Student engagement in distance learning environments
First Monday

Student engagement in distance learning environments: A comparison of threaded discussion forums and text–focused Wikis
by Fei Gao and David Wong


The purpose of this study was to improve the quality of students’ online discussion of assigned readings in an online course. To improve the focus, depth, and connectedness of online discussion, the first author designed a text–focused Wiki that simultaneously displayed the assigned reading and students’ comments side by side in adjacent columns. In the text–focused Wiki, students were able to read the assigned text in the left column and type their comments or questions in the right column adjacent to the sentence or passage that sparked their interest. In post–participation surveys, data were gathered about students’ experiences in the text–focused Wiki and prior experiences in threaded discussion forums. Students reported more focus, depth, flow, idea generation, and enjoyment in the text–focused Wiki.


The text–focused Wiki
Results and discussion




Online discussion has become a central component of many online courses to deepen student understanding of course material and to support student interactions. Researchers have found that online interactions and dialogues can reduce the psychological and communications distance among the learners (Moore, 1993). In addition, online discussion can facilitate more collaborative learning when students post questions, share ideas, and jointly construct meaning (Jonassen, et al., 1995). Effective online interaction enables students to attain three important outcomes of an online community identified by Palloff and Pratt (1999). These outcomes are: “active interaction involving both course content and personal communication; collaborative learning evidenced by comments directed primarily student to student rather than student to instructor; and socially constructed meaning evidenced by agreement or questioning, with the intent to achieve agreement on issues of meaning” [1].

Online discussion also has the potential to support high–order thinking and in–depth learning in two ways. First, online discussion tools automatically record discussions, thus, making it easier for learners to remember, consider, and make connections between ideas. Second, the asynchronous nature of online discussion frees learners from time constraints thus increasing the opportunity for in–depth thinking (Anderson, 1996; Collison, et al., 2000).

However, despite their educational potential, online discussions often lack focus and depth (Gunawardena, et al., 1997; Kanuka and Anderson, 1998; Moore and Marra, 2005). Knowlton (2001) observes that online discussions can digress into random chat, which prevents student learning of course materials. Even when students stay on topic, the discussions often involves sharing or comparing information, but seldom reach more advanced levels of negotiating, synthesizing, or applying newly acquired knowledge (Gunawardena, et al., 1997; Kanuka and Anderson, 1998; Moore and Marra, 2005). Similarly, in our own experience as instructors in online courses, we consistently observed discussion that was loosely connected to the course content, digressed significantly from the central topic, and left many important issue unexplored. This was the impetus for our study.



The text–focused Wiki

Wikis are Web sites that allows multiple users to edit and change content, and are used for collaborative authoring. We decided to explore the potential of Wiki technology for improving the focus and depth of online discussion in a master’s level educational psychology course. Using Seedwiki (, the first author designed a Wiki page where students’ comments could be placed in a column adjacent to text from the assigned reading. Students were asked to read the assigned reading in the left column and post their comments related to the text in the right column (see Figure 1). Students were encouraged to post comments that included (a) questions related to the text, (b) connections to their experiences or other readings, and (c) interpretations and judgments. In addition, we inserted discussion questions in the left column to promote student thinking and discussion.


Figure 1: Text-focused discussion

Figure 1: Text–focused discussion.





Research questions

We predicted that the text–focused discussion environment would have positive effects on student discussion in two ways. First, the focus and extent of students’ discussion about the assigned reading would improve because the Wiki prompts students to process the information on a deeper level while reading and makes it easier to establish the textual basis for their comments (Block and Pressley, 2002; Duke and Pearson, 2002; Pressley and Afflerbach, 1995). Second, the connectedness of students’ comments to each other and the overall flow of the discussion would improve because the Wiki makes the text and everyone’s comments more apparent and immediately accessible.

Participants and procedures

Participants were 20 master’s level students in an online educational psychology course. Almost all students had some prior experience with online courses.

