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How Student Discussions in Online Forums Inspire Faculty Research

How Student Discussions in Online Forums Inspire Faculty Research

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Learn more about transportation and logistics management degrees at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, at American Public University

Professors at online universities do not usually live under the pressure of earning tenure status after about seven years. That pressure is intense for such professors.

In non-tenured universities, the pressure to conduct research is a lot less stressful. Still, online professors are expected to conduct research and publish research papers, as well as other pedagogical works.

Their time to conduct such research can be limited. A full-time professor at an online university can teach perhaps six courses at a time, instructing a total of about 80 to 90 students.

In the online classroom, professors typically engage students in discussions on essential topics in online forums, based on the learning objectives for each course. Instructors must also read and edit students’ weekly papers, as well as offer essential writing advice, mentoring and coaching.

In addition, faculty members might need to conduct research on some relevant topic. That topic could be an analysis of a current technology trend, such as how drones are used to augment police department surveillance. Similarly, instructors may want to research a topic that enhances some earlier aspect of their Ph.D. dissertation or first book, published before the instructor became an online teacher.

Online Instructors Have Multiple Sources of Pressure, Including Discussion Forums

Online professors have several pressure points on their writing, including their ability to write and their desire to do so. Another pressure point is the weekly forum discussion.

Usually, the week’s discussion topic is based on a learning objective in the course. A typical course might have five to eight learning objectives spread across an eight-week semester.

The pressure on the instructor is to encourage students to understand how the discussion topic links to those learning objectives. To make the discussion engaging and exciting to students, the professor must engage students and motivate them to express some profound thoughts about the topic. This engagement involves information that could lead to a research essay by the instructor.

Motivation to Start Research

My research method starts before a forum discussion. First, it’s necessary to examine the question or statement that students need to address in forums. For instance, my initial forum post might be the following:

“What is your definition of supply chain management? List and describe the components of supply chain management. What are issues or challenges facing today’s supply chain?”

My students answer this post by providing their own definitions and by doing field research. But some students use canned answers by looking up the term, then cutting and pasting it into the forum.

To inspire research that will lead to an essay paper, I challenge students to go further in thinking about the supply chain.

For example, in responding to a student’s initial post, I might write these responses:

  • “Why should you be interested in the supply chain of items such as natural vanilla used in many common products these days? Think outside the box for this. Be careful; it is a trick question.”
  • “Have you noticed an increase in the price of vanilla or in some other food products? Why do you think that prices have increased over the last few years?”
  • “The price of vanilla has soared over the last three years as indicated by a chart from this website. Why do you suppose the price has increased? This is a supply chain problem.”

With such questions, I challenge the student to dig further into some aspects of the supply chain problem. The student has to dig for facts from outside sources, but relate to the course’s learning objectives and the education provided by the textbook.

There is, however, a second and more rewarding result. Beyond inspiring students to probe more deeply into a problem, I create new ideas for students that become part of our forum discussions. I can then adopt their thoughts and ideas from those forums and use them as inspiration for my future research work.

Learn more about transportation and logistics management degrees at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management,  Transportation and Logistics Management, and Government Contracting. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.

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