Using online discussion forums to support learning of paraphrasing

Study Using online discussion forums to support learning of paraphrasing. British Journal of Educational Technology
Research Question Can online discussion forums be used to teach isolated writing skills?
Context The use of an ODF to teach paraphrasing as part of a writing course for ESL students.
Methods Students were given a lecture on paraphrasing and then a brief review of how to use ODFs.

Students were then divided into four forum groups and give very basic

instructions: to paraphrase a post by the tutor, and respond to at least

one other post. They were given a 20 day period for this task.

After the task the forum logs were evaluated.



Common-sense This provides students opportunities to practice this skill in a collaborative way freeing up classroom time for more synchronous learning with the tutor
Counterintuitive Counter-intuitive: The idea that ODFs were only suited to essay style writing tasks surprised me.
Interesting Interesting: The possibilities that this research opens for making small skill targeted ODF based learning in isolated writing skills, but potentially with and listening as well.


Tan (2016) discusses the use of online discussion forums (ODF) as a supportive learning environment for students to become more competent in the use of paraphrasing in their writing. The study is reflective of both the rapid advancement of educational technology as well as the shift in pedagogical applications towards more virtual web-based learning environments. Ahmad & Ives (2001) as cited by Tan, make a very clear distinction between the traditional learning environment which is defined by “time, place and space” and the virtual learning environment (VLE) which has expanded upon these three traditional elements to include “technology, interaction and control”. The VLE is heavily learner centred and places the learners in control of the learning, even when combined with teacher input. The ODF is one of many VLEs that educators can use to enhance their teaching, and provide exciting learning opportunities for their students. The use of ODF (and other VLE tools) increases collaboration and the transfer, sharing and co-construction of knowledge amongst the students and teacher. This study is carried out in Malaysia where the use of ODF has been a key driver in the development of the knowledge economy. Schools are equipped with wifi and intranet, and universities have ODF as a regular feature of their courses through the learning management systems they utilise. The Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-25 is cited as promoting quality learning through the adoption of ICT strategies. In her study Tan draws on previous research regarding ODF, and extends this by demonstrating that it can be integrated into a learning manager system to teach specific aspects of writing – in this case paraphrasing.

This research focuses not on ODF as used in previous studies with essay writing, but on using it as a tool to break down the teaching of writing into smaller units targeting very specic skills such as topic sentences, conclusions, sentence expansion and so on. The research in this paper collected data from short texts of less than 30 words and the interactions between students. The teacher took on the role of moderator in the ODF to ensure the environment remained positive and supportive. Using the ODF, 43 first year students enrolled in a writing course were given an assignment on paraphrasing. This assignment was given to students via the learning management system, eLearn, and had a 10% weighting towards the course grade. A lecture on paraphrasing was delivered to the students prior to the assignment going live. The tutor also reviewed ODF skills with the students. Students were then given 20 days to complete two tasks:

  • Paraphrase a sentence posted by the tutor
  • Comment on a post by other students

The tutor also divided the students into four groups of similar gender and ethnicity. Each group was given a different sentence to paraphrase. Students had to make a minimum of two posts, and were encouraged to post any content that would help the learning of paraprhasing. After the initial basic instructions the tutor stepped back and allowed the students take the lead, but remained present as an observer. The interest in this study was on increasing peer learning and learner autonomy rather than the facilitatory role of the tutor. At the completion of the assignment the transcripts of the interactions from eLearn were categorised as:

  • Cognitive Skill
  • Evaluation
  • Invitational Forms
  • Social Cues
  • Times Cited

Upon analysis there was evidence of students learning collaboratively together in a self-directed and self-regulated format bound by both cultural and instructional conventions. The ODF was shown to be an effective tool for promoting learner autonomy and student centred discussion. However it was still important for the tutor to maintain a presence by monitoring the posts, and intervening where needed. The results of this study open many possible variables to consider when introducing learning activities based in ODF. These variables (tutor intervention, group size, incentives etc) along with time lag between posts and the spread of posts themselves may also yield valuable data. In conclusion this study has revealed that utilising ODF to teach writing in smaller skill focused units of work taps into the flexibility of web 2.0 technologies and allows students to collaborate, review and support each other in achieving the learning outcomes.