Keeping it real: Providing adult learners opportunities for authentic discussions in an online environment

Year: 2013

Author: McDougall, Jenny, Sturgess, Phillipa

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The objective of achieving a sense of 'authenticity' in an educational context is one that would seem to have immediate appeal, though how this might be defined, let alone achieved, remains contested. The concept of 'authentic discussion' has traditionally been used in the context of teaching English in schools, but this paper explores its links to the needs of adult learners and its application to online learning environments. It reports on a study of an online discussion forum on the topic of 'family'. Participants in this forum were a group of adult learners in an Australian 'access' program, that is, one designed to provide mature-aged learners with an alternative pathway into university. Though the online environment differs from face-to-face dialogue, it was found not to be a barrier to 'authenticity' in some respects. In this qualitative case study, a number of themes emerged in the analysis of the postings. The online forum allowed for multiple perspectives, even open disagreement at times. Students seemed to be really 'listening' to each other in the way that they responded to each other's ideas. There was evidence of community-building in the way in which the participants supported each other and used humour in a positive way. The environment was one in which openness and trust was evident, to the point where it was quite surprising to observe the willingness of participants to share honestly, often on subjects that were of a highly personal nature. The study concluded that the needs of adult learners were met in a number of key ways, including a preference for learning which is relevant to their needs and a desire for meaningful social engagement. The role of the lecturer emerged as a critical component in generating an environment in which such outcomes were possible. Though claims of 'authenticity' are always difficult to substantiate, this study suggests that meaningful and constructive discussion can be achieved in an online environment and these learning experiences have a particular salience in the context of adult learning.