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The impact of teachers' beliefs on online discussion forums

Mary Panko
Unitech, New Zealand

This paper examines ways in which diverse beliefs of teachers can be identified and found to be effective in online discussion forums, using the Pratt (1998) framework of teaching perspectives as a method of exploring the intentions and actions of e-moderators. It also highlights potential traps for the unwary e-moderator. Research results showed that aspects of Pratt's five teaching perspectives (Transmission, Apprenticeship, Developmental, Nurturing and Social Reform) could all be recognised in teachers' design plans, interactions with students, and assessment. The extent of subsequent student engagement with the learning process indicated that e-moderators from any perspective were potentially able to create successful learning environments and this was frequently related to the extent of scaffolding provided by teachers.

Despite this, it was also found that students' online contributions were frequently driven by assessment criteria and grading schemes, regardless of the depth of their approach to learning. It is recommended that institutional professional development plans recognise the major influence that teachers' prior experience as online learners has over their actions, and that their underlying ability to reflect on their own practices has an equally profound impact on the success of their teaching strategies. The paper concludes with a plea directed at tertiary institutions for them to allow their staff the freedom to develop a diversity of e-moderation techniques, using their existing strengths.


In order to aim for excellence in teaching, universities have for years utilised the asset provided by the diverse beliefs of a wide range of lecturers and the variations in teaching that result from this diversity. However, recently the race to online tuition has often been accompanied by 'a one-size-fits-all' mentality, more closely allied to the technology available rather than being based on teachers' pedagogical principles.

To counter this, awareness has begun to grow about the significance of the role of e-moderators (Berge & Collins, 1995; Salmon, 2000) in interactive online learning. Research practitioners have described ways in which teachers can successfully implement established teaching techniques in online discussion environments, particularly from a student-centred constructivist viewpoint. However, less has been written about the divergent nature of individual teachers, the variable context of their learning environments or the different outcomes that teachers may be seeking to achieve with this form of teaching.

This paper explores ways in which the teaching beliefs of e-moderators may affect the functionality of online discussion forums. It argues that teachers from any perspective are capable of deeply engaging their students in the learning process if they use these forums effectively.

Background to the research

A number of teaching perspective frameworks exist, such as that of Ramsden (1992) or the more recent model developed by Merriam and Caffarella (1999). However, this study has applied the analysis developed by Daniel Pratt and associates (1998) as it flexibly allows online teaching to be described within its wider educational context and has already been applied to over 6,000 individual teachers.

The basic assumption of the Pratt framework is that teaching perspectives are developed as a direct outcome of a person's beliefs and commitments, and can be identified through an individual teacher's attitudes towards their learners, their teaching ideals, and their relationship with the content of their subject in any given context. Pratt has identified five main orientations that teachers hold in various proportions, either in dominant, back-up or recessive mode. The five are as follows.

To escape from the idea of 'good' teaching perspectives (developmental, also known as constructivist) versus 'bad' ones (i.e. teacher-centred), this research attempted to discover whether students' engagement with their online discussions could be successfully achieved within any of the five perspectives already outlined.

Research method

A qualitative, interpretive approach was used in this research in order to access a range of in-depth personal experiences. (The research was undertaken for the requirements of a PhD at the University of New England, NSW.) Five online e-moderators were the primary participants and support was also obtained from the learners in the discussion groups of each e-moderator. In addition to interviews, the main artefacts examined were the discussion forums, in both their planning and their implementation.

Initially all the e-moderators took part in a questionnaire to explore their basic teaching perspectives within the Pratt (1998) framework. This is available online at: http://www.TeachingPerspectives.com/ and close examination of the results can also indicate if perspectives are consistent with espoused beliefs and observed practices.


Evidence of all five perspectives was found in elements of each e-moderator's work, whether in their beliefs, their intentions or their actions. This supports the Pratt (1998) hypothesis that all teachers possess each perspective to a greater or lesser extent. Furthermore, the current findings endorse the concept that each perspective is a legitimate and time-honoured way of teaching, previously identified from multiple studies of practitioners, primarily from western schools of pedagogy.

When all five perspectives were translated into the online environment, it was observed that each could result in limited satisfaction when student engagement (Kaiden, 1998) had not been successfully achieved. This paper therefore argues that each of these perspectives can encourage 'excellence' in teaching and learning online, when allowed to flourish effectively as part of a rich diversity of teaching strategies.


Content is paramount to this perspective and would normally be associated with detailed assessment. Online, this can be done through the teacher recommending a large number of specified readings to students, which are then used as the centre point for critiques or subsequent discussions. In turn, these are associated with prescriptive assessment criteria, often in the form of highly structured grading rubrics.

