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Asynchronous Discussions in ESP courses
Helder Fanha Martins
Should asynchronous discussions be used in English for Specific Purposes courses? What can they accomplish? How can they be effective? The answer to these questions is important for every teacher who would like to use online discussions in his/her ESP course. Although one may believe that online teaching and learning is in its infancy, there is enough research reported in the literature to establish asynchronous discussions as one of the most significant factors in effective online courses. Discussions, often labelled participation in traditional classes, can, and probably should be, used in most online ESP classes. The big difference between discussions in a traditional class and an online class is when they take place. In a face to face (F2F) class, discussions are synchronous (all participating within the same time frame). Online discussions are asynchronous (taking place at different times). These discussions take place in forums that the teacher creates, making assignments in regards to what should be discussed. The teacher monitors the discussions and can reply when necessary.
These discussions can often become the heart of (online) ESP courses. The discussion forums for many online courses often become the virtual classroom. Their very nature allows for reflection and critical thinking, resulting in more involvement, by more students, than the typical face to face classroom discussion. In fact, those introverted students, who rarely speak up in a F2F class, often lead exciting and thought provoking discussions online.
Discussions are also an effective way to help students learn. Using online discussions in an ESP course will affect the learning outcomes the teacher has established by addressing students preferred learning strategies. Learning environments provide an opportunity for immediate application of new information to ones personal/professional lives and those where they can demonstrate their knowledge. Thats exactly what well constructed and properly facilitated discussions can do.
Online discussions usually result in greater participation by more students than the typical F2F discussion. The primary reason for this can be found in examining personality styles. In a traditional classroom, the extroverted students tend to dominate the discussion, while those more introverted sit back and observe. By definition, extroverted people are those who give little consideration to thinking through their statements before verbalizing their comments. Introverts need time to think, research, analyze and reflect before responding. Its fairly obvious that F2F discussions, because of the immediacy, tend to leave introverts out of discussions. What may not be so obvious is that typical F2F discussions are often being lead and dominated by comments that while they may be correct, dont necessarily reflect much critical thought. This is particularly true during initial phases of the discussion process when extroverts are sorting out their ideas through verbalization. Asynchronous discussions provide an environment in which introverts thrive and extroverts can learn to pause and reflect before responding, resulting in higher level thinking early in the process. In fact, the carefully thought through responses of students, who have had time to reflect, often become the discussion leaders, resulting in more learning opportunities for all.
While the frequency and style of discussions will vary greatly across disciplines, there are several possible approaches that are effective. In the following approaches I am considering an ESP course for accounting students.
The style(s) that the teacher chooses will depend on a variety of factors. The teacher must choose an approach that facilitates students meeting the course or assignment objectives, therefore a variety of approaches can be used depending on what best fulfils the needs of the learning objectives. It is important to remember that the initial discussion question is only the beginning of the process. A discussion doesnt develop until students post their initial responses and begin to exchange responses and reactions. The design of the discussion assignments must reflect and stress this concept to the students.
Effective discussion questions share ten characteristics, no matter what type, style, or frequency of use. They should:
While the forums (topics that organize discussions) one can include will be created for your specific ESP course, there are a few forums that can be beneficial for most courses.
The skills involved in online teaching settings using an asynchronous learner discussion forum do not simply happen. Online teachers are aware that there is quite a difference when teaching in a F2F classroom and teaching online. Teaching online demands that the "Sage on the Stage" give way to the "Guide on the Side."
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