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Recently, Bindura University launched a programme named Virtual Open Distance Learning (VODL) as a solution to curb the economic challenge in access to higher education and delivery systems which deter many prospective primary and secondary level science educators from training at institutions of higher learning. Teachers from primary and secondary schools are enrolled at Bindura University for Diploma and Degree programmes in science subjects at different centers around the country and take their courses when on school vacation periods and payments are staggered round the year. With the launch of this programme, a lecturer is expected to take up a course for the group of conventional students who are on campus as well as off campus students who either visit the campus on a block release plan or the lecturer visits different centers. This poses a problem of inconsistency of the students' performance because many of them are having challenges travelling to the university in order to have access to learning resources in the library. This research aims at ensuring that the students in these different settings are able to get consistent work in spite of the location that they are in so as to improve their performance. Also, the institution is relieved of the instance pressure that has mounted so far in trying to make ends meet with the shortage of human resources in teaching. A number of factors have been identified related to enhancing student engagement among online learners. These factors include flexibility of access to learning materials, learner control over the pace of study aimed at developing greater learner reflection. A discussion forum has been chosen as a Learning Management System tool in order to achieve one learner community where materials can be shared and knowledge is built by power sharing between the lecturer and student. A Learning Management System called Claroline has been implemented and this research aims at collection of information about the experiences of the students involved in use of the discussion forum; and analysing that information to discover the benefits, problems as well as the extent to which students will use the system for academic learning. A discussion forum has been chosen as a tool in this case because of affordances such as its ability to engage in a dialogue. According to Shaheeda Jaffer, Dick Ng'ambi and Laura Czerniewicz (2007) a lecturer can set up, frame, moderate, lead and facilitate discussions allowing students to discuss, collaborate, reflect, argue, analyse and share information by communicative conversation with other students, lecturer or self by making use of a discussion forum.
BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY/THEORETICAL ARGUMENT
There are many schools of thought on learning, including behaviourism, cognitive psychology and constructivism. Technology can provide a medium for conversing and collaborating within the learning environment (Jonassen et al. 1999; McConnell, 2006).
Other texts to be used:
More literature is analysed on the Literature review section.
This research addresses issues to do with delivery of quality education to students inspite of their geographical location. Current research has mainly concentrated at self-sufficient online courses where the student is supposed to figure out solely how to learn without the teacher as a guide. With the increased numbers of learners in different locations, it has been increasingly difficult to provide one to one support and consultation. Also learning material is scarce and students who are staying on campus have better access compared to those off campus. Irina Elgort, Alastair G Smith and Janet Toland(2008) did a research on wikis as an effective platform for group course concluding that attitude of group work are mixed and the use of wikis is not enough to improve these attitudes.
The problems associated with the current set up is that a lecturer is expected to deliver lectures for both conventional and distant students which means physically one has to be on campus and off campus in all centers established and the groups of students at different centers are not performing as well as those who stay on campus. Secondly, the available Learning Management System is not compulsory to use which has made it an archived asset since its introduction because of different reasons. Also a situation arises where there is inconsistency in the quality of work produced and thereby altering the overall quality of education offered by the institution, the total amount of time spent with the off-campus students is less and pressure of work is high since the degree and diploma programmes are on an on-job training basis. The use of a discussion forum will enable these students to be able to have time to look back on the aspects covered during the short period contact sessions with the lecturers, they can have discussions with students on campus and since the discussion forum is asynchronous these students can be able to manage their time effectively to incorporate learning. More discussions can be done even if the lecture is offsite.
To encourage sharing of learning material by use of a forum as a platform where all the course material is housed.
To support collaborative work by grouping up learners regardless of geographical distance so as to improve teacher and learner interaction.
To encourage building of new knowledge by incooperating the internet as a research tool.
To assess the effectiveness of the discussion forum as a Learning Management System tool for facilitating online discussions among students.