The course was designed so that regular online discussions about readings in educational psychology would occur in groups of three or four students. These discussions would use the threaded discussion format provided by the ANGEL course management system. In the threaded discussion format, student posts were displayed hierarchically by topics. The text from the assigned reading was not visible on the threaded discussion Web page.

In the fifth week of the course, student discussion took place in the text–focused Wiki rather the threaded discussion forum. An article introducing Vygotsky’s theory on social learning was chosen for the discussion. Students were asked to use the right–side column on the Wiki page to (a) write their comments on the text; and, (b) read and respond to other students’ comments. Before starting, we presented students with an example of how to make Wiki comments in response to the article and other people’s comments.

Data collection

Questionnaire. After participating in both discussion environments, students completed a questionnaire about their experiences in the text–focused Wiki and in the threaded forum. The three major questions in the questionnaire were: (a) “How did the text–focused Wiki and the threaded forum impact your participation similarly or differently?” (b) “How did the text–focused Wiki and the threaded impact your discussion similarly or differently?” (c) “What were other good and bad experiences when participating in each of the activities?”

Student posts. We kept track of and analyzed student posts in both discussion environments. Quantitative data included (a) the number of posts during the discussion, and (b) the word length of their posts. In addition, we examined all posts for evidence that confirmed or disconfirmed what students reported in their questionnaires.

Even though we compared students’ discussion in the text–focused Wiki and the threaded discussion forum, we want to be clear that this study is not a strict experimental comparison. The discussion topics and readings were not the same, and the accompanying discussion questions were different. That being said, we feel that the comparison of the two conditions is a source of data analysis too valuable to omit from this study.



Results and discussion

Our analysis suggests that the text–based Wiki influenced four areas of discussion: focus, depth, flow, and students’ willingness to participate.

Focus of discussion

Students (16 of 20) reported that their participation in the text–focused Wiki was “more focused” on “specific points” compared to the threaded forum. They felt the Wiki positively constrained the discussion and directed their attention. They were able to better concentrate on particular issues instead of being overwhelmed by a huge range of topics. Students commented that the “more guided and less open–ended” form of Wiki made discussions more “tailored.

Examination of the content of students’ posts confirmed these subjective descriptions. In the text–focused Wiki, student discussion in the right column was clearly connected to the content of the text in the left column. For example, where the text described the Vygotskian concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), students’ comments focused specifically on the concept of ZPD. By contrast, in the threaded forum, the students were more likely to provide general responses to the text as a whole. Here is a typical example: “A particular comment in the Resnick article stood out to me stated that school should focus its efforts on preparing people to be good adaptive learners ...” In the post–discussion questionnaire, students stated that, in the text–focused Wiki, they were able to type as the ideas were coming up during reading because the Wiki design placed their comments adjacent to the reading text. Therefore, the comments were often inspired by and directly related to specific content in the text.

Two independent raters coded every post to identify (1) posts indicating a direct response to specific portions of the text (Example: “In this paragraph, Vygotsky is really pointing out how powerful language is in helping to define concepts, even concepts that we are not familiar with and don’t directly interact with. In this statement, I see the incorporation of both individual cognitivism and social cognitivism ....”); (2) posts indicating a direct response to general ideas in the text (Example: “I think the Resnick’s article is a little rigid in its view of school learning. I can think of many of my school experiences that included more than just pure mentation ...”). The interrater reliability was 95.4 percent.


Table 1: Proportions of posts that directly responded to the text.
Note: * Number of posts in each discussion environment.
Discussion environmentResponses to specific portions of the textResponses to general ideas in the textN*
Text–focused Wiki.427.101199
threaded discussion forum.204.250108


Table 1 showed our findings: One the one hand, 42.7 percent of the posts in the text–focused Wiki responded directly to certain portions of the text, while only 20.4 percent posts in the threaded discussion forum did so. On the other hand, there was higher percentage of posts responding to general ideas in the text in the threaded discussion forum than in the text–focused Wiki. Regarding the total number of posts, the t–test suggested the discussion in the text–focused Wiki [mean= 4.61 (per student), SD= 2.64] had significantly more responses (ρ <.001) to specific portions of the text than in the threaded discussion forum [mean=1.44 (per student), SD=1.15], and there was no statistical difference in the amount of direct responses to general ideas in the text.

