Over my course of being a TA, I've learned a number of things about college coursework. One of the biggest areas of debate at the moment is online class pedagogy and for good reason. Online classes or discussions tend to viewed by many people the same as a trip to the dentist: you either love them, or they're the bane of your existence. The logic behind this is pretty simple. As a student, you've either had a good experience or you've had a bad one. To be honest, teaching an online class or discussion can be the same way.
Online coursework provides a number of advantages to today's college student, but the work goes both ways. The instructor must make sure to provide a well-rounded online discussion that facilitates learning and fosters involvement with the class material. Sure, the students need to do the work and post their findings, but the instructor's role in an online class discussion is equally as important. By facilitating the discussion around specific lessons, the instructor has the power to be able to serve as a model for how they want the class to engage in the activity.
In David Baker's article, "Improving Pedagogy for Online Discussions," Baker gives practical, detailed tips for instructors in how to set up these discussions and the parameters they need to follow. He is also very blunt about the role of the instructor in these discussions when he observes, "Organizing instructor-facilitated online discussions is fundamental and demanding...teachers are expected to serve as a planner, role model, coach, facilitator, and communicator" (26) To state the obvious, these are big shoes to fill. Instructors can get bogged down in the amount of work to teach and can forget the details concerning their online discussions. It is no longer fine for the students to just talk--there must be a reason behind it, a learning objective to follow. Teachers need to be participatory as well.
Baker goes on to explain that small groups in an online setting can reduce "social loafing," which "refers to the tendency to minimize one's group involvement" (27). This idea helps solve the problem of student's who use online discussions as a way to avoid the weight of the assignment. Smaller groups and assignments promote more participation. It is up to the instructor, however, to assure that these assignments and discussions are well-organized and well-prepared.
Online discussions can flourish or flounder, but the responsibility lies not only with the student but with the instructor. From syllabus design to facilitating specific learning-centered discussions, instructors must be role models and should design the course around what benefits the student.
For more information on online pedagogy, see David Baker's article, "Improving Pedagogy for Online Discussions."