In regard to the implementation of the discussion, recognising that the Transmission perspective is frequently associated with aspects of teacher centred learning, it is likely that such an e-moderator might feel it necessary to play a major role in any discussion in order to correct statements made by students which appeared to be inaccurate, intervene in order to clarify points of complexity, or add their own text insights. One of the further 'give away' features is that teachers of this kind may feel it is their duty to rapidly and regularly answer questions posed by members of the class (Campbell, 2001). Finally, at the conclusion of any discussion a 'transmissionalist' might well be driven to summarise the dialogue, and by this process, deliberately or unwittingly, demonstrate his or her knowledge and authority, frequently enhanced by the use of subject terminology not utilised by the class members.


In an online discussion context the constructivist nature of this perspective can be seen when e-moderators base their online discussions on problem solving or case study formats to encourage deep level learning approaches and critical thinking abilities within their students (Laurillard, 1996). Furthermore, the significance of reflection, analysis and critical reasoning is likely to be reflected in the assessment criteria. In some cases the developmental philosophy of the teacher might encourage them to gradually hand over the assessment role to students, so that the learners themselves may perform critiques of discussion contributions.

Other planning issues that demonstrate the developmental philosophy can be seen in online discussion structures designed to encourage scaffolding of new ideas onto the pre-existing experiences and understandings of individual students. This use of 'bridging' appears in the emphasis placed by the e-moderator upon links between individual experiences and the theories being discussed in the course. These bridging features can be also identified in the planned organisation of courses where private online spaces, such as student journals or portfolios, are integral components of the online structure and provide places for students to receive individual attention or support from the e-moderator.

The significance of the context to an e-moderator with a developmental perspective may be observed in the interest demonstrated in students' individual situations, which is perceived by the teacher to add the additional benefit of putting the learners at ease and also to reduce hierarchical power relationships between teacher and students. The importance to the e-moderator of this co-inquirer role may be expressed in the course of the discussion where the e-moderator deliberately fades or limits their own participation, considering that their intervention as teachers might hamper the learners' construction of their own understanding.

This fading may become more marked while the programme progresses, as the e-moderator encourages the students to move towards increasing independence and personal control. Fading is an attribute not only of the developmental perspective but also of the Apprenticeship viewpoint as explicated by Brandt, Farmer and Buckmaster (1993). However, in the Developmental area, in situations where the e-moderator has chosen to be a visible online presence, it is characteristic that they pose more questions than they provide answers, and the questions used are designed to encourage student reflection.

The Apprenticeship perspective

The main driver here is the concept of teacher as 'coach' and the teaching process as one of 'enculturation' into the world of the subject. This gives rise to the use of everyday examples, where authentic issues and tasks are seen by such e-moderators as having crucial significance to the teaching process. Furthermore, the online plans reveal that they see themselves being required to lead the learner through a structured series of steps from simple tasks and concepts to more complex understandings central to the topic area. Increasingly in-depth investigations of these 'real issues' are viewed as the ladder that underpins the course plan, and as a result assessments are developed which expect and acknowledge progressively more complex analyses to be performed by the students within the discussion forums.

The significance given to interactivity between students is often also mirrored with the development of particular bonds between the teacher and the student. These frequently take the form of a mentoring relationship and once again private spaces may be developed as places where such individual support and feedback may take place.

When the actions of these e-moderators are examined, the use of modelling as a teaching strategy is unmistakable (Brandt, Farmer & Buckmaster, 1993). The phases from Behavioural Modelling to Cognitive Modelling may take place in a cyclical manner, the teacher demonstrating finer points of an activity with learners as each step of increased complexity is revealed. These steps are then interspersed with places in the discussions where students practice and reflect on their tasks. Overall, in true Apprenticeship fashion, the teacher will gradually fade from the online postings to enable learners to practice independently, adapting knowledge from their previous experience and only receiving help when they request it. In other words, the e-moderator may encourage students' moves to independence as they are seen to develop their own expertise within the culture of the subject matter.

The Nurturing perspective

This perspective also seeks to facilitate deep levels of learning but through encouragement of the student's own steps to understanding. This tends to give rise to a number of features described previously in the developmental perspective scenario in which the linking of previous experiences to the current student context was also emphasised. However, it may be possible to distinguish between aspects of the two owing to the significance that Nurturing teachers place on the emotional responses of the learners, emerging out of both experiences prior to the current course and those that occur during it.