Depth of discussion

A large majority (18 of 20) expressed the idea that they were able to “go deeper into the ideas” in the text or “comprehend the readings more deeply” in the Wiki, instead of “just skim[ing] the surface by covering many diverse points on the discussion board.” In the text–focused Wiki, students commented on specific portions of the text at length and from different angles. For example, where the text introduced Vygotsky’s concept of the ZPD, students commented at length about how the ZPD should be understood by educators. Some discussed the significance of the ZPD idea by noting, “ZPD suggests learning is not static ...” and the “human mind can always learn more ...” Some students connected the idea of the ZPD to their own experiences of interacting with their own students. Some students explored how the idea of the ZPD informed their classroom teaching.

When we assert that the Wiki design led to greater “depth” in the discussion, we mean the students’ comments not only stayed on the topic, but also explored its meaning and implications. For example, a section of the text described how Soviet psychologists determined a student’s ZPD. It stated, “If the child fails to reach the correct solution, the adult progressively adds clues for solution ... .” This led to the subsequent discussion focused on the “clue” concept. One student commented, “I really like the clues concept. I have now experienced how it is so easy to want to step in and give the answer or take over for a student who is struggling. All learners deserve that ‘thinking time’ ... .” Another student wrote, “I think adult ‘adding clues’ is a great point! I feel that teachers today are often giving children the correct answers rather than helping them to search for the answers ... .

Whereas students’ discussion in the text–focused Wiki usually explored a particular portion of the text in depth, discussion in the threaded forum rarely elaborated one particular issue. The threaded forum did not prevent this kind of engagement: some students showed they could think critically about the text and make thoughtful connections between the text and their real life experiences. Quite a few students, however, offered detailed descriptions of their own personal experiences with little interpretation of how the experiences were related to the central ideas. For example, one student described at great length one of his classes where he successfully combined the lecture and field trip. He ended with, “Why was this so fantastic? Each day we were immersed in science. We were scientists ... .” And others responded, “Excellent example of your mix of classroom and out of classroom experience ... .” or “What a great example of hands–on learning. I’m envious, sounds like fun!” Although the discussion looked lively, there was little evidence that it helped the participants better understand the critical issues in the text.

To provide a clearer picture of the depth of discussion in both discussion environments, two independent raters coded the posts by using the rubrics developed by Henri (1992) (see Table 2). The interrater reliability was 71.1 percent.


Table 2: Henri’s (1992) analytical model: Processing information.
Surface processingIn–depth processing
Repeating the information contained in the statement of the problem without making inferences or offering an interpretationLinking facts, ideas and notions in order to interpret, infer, propose and judge
Repeating what has been said without adding any new elementsOffering new elements of information
Stating that one shares the ideas or opinions stated, without taking these further or adding any personal commentsGenerating new data from information collected by the use of hypotheses and inferences
Proposing solutions without offering explanationProposing one or more solutions with short–, medium–, or long–term justification
Making judgments without offering justificationSetting out advantages and disadvantages of a situation or solution
Asking questions which invite information not relevant to the problem or not adding to the understanding of itProviding proof or supporting examples
Making judgments supported by justification
Offering several solutions without suggesting which is most appropriatePerceiving the problem within a larger perspective
Perceiving the situation in a fragmentary or short short–term mannerDeveloping intervention strategies within a wider framework


As suggested by Table 3, there was higher percentage of in–depth–processing posts and lower percentage of surface–processing posts in the text–focused Wiki. T–tests showed the amount of both in–depth–processing posts and surface–processing posts were significantly larger (ρ <.05) in the text–focused Wiki when compared to that in the threaded discussion forum.


