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Using anonymity and rounds-based structure for effective online discussions in STEM courses

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Computing Technology Session 3

Tagged Division

Computers in Education

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Swaroop Joshi The Ohio State University Orcid 16x16

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Swaroop Joshi is a Senior Lecturer of Computer Science and a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science and Engineering at Ohio State University. He is interested in a range of topics in Education Technology and Software Engineering, including but not limited to: Computer Supported Collaborative Learning, Game Based Learning, Programming Languages, Compiler Construction and Optimization.

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Neelam Soundarajan Ohio State University

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Dr. Neelam Soundarajan is an Associate Professor in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Ohio State University. His interests include software engineering as well as innovative approaches to engineering education.

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The use of computing technology in K-12 and colleges-level courses has grown dramatically in the last few years. Along with its other uses in education, such as learning management systems, video lectures and flipped classrooms, researchers have explored the use of technology for mediating collaborative learning among small groups of students. One especially promising approach is the use of online discussions among student peers as well as among students and teachers. Such discussions have the potential to enable students to discuss and evaluate each others' conceptions of important ideas and develop deep understanding.

Unfortunately, the results that researchers have reported indicates that many of the approaches that have been tried have produced very poor results. Quite frequently, students' contributions to the discussions have been very limited - both in terms of number of posts made by individual students or the length of the posts or, most importantly, the overall quality of the discussion [1,2]. According to these researchers, some factors that negatively affect the quality of the discussions are: (i) difficulty that some students reported in keeping up with the discussions; (ii) lack of understanding, among some students, about what exactly to include in their posts; (iii) lack of time; (iv) technical aspects of the software used; and, quite frequently, (v) not wanting to run the risk of being misunderstood or perceived to be stupid, etc. [3]

In our work, we have developed a novel approach that not only addresses these issues but also provides a number of other benefits. A key idea underlying the approach is that discussions in student groups are most effective when the group includes students who have different understandings of the essential concepts under discussion; the resulting cognitive conflict can force each student to carefully analyze his/her current understanding, potentially leading to a more refined/accurate conception. But in order to realize this potential, we also need to address the problems listed in the last paragraph and our approach, in particular, the following set of features, is designed to achieve this:

(i) Student groups, of 4-5 students each, are formed based on cognitive conflict; i.e., each group will include students who have different conceptions of the topic under discussion.

(ii) The discussion in each group proceeds in a *rounds-based* structure (details below). In each round, each student in the group is *required* to make, by a specified deadline, exactly one post, in which the student specifies, for each of the posts from the group's previous round, whether he/she agrees with or disagrees with or is unsure about that post, and a brief explanation thereof.

(iii) Students in the group do NOT know the identities of the other students in the group. Instead, in all the posts in the discussion, the students are identified as S1, S2, S3, etc. This ensures effective participation by students; it mitigates any apprehensions that individual students may have about being perceived less intelligent, as well as any preconceived notions some students may have about others' capabilities based on ethnicity, gender, etc.

Our approach, named CONSIDER (an acronym for CONflicting Student Ideas Discussed, Evaluated and Resolved), works as follows. Following the standard class lectures on a given topic, the instructor posts, on the CONSIDER web-app, a discussion topic in the form of a question designed to evoke differing responses from the students, based on different conceptions they may have.

Each student in the course is required to *individually* submit his/her answer within 48 hours. The instructor then organizes the students into groups of 4-5 each with each group containing students with different initial answers. The students in each group will then engage in a series of *rounds*, R1, R2, R3, etc., of discussion, each round lasting 24 hours. The goal of the discussion is to help *each* student arrive at as deep an understanding of the topic as possible; note that group consensus is NOT a requirement; it may or may not happen, depending on the question and on the students in the group.

Suppose a group has four students. As mentioned above, the students in the group will not know the identities of the other students in the group; the system simply referring to them as S1, S2, S3, S4. When S1 logs in for, say, round R3, she will see the posts made by all four students in R2. In her post for R3, S1 will have to indicate (by clicking a red/green/blue button on the app) whether she agrees with, disagrees with, or is unclear about the posts made by each of S1-S4 in R2 along with an explanation (especially if she disagrees); and also include her current position. Note that S1 has to indicate, in R3, whether she agrees/disagrees with her *own* post from R2; the point is that, she may have found the R2 post from, say, S4 so convincing that she no longer agrees with what she said in R2! Indeed, this is the heart of the approach; the cognitive conflict triggered in S1 as a result of the differences in the positions expressed by S1 and S4 in their R2 posts forced S1 to critically reassess her own position and, based on that reassessment, revise it. At the end of the pre-decided number of discussion rounds, each student will be required to *individually* submit his/her final answer to the assignment, along with a brief summary of the discussion in his/her group. A student's grade for the assignment will depend *only* on the correctness of her final answer and the quality of her summary; in other words, there is no penalty for a student in switching from a wrong answer to the correct one and every reason for doing so.

In this paper, we report the results of comparing this approach with existing discussion approaches in two junior/senior level computer science and engineering courses (n1=39 and n2=18). Two assignments of comparable difficulty were chosen in each course. One of them was given as a discussion on CONSIDER and another on Piazza, a popular online tool for small and large group discussions. A post-activity survey asked the students about their experience using the two approaches. 75% of the students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: "The CONSIDER activity provided me the opportunity (and the time) to develop a better understanding of the topic than other small group discussion activities (in-class as well as on-line)." On the unique features of CONSIDER, 83% responded that anonymity was helpful and 66% said that the rounds-based structure "had a positive impact on the quality of the discussion." More than two-thirds of the respondents had positive feedback on the usability of the user interface as well.


[1] B. De Wever, T. Schellens, M. Valcke, and H. Van Keer, “Content analysis schemes to analyze transcripts of online asynchronous discussion groups: A review,” Computers & Education, vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 6–28, Jan. 2006.

[2] J. Hewitt, “Toward an Understanding of How Threads Die in Asynchronous Computer Conferences,” Journal of the Learning Sciences, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 567–589, Oct. 2005.

[3] K. F. Hew and W. S. Cheung, Student Participation in Online Discussions. New York, NY: Springer New York, 2012.

Joshi, S., & Soundarajan, N. (2017, June), Using anonymity and rounds-based structure for effective online discussions in STEM courses Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--29070

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