This concern for the well being of students is visible in the implementation of the discussions, particularly in the use of encouraging, empathetic comments but can also be discerned in the planning of the online course elements. To illustrate this, the course is likely to be structured in ways that avoid students developing dependency on the teacher. For example, self-support mechanisms may be provided such as help guides, collaborative working environments and tasks which are designed to relate to the real world of the student's own experiences.

On the other hand, when the actions of the e-moderator are examined within the actual discussion, the manifestations of Nurturing become more obvious. The teacher frequently expresses appreciation of the learner's development in an open manner and learners are encouraged to acknowledge the successes of their own efforts, through which process of self-affirmation the teacher intends to enhance learners' self-confidence. The e-moderator can be seen to use learner's language and, once again, to identify themselves in the role of co-inquirer. The expression of care and respect can also proceed in a submerged manner via private lines of communication between teacher and individual student - these may be in the private space areas discussed previously, but they can also be through more direct forms of dialogue such as personal phone calls or one-to-one talks in the case of blended mode courses.

The other aspect of the Nurturing perspective, that of challenging or stretching the learner (T'Kenye, 1998) may also be seen within discussions. Progressive questioning of learners is not only a scaffolding feature but also causes them to dig deeper into their understanding and attempt to articulate concepts previously only implied in their postings.

The Social Reform perspective

A teacher holding a Social Reform perspective is driven more by ideology than any other characteristic and therefore their passion may find many ways of expression.

Firstly, there may be a tendency to use clear and pre-planned structures, such as case studies, that are designed to encourage reflective debate. Frequently, this is performed through the deliberate choice of conflict issues that question the underlying beliefs and values of the learners. Secondly, as this philosophy is underpinned by a teacher's belief in the social construction of knowledge, the basic online design tends to be collaborative, and this will take precedence over co-operative strategies as a way of maintaining the power balance in a class. For the same reason the teacher may not play an active role in the online discussion - by which mechanism they hope to minimise the obvious demonstration of their own relative position of power (Freire, 1972). For the same reason, when present online they will tend to act as co-inquirers rather than as authority figures.


Findings revealed in the current study have indicated that although teachers holding any combination of the five perspectives outlined above are able to deeply engage their students in online learning, success is often dependent on the teachers' own prior experiences and upon their facility to reflect on the nature of student responses.

However, although each belief model contains a number of features that can enhance the likelihood of success, there are also as many traps for the unwary or inexperienced e-moderator. For example, the Transmissionalist can overwhelm the learner with required readings combined with excessive and rigid grading procedures. A Developmental teacher can keep too low a profile online and this may result in the discussion becoming a mechanistic, surface-based process, or at worst, losing focus through lack of structure.

On the other hand, the Apprenticeship perspective that depended on high teacher input initially, could suffer from too prolonged control. In contrast to this, the Nurturing perspective could lead to lax management, teachers not wanting to damage the self-esteem of their learners. The very flexibility of design which enables the teacher to move in the direction of students' interests can lead to considerable divergence in the nature of the students' postings and where this is part of the assessment process, a further difficulty in assessment.

Finally, the Social Reformist, with an underlying need that their discussions would affect the world views of their learners, could load their debates with contentious issues, that might drive the participants to post only the comments the students recognised might be expected by their e-moderator.

Overall however, discussion forums, imaginatively developed and assessed by e-moderators can provide socio-cognitive advantages in a range of ways through which they enable their students to engage with the learning.


This paper suggests that encouraging e-moderators to extend online techniques within their own teaching orientations will ensure a rich diversity of tertiary education approaches, and support the concept of continuous improvement in the context of online discussions.

The extent of students' engagement in the learning process appeared to relate directly to the extent of learning structure provided by teachers, whether through scaffolding or by gradually increasing steps in complexity. Most significantly when this occurred, students considered that their teachers, from whatever perspective, had transformed their discussions into valuable teaching tools. In addition, this research also demonstrated that the proficiency and expertise of e-moderators had a considerable impact on the approaches to learning demonstrated by their students. Nevertheless, it was found that students' online contributions were frequently driven by assessment criteria and grading schemes, regardless of the depth of their approach to learning.

Finally, evidence from this study has shown that there can be great variation in the nature of online e-moderation and that this diversity of styles should be supported and encouraged as it allows e-moderators to develop computer mediated communication techniques in line with their own strengths, beliefs and context requirements.


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Author: Mary Panko, Programme Leader, Graduate Diploma in Higher Education, Unitech New Zealand.
Email: mpanko@unitec.ac.nz

Please cite as: Panko, M. (2004). The impact of teachers' beliefs on online discussion forums. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/panko.html

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