Table 3: Proportions of surface–processing and in–depth–processing posts.
Note: * Number of posts in each discussion environment.
Discussion environmentSurface processingIn–depth–processingN*
Text–focused Wiki.372.628199
threaded discussion forum.472.528108


Flow of discussion

Almost all students (16 of 20) felt their discussions flowed better in the text–focused Wiki than the threaded forum. They said the text–focused Wiki discussion was more “conversational” and “fluid”, while the threaded forum was more “formal” and “rigid.” There is evidence of a more sustained and coherent building of ideas in the Wiki. Students tended to build on thoughts contained in previous posts by developing these thoughts into new ideas and questions. One student wrote, “... the Wiki was more helpful in getting me to think about new questions or ideas. I say this because the conversation was more interactive, [and this] prompted me more to come up with new ideas.” Similar comments were, “they [the posts in the Wiki] were more conversational, so I had to really keep moving on as the idea developed”; “[in the Wiki] it was easy to read others’ comments and pose questions which just lead to new questions and ideas for me.

Here is an example of productive flow in which the Wiki format helped students to connect to the text and to one another. When talking about the idea of “learning and imitation” from the text, student A used her personal experience to explain the concept of learning from other people. Student B, in response to both the text and the student A’s post, explored why imitation is learning, and suggested “the imitating creates muscle memory and the more times the movement is done, the easier it becomes to do and remember.” Then student C stepped in with a question: “... but a person can imitate without understanding, so is it learning then? If I go through the motions, but don’t know why or what the outcome should be, have I learned anything?” She also used her personal experience to support her argument. In this interaction, student C questioned an existing explanation, and pushed every group member’s thinking about the relationship between imitation and learning. Later, student A returned and insisted that physical imitation is the key to learning. Referring to her experience of skiing, she wrote, “Until I was able to PHYSICALLY apply the knowledge, the light bulb never came on in my mind.” Finally, student B negotiated the two different views and wrote, “... thoughtful and reflective imitation is more likely to produce real learning. This is true for both ski and care plan writing.

The following diagram (see Figure 2) illustrates the flow and development of ideas in this discussion. It can be clearly seen how one student’s post is related to and builds upon other posts. In threaded forum, we did observe some similar flow of ideas, but it occurred less frequently. We feel the improved flow of discussion was directly related to how the Wiki structure enabled students to see and participate in a connected dialogue.


Figure 2: The flow of the discussion

Figure 2: The flow of the discussion.


In the Wiki, we also saw increased interaction among the students. Overall, there was a higher frequency of idea exchange in the Wiki. Students posted an average of 11 times each in the text–focused Wiki compared to six times each in the threaded forum. This increase may be due to the conversational feel of the Wiki, which several students commented on in the survey: “[I found myself] responding to other posts more in the Wiki ... . It was more like having a conversation.

Interestingly, the average length of the posts in the Wiki was actually shorter that in the threaded forum — 120 words per post compared to 149 words. A closer examination revealed that the first post was almost always long and formal in the threaded forum. However, subsequent responses were usually short or not related to the initial post. By contrast, students’ posts in the text–focused Wiki were shorter on average, but more interconnected. Thus, the improved rhythm and flow of the interaction was probably what prompted students to describe the Wiki discussion as more conversational.

How exactly may the flow of discussion have been facilitated by the design of the Wiki? One possible explanation is that students felt that the text–focused Wiki made it easier to view other students’ comments and questions side by side with the part of the text related to these comments and questions. Information about text and comments from other students were in front of their eyes and, thus, more “present” — in the computer–mediated conversation sense — in the students’ experience. From a cognitive processing perspective, having information about the text and other students’ comments on the screen may have reduced the need to remember and recall and, therefore, made available more cognitive resources for processing and integrating the information from these multiple sources. By contrast, the flow of thought in the threaded forum was probably disrupted as students had to recollect the text, click in and out or scroll up and down to see other students’ comments, and search to find the relevant section of text.

