologies being available to the students, I’ve been disappointed with the results, especially the Blackboard discussion.

Why wouldn’t they want to do this?

A few students do take part and make interesting contributions. But it is always the same few students. Once they’ve posted their comment, they tend not to return to that thread to enter into a discussion.

I have tried asking them to suggest a discussion topic but that didn’t lead to better participation rates.

It was not all negative. I realise that the students who are quietest in class are the most active in any online discussion I set up. The students who contribute most in class never participate in online discussion! Is this reason enough to continue? It would comply with UKPSF V1, V2, K4 and A4 in providing opportunities and learning environments for different learners.

Dialogue has to have purpose

The literature confirms this is not easy. Students cannot be relied upon to participate and the tutor/moderator needs to work hard and devote time if it is to reap benefits (Wozniak and Silveira 2004)

Wozniak and Silveira (2004) describe highly structured online discussions which are embedded into the design of the module and the assessment. As an HPL, I’m not in a position to change module design but I can feedback my suggestions and look at the design of my own sessions.

Dialogue has to have a purpose, otherwise we cannot expect students to participate (Coomey & Stephenson 2001). So how can I help my students see the purpose of these online discussions?

Bringing online discussions into the classroom

Having reflected and investigated, I now think I need to give students more support (scaffolding) to help them see the value of and participate in online discussions. I tend to assume they are all happy in the online world but I’m increasingly coming to doubt that. So I need to be clearer about how the discussion forum is used, perhaps with some taster discussions in class (UKPSF K3)

I should explain very clearly the purpose and value of engaging in the discussions. I am already working to bring the discussions into the classroom to integrate them into our face-to-face time so they become a “near-synchronous activity” (Macdonald 2008 p.60). I also make sure I actively participate and respond to students’ posts.

Perhaps students in a traditional face-to-face course don’t see any value in discussing online.

So why do I see value in it? I see it as a way of collecting and sharing practice in a way that produces an online archive of experience. I think that complements the discussions in class which leave no digital trace and can be superficial because students don’t have time to think through answers before speaking (Garrison and Kanuka 2004).

Increasingly, we’re going to need to make use of these online interactions as socio-economic changes mean more students will seek distance/flexible alternatives to traditional higher education provision (Mahieu and Wolming 2013).

Looking at my own profession in accordance with UKPSF V3 and V4, there is a growing demand for training in digital journalism skills and, according to a report just published by the Knight Foundation, an increasing number of journalists are willing to have that training online because their own news organisations are unable/unwilling to provide it. (McLellan and Newton 2013)

Creelman notes that online courses with active discussion forums have better completion rates so investigating ways to motivate students to participate is both important and timely (Creelman 2013)

However, my investigation suggests there are no easy answers.


COOMEY, M. & STEPHENSON, J. 2001. “Online learning: it is all about dialogue, involvement, support and control – according to the research.” In J. Stephenson (ed.) Teaching and learning online : pedagogies for new technologies. London: Kogan Page.

Creelman, A. and Reneland-Forsman, L. (2013) Completion Rates – A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality?: Let’s Call in the HEROEs Instead. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, v. 16, n. 2, p. 40,

Garrison, D. R. and Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The internet and higher education,7(2), 95-105.

The Higher Education Academy (2011) UK Professional Standards Framework. Available from:

Macdonald, J. (2008) Blended learning and online tutoring : planning learner support and activity design.  Aldershot: Aldershot : Gower

Mahieu, R., & Wolming, S. (2013). Motives for Lifelong Learners to Choose Web-based Courses. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning,16(1), 1-10.

McLellan, M. and Newton, E. (2013) Digital Training comes of Age. Knight Foundation   Retrieved from

Wozniak, H., & Silveira, S. (2004). Online discussions: Promoting effective student to student interaction. In Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 956-960).


8 thoughts on “My digital teaching practice and opportunities for change 2/5

  1. Great post Liz as always, insightful and reflective and love the fact you are using Just a housekeeping point, if you are direct quoting is it worthwhile using the quote tool and if you are using a direct quote, should it contain the reference straight after? I know in a previous post you discussed constructive alignment and Blooms taxonomy, I wonder here if there is scope to rewind a little and look at what is motivating people to engage and why they would do it. I wonder also if there is something in a hierarchy of needs when it comes to technology, time and motivation?

    Commenting on forums is quite time consuming and I can see that some people will be investing their time in other areas, (the paid or assessed ones)? Is there a correlation between motivation to engage with technology during the allotted sessions and if there are marks involved (I think this may be called backwash!) This is a challenge I have with my CPD course, particularly as there is no assessment so it’s harder to constructively align the virtual discussions for the majority and most of our delegates work full time also.

    Research would indicate that there can be great learning value when people engage outside of the classroom and pedagogically sound technology can be a good way to do that. Creative Hive for example is more effective / active when it is used for classroom activities or constructively aligned with assessment. Aside from this, there are other motivational factors such as seeking new opportunities. If you’re interested in this, I wrote a paper called Beyond the closed e-portfolio: Designing for the digital curation of professional identities for lifelong learning: which discusses student motivations and open on-line communities. It’s a bit old now, but I hope it may be of some use.