To assess the student's perception on the use of the discussion forum as a tool for interactive learning.
Does the use of a discussion forum as an interactive learning tool increase the overall learning knowledge and skills of students in comparison to learning under Face To Face environments?
To what extent does collaborative learning and student autonomy lead to learning and acquiring of new knowledge?
JUSTIFICATION OF THE STUDY:
The project is important in e-learning and will be beneficial in the following ways
The discussion forum will help to facilitate the sharing of academic resources such as Journals, Bookmarks, and URLs to useful sites as well as contribute to new knowledge. Instead of spending hours in the library researching, students can simply post their questions on the discussion board and others would contribute. A discussion forum can act as a good e-portfolio since it has got an archiving system and thus can be used by many generations to come. Thus the system.
The research is also of much importance in the sense that the discussion forum can help in organizing virtual classes and group activities among students in different locations since the university has recently adopted Virtual Open Distance Learning.
The discussion forum tool on the Learning Management System is always online.
Both on-campus and off-campus students are from the Computer Science Department and are computer literate so as to be able to use the discussion forum.
The research is going to be a case study of Bindura University of Science Education Computer Science Department. The sample sizes of the classes are small; all of them being less than 30 and this might have a slight effect on the results. Also the gender ratios in all the classes are all heavily biased in favour of male students. Also since the system is going to be online, the varied students experience with the use of the internet might also affect the results to be achieved.
Implementation of a discussion forum as a Learning Management System tool will close the gap between on Campus and off Campus students thereby making online learning and traditional learning equal.
The research is going to be conducted at Bindura University of Science Education, and the researcher will take computer science students as case study. The research will also accommodate Virtual Open Distance Learning (VODL) students off campus but can connect to the Learning Management System for the discussion forum.
The students (both on-campus and off-campus) will have one course they enrol to on the Learning Management System and form one group. All learning resources will be uploaded on the Learning Management System and a discussion question posted so that they can contribute. After this each student will take up a short question answer test that will be used to rate whether the online discussion forum worked to improve their performance.
Siemens and Tittenberger (2009) researched on the role of technology in transforming learning concluding that much of the change in education over the last several decades has been defined by discussion of content rather than the model and process of learning design and delivery in a technology infused world. They suggested different types of technologies and how they can be used in teaching and learning. Although the views of various social theorists differ (Nicol et al, 2003), there is a general consensus that interaction, dialogue, and collaboration are essential for productive learning. Technology can provide a medium for conversing and collaborating within the learning environment (Jonassen et al. 1999; McConnell, 2006).
Carliner and Shank (2008) articulates on how e-learning theory can inform designs of e-learning looking at the three theories and their respective instructional design. Behavioural theory emphasizes on instructional design that is objective based and is said to be most effective when learners are rewarded as they progress incrementally towards larger learning goals and the model of instructional design should be directed instruction broken down into tasks which are worked in a bottom up fashion or programmed with content broken down into units where different levels of learners can be accommodated by branching instructional programs developed permitting fast learners to skip ahead and directing struggling students to remedial learning. Cognitivism is concerned with the active processing of in information and how knowledge is organised in the brain likening activities to those performed by a computer. This type takes the initiative of Ganges theory (1992) enunciates on the importance of distinguishing the varying domains of capabilities that can be acquired by human beings and formal structure to lessons which begin by gaining learner's attention and continuing through a variety of activities to practice and assess skills taught in increasingly less familiar contexts. Also they look at Merrill's instructional transaction theory which emphasises on the concept of knowledge objects which contain raw information that learners need to reach an instructional goal having attributes and description of purpose plus other descriptors that can be defined by the user. Constructivist theory deals with learner centered framework where the instructor facilitates learning rather than passing knowledge to learners and problem based learning where students learn domain-specific knowledge and skills in order to solve problems. The technology driven instructional design then aims at developing learning platforms that are deeply rooted in the learning theory in order to archive a technologically and pedagogically rich platform.
