People who have taken an online course in the past may be familiar with the thread-based forums that take up a significant portion of the learning platform. They may also recognize the accordion-like expand/collapse function of these threads that are not usually the most user-friendly way to sift through every piece of each online conversation.

The authors of this study wanted to address this problem and consider its effect on productive online learning. They noted that even though online forums have a lot of potential and should, in theory, promote critical discussion between learners, the clumsy and often linear arrangements often impede students from digesting each other’s comments and engaging in organic dialogue.

The researchers developed a tree-based diagram to represent each thread from a master’s course on educational technology. Nodes represented posts, and were arranged in a way that centered the parent node in the image, and the child nodes—the replies to each parent—branching from each parent, creating a starburst. Color was used to show which posts were read or unread by the student. The students in this course were asked to use this forum design, and the researchers collected data through the forum itself, from post-completion surveys, and data from the students’ original linear-based discussion forum prior to the study.

The majority of students reported that the starburst forum was easy to use, and that the integrated reading and replying feature was conducive to engaging in online discussions. However, limited space in the starburst prevented students from seeing the author’s name for each node, which many cited as a disadvantage of the design. The authors emphasize that these results have implications for online course design in the future—specifically how instructors decide to format discussion forums to ensure that effective and organic dialogue can happen, even through an online medium.

Marbouti, F., & Wise, A. F. (2016). Starburst: a new graphical interface to support purposeful attention to others’ posts in online discussions. Educational Technology Research and Development, 64(1), 87–113.

Image: 242/365 by Amy via Flickr