Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference of Teaching and Learning (ICTL 2009)
INTI University College, Malaysia
TEACHER USAGE AND PERCEPTIONS OF ONLINE
DISCUSSION FORUMS IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Rodney Lim1, Michael Lee2 and Christina Yin3
Swinburne University Sarawak Campus, Malaysia
(email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com)
Online asynchronous discussions are becoming a popular learning tool in higher education. At Swinburne
University of Technology Sarawak Campus, online discussions are provided by the use of the Blackboard
Learning System. This paper investigates the adoption, usage and perceptions of these online discussion tools
among the various faculties.
Online discussion forums, Web based discussion forums, Asynchronous online discussions, Computer-mediated
discussions, Adoption of learning technology
Web-based learning systems like WebCTTM and Blackboard Learning Management
SystemTM provide online spaces for discussions, and enhance classroom interactivity. As e-
learning and blended learning practices increase in popularity, the ability to use computer-
mediated discussions effectively will become increasingly necessary.
At Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus, it is mandatory for all subject
instructors to use the Blackboard system to post learning material, lecture slides and other
subject documents to support the teaching functions. The asynchronous online discussion
forum feature, however, is an option.
This paper reports an exploratory project to study the adoption and usage of these discussion
forums in the university as well as their perceived effectiveness. It will form the basis for
staff training programs to enable better utilization of online learning tools and other
interactive technologies such as blogs and wikis that are featured in the newer version of the
Blackboard system to be implemented in 2010.
BACKGROUND AND RESEARCH OBJECTIVES
Asynchronous online discussions are a type of Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC)
defined as the exchange of messages among a group of participants by means of networked
computers, for the purpose of discussing a topic of mutual interest (Gunawardena et al.,
The adoption of technology for teaching and learning has been extensively studied, including
its acceptance (Davis, 1989), and the influences, incentives and barriers to usage (Jacobson,
1998; Beggs, 2000). A focus of this paper is to find out the adoption rate of online forums for
teaching and learning in Swinburne Sarawak. Since discussion forums represent a
technological innovation, it is likely that diffusion of the technology into the established
methods of teaching and learning will vary (Mandinach & Cline, 1994).
The value of asynchronous online discussion forums in education has been highlighted by
Wilson and Whitelock (2000), Tiene (2000), Pena-Shaff and Nicholls (2004), and Kumar
(2005), while Althaus (1997) and Gilliver et al. (1998) have expounded on the advantages of
online discussions over traditional face-to-face interactions and found that students who
participated actively in online discussions achieved higher academic performance than
students who did not.
While most studies have focused on learners and outcomes and pedagogical and curriculum
design aspects, this paper investigates asynchronous online discussion forums from the
perspectives of the teacher. Sheard et al. (2003) studied teacher perspectives on Web-based
discussion forums, within an Australian context. So has Nachmias (2002), who examined the
broader areas of Web-based learning, and focused on changes in instructors‟ attitudes and
perceptions of online teaching at Tel Aviv University over a two-year period.
Teacher roles in managing and using online forums have also gained attention from
researchers (Bonk et al., 2000; Anderson et al., 2001; Goodyear et al., 2001; Offir et al.,
2003), while demographic factors like gender have also been studied (Mazzolini &
Maddison, 2002). This paper examines whether online discussion forum usage is correlated
with age, gender, teaching experience, level of education and familiarity with technology.
Despite asynchronous online forums being applied in a wide range of academic disciplines,
not much research about its appropriateness from the teacher‟s perspectives has been done.
Parker and Gemino (2001) suggested that online discussions are more suited to conceptual
type learning rather than skill acquisition, that is, online forums are less suitable for certain
types of subjects or learning tasks. This paper compares the usage of online discussion
forums among the various disciplines in the university.
Lastly, this paper examines teachers‟ perceptions of the effectiveness of online discussion
forums for communication and teaching. When the Blackboard Learning System was first
introduced to the Swinburne Sarawak campus in 2003, Mering and Robbie (2004)
investigated students‟ usage and response to the Blackboard. The various facilities in the
system were found to be under-used then, especially its interactive components, namely the
discussion forums and the chat function. This was attributed to staff resistance to change and
unfamiliarity with the technology. Since some time has elapsed and Mering and Robbie‟s
work was not followed up, a paper such as this is warranted to look at the teacher side of the
issue at Swinburne Sarawak.
RESEARCH QUESTIONS AND METHODOLOGY
The objective of this project is therefore to answer these specific research questions:
What is the adoption rate online discussion forums by Swinburne‟s teaching staff?
Does the usage of online discussion forums correlate with demographic and background
characteristics of the academic staff?
Why do lecturers choose to use them? Why do they not use them?
Are they perceived to be effective?
A self-administered questionnaire was designed and distributed to all faculty members of the
Schools of Engineering, Business and Enterprise, Computing and Design, and Language and
Foundation. It covered all full-time and part-time staff.
The 53 surveys returned represented about 46% of all the teaching staff at the university at
the time the survey was conducted. The survey response rate for all schools was over 50%
except for Engineering (25%).