Patti Shank(2008,p270) points out that whether in the education system or the workplace, technologies for learning change and are changed by those who use them and networks and the internet are continually providing new ways of teaching and learning that go beyond the traditional constraints of time and place. He recommends that when discussing them focus should be more about methods to share support and collaborate.
Research has proved that online discussion forums enable Cooperative Learning and results show that students who have opportunities to work collaboratively, learn faster and more efficiently, have greater retention, and feel more positive about the learning experience. The discussion forum is a public place for discussion that allows time for reflection. While there is a flow of discussion and it is linear, it is not subject to the tyranny of the ever present "now" of the face-to-face classroom that doesn't allow the participants the benefit of an "instant replay." Dawn M. Poole (2000). Poole further concludes that the discussion forum allows as many replays as a participant wants of what was said. A discussion can be revisited and commented on as long as the discussion forum is open, while in a classroom, often the moment is lost and is difficult to revisit. Instructor response, student response are the key components to the construction of shared knowledge within the discussion forum. The deepest learning is in the writing and "talking" about the content of the course within the community of learners. It is a pedagogically sound practice, based on cognitive learning theories, to design and engage in discussion forums with our students. We provide more opportunities for students to become actively involved with the course content to construct their own deeper and lasting learning.
Hopperton (1998) noted that participation in online discussion forums provides opportunities for responsibility and active learning through the expectation of regular participation in online discussions.
Computer-mediated communication (CMC) refers to asynchronous text-based communication that occurs through "one-to-one, one-to-many, e-mail-based discussion lists, bulletin boards" and computer conferencing environment interactions between computer users (Romiszowski & Mason, 2004, p.397). CMC has emerged as an important research area in education, psychology, and technology domains (Hara, Bonk, & Angeli, 2000; Romiszowski & Mason, 2004). There are numerous studies that support the idea that interactions with the instructor and other students are essential elements in a Web-based course (Fulford & Zhang, 1993; Picciano, 1998; Sherry, 1996). In discussing online learning, Harasim (1989) describes interactivity as the most striking characteristic of CMC and the factor with the greatest potential to affect learning.
Similarly, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001) describe the importance in online learning of creating a "virtual community of inquiry" which allows learners to construct experiences and knowledge through analysis of the subject matter, questioning, and challenging assumptions. In a Face To Face environment, this kind of reflection is often accomplished via synchronous, interactive discussions and problem solving sessions. The ability to ask questions, share opinions, or disagree with the point of view in a reading assignment is vital to student learning.
In his article "The Emerging Online Life of the Digital Native," Prensky (2004) compared the internet generation to the generation that grew up in the age before the internet. He concluded that today's digital information communication-technology is an important part of a student's life; therefore "our students have changed radically. Today's students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach." The following chart (1) summarizes his article to illustrate the unique characteristics of digital natives
Chart 1. Adopted from Prensky as cited by International Turnkey Systems
Chart 2. Adopted from International Data Corporation (2003) as cited by International Turnkey Systems
According to Kearsley (2000), the most significant applications of computer -mediated communication in E-learning environments are asynchronous discussion forums. Web discussion forums provide a way for students to extend the classroom discussions. It provides better cognitive and exploratory learning (Haggerty et al., 2001), increased student-to-student discussion and cooperation (Kassop, 2003; Stodel et al. 2006), superior learner empowerment (Kassop, 2003), and upgraded critical thinking skills (Shapley, 2000; Collison et al., 2000).
The online discussions can play a critical role in Web-based learning by helping learners construct knowledge (Jeong, 2003). In an effective online forum, the discussion encompasses the principles of constructivism and social interactions to help learners reach new insights, knowledge, and perspectives. Principles that demonstrate realistic tasks, scaffolds, and feedback for acquiring skills and knowledge, and collaboration with peers will facilitate the process of constructing a shared body of knowledge (Jonassen, 1999). These outcomes may be best attained in the forum when appropriate scaffolding is provided within the students' zone of proximal development (Zhu, 1998, as cited in Hara et al., 2000; Vygotsky, 1978).