Willingness to participate

Many students (16 of 20) expressed enthusiasm about participating in the text–focused Wiki discussion. A representative comment was, “I found myself wanting to participate much more in the Wiki and my number of posts was higher than usual.” Students’ greater willingness to participate in the text–focused Wiki is corroborated by both a greater average number of posts for each student (11 compared to 6), and average total words posted by each student (1294 compared to 872).

Interestingly, some students (5 of 20) reported having started out with a negative or skeptical attitude toward the text–focused Wiki. However, their attitude changed as they became more familiar with the format. One student explained, “At first, I didn’t think I liked the Wiki. It seemed confusing and abstract ... . It had removed me from my comfort zone of the original discussion format [the threaded forum] and I wasn’t sure how to run the thing. In the end, I liked the Wiki better. It was an easier format for me to see all the reading excerpts, comment on them by quickly being able to refer back to the text right on the screen, and also incorporate the readings with my experiences and my peers’ comments.

Notably, some students reported spending more time on the readings. Although we did not ask directly, eight students (n=20) spontaneously reported rereading the assigned text. Students also had many enthusiastic comments about the Wiki itself, with one student saying, “I felt more engaged and responded to more comments from others. The Wiki, as I said before, is an amazing way to interact with a text. I really enjoyed it.” Three students who were classroom teachers expressed their intention to use this text–focused Wiki in their own classrooms.

Constraints of the text–focused Wiki

We are certainly encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response to the text–focused Wiki discussions. There are several concerns, however, worth noting. First, most students agreed there is not much chance to share personal experiences and to talk about real–life problems in the text–focused Wiki. Although students in the text–focused Wiki did make frequent connections to their personal experiences, accounts of personal experiences were much more detailed in the threaded forum (the longest was 423 words). Second, the text–focused Wiki may not be the best environment for participants to develop a broader view of the topic. The text–focused Wiki encourages “zeroing in” on a topic, but perhaps constrains “zooming out” to develop a broader view. Another kind of environment besides the text–focused Wiki or threaded forum may better support this kind of broad discussion.

Therefore, we need to carry out additional studies to further identify what specific types of discussion the text–focused Wiki does and does not support, and to explore how to combine text–focused discussions with other forms of learning activities. In addition, we will explore alternative ways of guiding student attention and flow of thoughts, and if possible, incorporate these mechanisms into the text–focused Wiki. For example, instructors’ scaffolding and facilitation could be important. Previous research on instruction and learning, both online and in face–to–face environments, indicated the positive effects of instructors’ facilitating role on student discussion and learning outcomes (Bonk, et al., 2001; Eastmond, 1992; Nussbaum, et al., 2004; Sharma and Hannafin, 2004).




The data suggest that text–focused Wikis have the potential to support important pedagogical goals by improving the quality of discussion. In particular, text–focused Wikis appear to encourage students to focus more on the text, go deeper into particular issues, and experience a higher level of engagement. The text–focused Wiki holds considerable promise because it addresses the common concern of many teachers — and some students, too — to keep online discussions more focused on the desired topic and ideas. It is true that deep and focused discussion of text can also happen in the threaded forum if instructors intensively facilitate the discussion by monitoring student posts or providing specific feedback to the students (Collison, et al., 2000; Yang, et al., 2005). We would argue, however, that the design of the text–focused Wiki is a more efficient means of achieving similar results. This is important, especially when instructors in online courses are increasingly concerned with the impossible task of working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, text–focused Wikis can also be incorporated into face–to–face classrooms to foster a more detailed and sustained discussion of text. End of article


About the authors

Fei Gao is a PhD candidate in the educational psychology and educational technology program in Michigan State University. Her current interest is online teaching and learning.

David Wong is an associate professor of educational psychology and educational technology in Michigan State University. His work spans a number of areas including educational psychology and philosophy, educational technology, and the design of online learning environments.



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Editorial history

Paper received 27 October 2007; revised 10 January 2008; accepted 11 January 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, Fei Gao and David Wong.

Student engagement in distance learning environments: A comparison of threaded discussion forums and text–focused Wikis
by Fei Gao and David Wong
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 1 - 7 January 2008

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