Overall, about half (49 %) of the respondents claimed they had used online discussion forums
for teaching. Younger teachers used the online forums more than the older ones (Pearson
correlation of 0.259, p<0.05 for age variable). Almost 59 percent of respondents aged 40 and
under used online forums compared to 16.7 percent for those aged 41 and over. The younger
users were generally technologically savvy and they spent an average of 5.5 hours a week on
other Web forums like MSN and blogs so their familiarity with technology in general would
explain their higher usage of online forums. In our sample, gender, familiarity with
technology, teaching experience and level of education were not significant indicators of
Table 1. Percentage Adoption Rates- Overall and Age
Overall By Age
(N=53) 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70
Adoption rates 49 37.5 63.6 25.0 14.3 0
Part-time teaching staff and staff from the School of Language and Foundation also had low
usage rates of online forums (Pearson cor. of 0.271, p<0.05 for employment status). It should
be noted that this school had a large number of part-timers.
Table 2. Adoption Rates by Schools and Employment Status
Engineering Computing Business Language Full- Part-
and and and time time
Design Enterprise Foundation
Adoption 44 57 60 20 54.3 16.7
Reasons for Using Asynchronous Online Discussions
For users, most of the reasons given for using online forums revolved around improving
teacher-learner communications, and improving interaction and participation among students.
Although more ambitious expectations like inculcating peer-learning and independent-
learning were mentioned, most respondents did not think that online forums would replace
conventional class discussions as face-to-face interactions were still relevant and important.
Reasons for Not Using Asynchronous Online Discussion Forums
The most frequently mentioned reason for not using online forums was respondents‟
perceived lack of know-how in using this feature, which they attributed to inadequate
training. Perceived usefulness was another factor mentioned. Non-users felt it is unnecessary
for small classes and where it is not mandated in their subject requirements. Time and
workload factors were inhibitors as well. Respondents reported that a lot of time and work
were needed to organize, manage and assess online discussions as well as dealing with issues
arising from this mode of teaching.
Perceived Effectiveness of Asynchronous Online Discussion Forums
The respondents rated the effectiveness of online discussion forum on a Likert scale. Out of
17 statements of effectiveness, 12 scored with mean ratings above 4.00. The effectiveness of
online discussions was perceived to be highest in terms of improving communication and
ideas among students (mean 4.30), helping students express themselves better (mean 4.10),
encouraging independent learning and encouraging students to seek help from instructors
(both with mean 4.07). The lowest mean score was attributed to the statement “I am satisfied
with students' usage of the forums” (mean 3.33).
As the adoption rate of Blackboard forums in Swinburne Sarawak was about 50 percent,
Roger‟s Diffusion of Innovation model (1964) would indicate that critical mass had been
reached, albeit at the Early Majority stage. However, the uptake of the online forum at the
university seemed rather slow as Blackboard was implemented in SUTS in 2003.
The barriers to usage reported here are congruent with the Technology Acceptance Model
(Davis, 1989) which explains technology acceptance in terms of perceived usefulness and
perceived ease-of-use. We postulate that non-usage reasons like small class sizes, non-
requirement in subjects, time and workload issues are manifestations of individuals‟
perceptions of usefulness and relevance of online forums within their circumstances. Non-
users who report a lack of training could be assuming that online forums are difficult to use,
and that they could not learn it themselves. Although online discussions can be useful for
language learning (Meskill & Anthony, 2005), some language teachers reported they did not
know how to use the online discussion feature, that they thought it was not relevant to them
or that they were simply not aware of it.
Staff who used the forums perceived them to be effective in accomplishing a number of
outcomes, like improving participation, communication and independent learning. These also
seemed to match the expectations users had for using the forums. Although this indicates that
asynchronous CMC discussion forums appear to be useful in tackling some of the frequently-
cited concerns in higher education contexts, like learners‟ inability to self-express, passive
learning styles and dependence on teachers, respondents were only slightly satisfied with
students‟ use of the forums, suggesting that the Blackboard forums have unfulfilled potential.
These findings provide a basis to improve adoption rates of the Blackboard version 9 in
Swinburne Sarawak in 2010 which will feature more interactive Web 2.0 functionalities.
Understanding individuals‟ underlying attitudes and perceptions- especially among groups
that have been most resistant to usage of Blackboard forums as a major learning tool is
necessary to help address inhibiting factors identified in this study. Unfortunately,
technological tools (like Blackboard), are largely seen as an adjunct to teaching; to post notes,
slides and announcements rather than being a main avenue for interactive teaching and
learning (Brennan, 2001), and it is likely that the discussion forum feature is lumped into this
view. However, as teachers are more likely to accept new technology if it helps them teach
better (McKenzie, 2001), Blackboard training programs, in our context, will need to go
beyond the know-how of operating an online forum to focusing on shaping attitudes and
helping potential users to find relative advantage and compatibility (Rogers, 2003) to adopt
online forums. This means an integrative approach to fit the technology into pedagogy to
deliver clear propositions that align with teaching and learning objectives and outcomes.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE WORK
The number of surveys returned was only 53. Although this represents about 46 percent of
the total number of teaching staff at the university, a bigger sample size would have allowed
us to study the variables with greater degree of certainty. For instance, greater sample size
would have allowed reliable enquiry into the factors inhibiting part-time staff usage of the
We took an open-ended approach to allow respondents to share their views. In retrospect,
applying specific variables from an existing model to frame this study would probably have
allowed us to examine specific variables in more depth.
Also, at this point, the researchers also feel that class size could have been considered as a
variable as it could affect usage rates of online discussion forums.
Interactive technological learning systems are a key aspect of the active learning approaches
emphasized at Swinburne, so this study and the subsequent staff development programs that
it will feed into will play a role in influencing the university‟s teaching and learning policies.
It is a spring board for further research into developing guidelines for effective use of online
discussion forums. Its findings will also be compared to an upcoming project that will assess
students‟ perspectives on online discussion forums.
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