L. Grant, B. Frye

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UNITED STATES)
Discussions are a routine part of online course delivery systems, and teacher education courses are no exception. Ongoing research to examine discussion structure, discussion groups, formation of learning communities, and quality of postings (e.g., Gao, 2011; Yeh & Lahman, 2007; Szabo & Schwartz, 2011; Donahue & Fox, 2006) all inform our understanding of how online discussions help shape future teachers’ thinking and practices. One aspect of discussions that continues to be debated is the role of the instructor. This study contributes to the growing knowledge base on online discussions by examining how effective instructors model and scaffold quality discussion questions and responses.

Past research has revealed that there is a great deal of variation in the ways that online classes and instructors interact. In an analysis of nine different classes, Dennen (2005) found that the most effective formats, as judged by contributions and student input, were discussions in which the instructors played a key role. The instructors set up clear guidelines, provided feedback, and also assessed the participants’ contributions. Similar findings were found in work by Yeh and Lahman (2007), but from the students’ perspectives. The online participants interviewed felt that instructors needed to be involved, and that they can promote productive discussions. However, as Dennen (2005) cautions, if the instructor’s role becomes too dominating, then student participation can be suppressed. Students may feel pressured and be unsure of the validity of their contributions, and deep exploration of topics can be discouraged. Thus, a balanced role for the instructor became the focal point of our study, with particular attention to how effective instructors model appropriate thinking and interactions (Donahue & Fox, 2006).

In order to identify the modeling and scaffolding of effective instructors in online discussions, a set of threaded discussions were analyzed. Over the course of a 16-week graduate level course in a teacher education program, 12 weeks of threads were analyzed. Both instructor postings and student postings were read by two raters, and levels of critical thinking were identified, as described by Khine, Yeap, and Lok (2003). In addition to identifying critical thinking, the posts were further analyzed tracking the instructor's comments and subsequent student posts to determine the effect of instructor modeling and scaffolding on student responses. Results indicated that when instructor modeling and scaffolding is present, student posts that follow show more critical thinking, thus supporting research that supports the facilitative role of the instructor. Examples of posts and interactions will be shared, and suggestions for more productive instructor comments will be given.