Case for Student Communication in Online Classes

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Read-Only Participants: A

This article by Nagel, Blignaut, and Cronje’ (2007) uses a mixed methods approach to investigate how online activity and discussion postings relate to learning and course completion and how student participation influences the learning community. The authors note that as more formal education course become available online, quality and non-completion remain a problem. Retention and success rates in such courses and programs are frequently reported as typically lower than those delivered in a traditional classroom format. The purpose of this study was to investigate the importance of online visibility apparent in the quantity and quality of participation how this relates to the successful completion of a postgraduate online course.

Participants in the study were pursuing their Masters degree in an 8-week course on web-based distance learning in a computer integrated education course at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. This was an elective course usually delivered in a blended contact and online mode delivered entirely online. Because of the mode of delivery the population of the study was a cohort of 22 geographically distributed students ranging in age from approximately 30 to 50.

The researchers found that the only students who completed the class successfully were the ones who contributed to the class or interacted with the facilitator. Students who were unsuccessful contribute less and their contributions are of poorer quality, reflecting less interaction with fellow students and the facilitator. The authors conclude that students who login less frequently fail because they miss out on the opportunity to gain the crucial support needed for success.

Furthermore, the research indicates that students who did not contribute did not become part of the community, and did not benefit from peer interaction or feedback. The other students were aware of this behavior. The authors that suggest large number of lurking students in an online class can prevent the formation of a virtual community of learners and compromise everyone’s education.

The report recommends these eight mitigations by facilitators in order to boost student success rates: 1)communicate the required log in frequency clearly, 2) encourage the submission of high quality thoughtful postings and grade them accordingly, 3)grade all discussions initially and give formative feedback, in private if necessary, 4) grade individual contributions to group projects (peer or self-generated) and do not give the same grade for all, 5)rotate members of groups so that students are not stuck with non-participating members or, when feasible, allow students to choose groups, 6) foster collaboration dependent on content-related interactions, 7) structure group assignments so that students work in parallel rather than serially, such that inadequate contributions do not impair others in their peer group, and 8) convey important information via Internet-independent media, such as mobile phone technology (p. 49-50).

The significance of this study is limited by the small sample size, the specific academic content being studied, and the academic level of the participants. For example, a study of undergraduate students, or students in another academic discipline would likely yield different findings. Nevertheless, the recommendations to support the online learning environment appear to be sound instructional methodologies no matter what the context of the instruction.


Nagel, L., Blignaut, A.S., & Cronje, J.C. (2009, March). Read-only participants: a case for student communication in online classes. Interactive learning environments, Vol. 17, Issue 1, 37-51. Retrieved August 29, 2011, from

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