  2. Thanks for taking the time Alex. I can’t see any direct quotes in this post. I’ve quoted myself a few times just to use as subheadings and I’ve used the quote tool in WP plus Heading 2 for those.
    You mention research indicating there can be learning value when people engage outside the classroom. Can you direct me to that? Could be useful for this post. Thanks.
    That said, my students DO engage outside the classroom. They’re very sociable and they do collaborate on group tasks I assign them. It’s specifically the discussions inside Bb I was interested in because I thought they’d find that worthwhile. I was wrong!

  3. Ah yes, it was the italics on the h2 that confused me – perhaps you should include Hannaford (2013) ? Only joking about that by the way 🙂 In terms of research, there are a few studies you could draw on. One example is the SOLACE research project documented in Janet Macdonalds, Blended learning and online Tutoring (2011). In the first chapter, there are several advantages outlined of blending online tools with face to face, including greater student choice, supporting course objectives and ILO’s and getting the best from a mix of methods. Would be good for us to get some more good examples reinforcing this perhaps?

    I was speaking earlier to our own Dr.Heinze who has written several papers and a PhD in this area and he was telling me that in order to work, these things are best aligned to assessment (e.g. constructive alignment). I suppose you need to look at how your choice of tool maps to the pedagogy and ILO’s and assessment of your module, speak to the students and find out why you aren’t getting the levels of engagement you would like. Keep us posted!

  4. I will look that paper up Alex.

    Liz I will comment more fully in the next day or two. I used the wrong topic for mine so I will have to change before posting! Interesting post and well thought through.

  5. Liz
    I am interested to hear that on what I consider to be a modern and technology suited course such as journalism (as opposed to classical social theory which I teach), you still have difficulty in engaging students with online learning spaces. Similarly to you I found that one of the less vocal students in class has participated online which does lead me to agree that digital teaching can address, ‘UKPSF V2 and A4 in providing opportunities and learning environments for different learners.’ I agree that the digital component needs to be more integrated into courses, but providing an opportunity for less vocal students to participate is a good start!

    Further, your argument for the importance of digital spaces in creating a space for thought out and recorded responses rang true with me. I recalled Morss & Murray’s statement that online learning, ‘permits the process of learning to become more visible because all dialogue is conserved’ (2005, p78). I also believe that it engages students in the writing process early on which can diminish anxiety and stress at times of assessment having engaged in a formative process. The NUS (u.d) charter on assessment and feedback found that formative feedback is lacking in higher education, and I believe that digital teaching gives an opportunity to provide more of this.

    Morss, R. & Murray, R. (2005) Teaching at Univeristy: A Guide for Postgraduates & Researchers. London: Sage.
    NUS. U.d. Charter on Feedback and Assessment. [online] Available at: (Accessed 5th April 2013)

  6. Hi Liz
    Thank you for sharing your reflections and experiences with your MA students. So much of what you discussed resonated with my own experiences and the research I had done for the PBL group presentation for unit 5. I am beginning to see the value of the learning activities we have been asked to do as part of this module !
    I would agree that scaffolding of learning appears to be the key to success and the steps you propose to take fit with Brindley, Walti and Blaschke’s (2009) strategies for improving the quality of on-line collaborations. They propose sequencing of activities and nurturing learner relationships and sense of community. I wonder if we assume our students will have these skills on entry to our courses, particularly if we subscribe to Prensky’s view that our students are digital natives, possessing the skills of connectivity and on-line sharing (Wang N, 2012).
    You comment that online discussions should be part of an ‘assessment framed activity’. You might be interested in reading Sanders (2008) amusing reflection on the introduction of an assignment based collaborative project, he makes some interesting observations about the distinction between the Sciences and the Humanities with regard to collaborative work. Whilst amusing his observations mirror others experiencing of assessment led collaborative activities. (Dirkx & Smith 2004)
    Brindley, J.E., Walti, C & Blaschke, L. M. (2009) Creating effective Collaborative learning groups in an Online Environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Vol 10. (3)
    Dirkx, J. M., & Smith, R.O. (2004). Thinking out of a bowl of Spaghetti. Learning to Learn in on-line collaborative groups. In T.S. Roberts (Ed.) Online Collaborative Learning: Theory & Practice (pp. 132 – 159), Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing.
    Sanders, M. (2008) A Failure to Collaborate. The Chronicles of Higher Education (2008) Retrieved 16.11.13. from:
    Wang, Ng. (2012) Can we teach digital natives digital literacy ? Computers and Education, 2012. 59 (pp. 1065- 1078)

    • Thanks again, Carena. I’ve just read the Sanders (2008)reflection whilst cringing! Far too close to the truth. Perhaps it’s a little easier in my subject area to convince students of the need to collaborate. Newsrooms rely on collaboration so I can persuade students that these tasks are authentic. I shall see the results next week when they run their own newsroom for a couple of hours with live bulletins as part of their final assessment on this first year module.

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