However, empirical evidence to indicate that text-based communication used in computer conferencing can facilitate higher-order and critical thinking is only just emerging and not entirely consistent in its results. For instance, Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) report there is "limited" evidence that CMC can facilitate higher-order thinking. Other studies focus on learner-to-learner interactions in addition to the nature of those interactions (Collins & Collins, 1996; Ravits, 1997; Ward & Tiessen, 1997). These studies all reported that CMC can provide opportunities for more learner-to-learner interaction but also reported that CMC could facilitate more reflective and critical thinking skills.
According to Parson (1998), discussion forums can be ineffective for the learning process and thus can end up as an open-ended, non-productive learning activity. Researchers emphasized the need of knowing how the new technology can affect learning outcomes when it is used by different types of learners under different circumstances. It is obvious that just making discussion forums available does not result in effective use. In several cases, forums were created with eagerness but ended up in a digital disappointment. Oblinger (2003) gave the following elaboration on this problem:
Making use of Web-based communication technologies in the teaching/learning process does not guarantee critical thinking and effective learning and teaching. The accessibility of music/video, freeware, and the ability of file sharing, does not mean that "digital work is everybody's property". Accordingly, further inquiry is required to establish the extent to which research conducted on other continents of the world is applicable to the non-traditional Zimbabwean student.
Strengths of Asynchronous Discussion Forums
Among the advantages of using ADB cited in the literature are:
Allows every student an equal chance to participate. Students who are shy or slow-processors sometimes find themselves at a disadvantage in the classroom because they have a tendency to fade into the background as more assertive students dominate the classroom discussion (Santo, 2000)
Encourages thoughtful reflection and more complex responses because participants have plenty of time to think before they post their responses (Rossman, 1999)
Facilitates peer to peer learning as participants frequently have expertise or experiences that will help others in their understanding of a particular subject (Rossman, 1999)
Enhances collaboration. Access to postings can be done from anywhere at anytime, participants do not have to try to coordinate schedules to meet together. This lends itself well to the formation of small teams for collaborative work (Hiltz, 1993)
More flexible and convenient. Participants can access the discussion boards to read and respond when it is convenient for them. This is great for students who are also juggling a fulltime job and/or family commitments (Card & Horton, 2000, see also Salmon, 2000)
Responses are preserved for further reference
Improves writing skills. Participants know that their responses will be read by their peers, as well as the instructor. This 'raises the bar' of quality in their writing (Graham et al, 2001). It also gives them an abundance of writing practice (Santo, 2000)
Can promote a community of learners (Santo, 2000)
Allows the instructor to communicate with the entire class with one posting .this is beneficial for giving feedback or answering questions in a timely manner. A participant might post a question that others also had. The instructor can post one response to the group so everyone can benefit from the feedback (Graham et all, 2001)
Some of the disadvantages of asynchronous discussions are:
Discussions may be slow to start as some students will resist being the first one to post (Santo, 2000)
Decisions are more difficult to make in this medium, especially when consensus is desired (Santo, 2000)
The time delay between the posting of the question and resulting responses can be frustrating for some participants (Rossman, 1999)
Information overload is a strong possibility, especially when messages are posted over a long period of time and conversation becomes disjointed (Rossman, 1999)
Finding time to participate may be challenging for those who are not good at time-management (Salmon, 2000)
Lack of visual and auditory cues may be frustrating for some students, especially those who are used to relying on those 'non-verbal' cues to know how to 'couch' their responses in F2F conversations (Salmon, 2000)
If participants do not respond to a posting, the person who posted might feel excluded or ignored (Santo, 2000)
There may be some anxiety at the thought of their writings being read by an anonymous audience (Rossman, 1999)