Overcoming overload in educational discussion systems

Kear, Karen and Heap, Nicholas (2005). Overcoming overload in educational discussion systems. In: CAL '05 'Virtual Learning?', 4-6 Apr 2005, Bristol, UK.


Computer-based systems for asynchronous discussion have been used in education for many years. These systems allow students to communicate with each other and with their teachers even if they are unable to meet face-to-face. The benefits for online and distance learning are already clear, and these benefits are becoming important for conventional universities. However, learners can experience difficulties with discussion systems, resulting in low levels of participation and less effective learning. Improvements to the design of educational discussion systems may help to alleviate these problems, and provide better support for collaborative learning.
This paper reports on work-in-progress to investigate design features of asynchronous discussion systems for higher education. The research aims to identify features which maximise the benefits of discussion systems and minimise the problems. The paper focuses on a major theme which emerged from user interviews and observations: information overload. Busy computer conferences present users with many messages to work through; this is off-putting and takes too much time. Users report difficulties in working out which messages they should read and which can be ignored.
The findings from user interviews, together with literature and system reviews, were used to identify four areas of possible system enhancement:
• tree-structured message threading;
• the ability for users to ‘vote’ for messages which they think are useful;
• the ability for users to ‘filter out’ messages;
• a personal ‘clippings’ area for copies of useful messages.
These system features are being evaluated in the context of a 12-week online course presented by the UK Open University. A prototype web-based discussion system has been written for the course. Students start by using a version of the system without the new features, and then the enhancements are added a few weeks into the course.
Students complete two online surveys asking about their experiences of the two versions of the system. One survey is completed at the changeover point and one at the end of the course. The aim of the two surveys is to investigate whether the system enhancements:
• alleviate feelings of overload;
• reduce the time spent reading messages;
• provide context and structure to the discussions;
• help users to find useful messages.
Results from a pilot version of the course indicate that some of the new features are much more helpful than others. Tree-structured message threading was viewed positively by a large majority of the respondents, while the facility to vote for messages was hardly used. The paper will discuss these findings, together with results from a subsequent presentation of the course. It will then consider implications for the design of educational discussion systems.

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