Online discussions as a method of instruction are a new approach in Ethiopia. There is no previous study in the Ethiopian context that has assessed students’ engagement and learning experience using this instruction method, which may offer a valuable complement to other instruction methods for intensive block teaching in a resource-limited environment. The aim of this study was to assess the value of online discussions in supporting students’ engagement and interaction with their peers and teachers in a block teaching postgraduate health professionals’ curriculum.
The research was conducted at Addis Ababa University College of Health Sciences, School of Medical Laboratory Sciences (SMLS), which has structured the curriculum around intensive block teaching. Between December 2011 and February 2012, two groups of full-time (N = 21) and part-time (N = 52) postgraduate students participated in online discussions as part of a Biostatistics and Research Methods module, in addition to other instructional methods. Every week, the course instructor initiated the online discussion by posting an assignment and articles with a few discussion questions. To evaluate the participants’ collective learning experience, the content of the email messages generated during these online discussions was analyzed qualitatively.
A total of 702 emails were exchanged during the three week module, of which 250 emails (35.6%) were posted by full-time students and 452 emails (64.4%) by part-time Continuing Education Program (CEP) students. During the online discussion forum, students identified different statistical data analysis tools and their application for given data sets. In terms of message contents, 67% of full-time and 64% of part-time students’ messages were classified as learning experiences. However, a slightly higher proportion of part-time students’ posts were social messages. The majority of students in both groups reported high levels of satisfaction with their online experience.