Our data sources for this analysis were student posts retrieved from a database that saved every student post along with any subsequent edits on the discussion forum. Access to the discussion forum was prominently displayed as a tab on the course site, and a section entitled ‘How to use the question/answer forum’ was available on the course information page. After clicking on the discussion forum tab, students were directed to a page on which initial posts, known as ‘threads,’ were visible. This page could be sorted by date so that more recent threads appeared first; by activity so that threads with the most recent responses appeared first; by answers so that threads with the greatest number of responses appeared first; or by votes so that threads with the greatest number of votes appeared first. When sorting the threads by votes, students could choose to sort by number of ‘up-votes,’ which indicated student appreciation for the post, or ‘down-votes,’ which indicated their dislike for the post. There was also a search function enabling students to peruse the forum for topics of interest.
When we retrieved the data in November, a total of 96,696 posts were made by students during and subsequent to the course. For this study, we used only the 90,441 posts that were made during the 14 weeks of the course from March 4 through June 15, 2012. Of the 108,008 students who clicked at least once on the course site, 8,894, or slightly over eight percent of them posted at least one time on the discussion forum. The distribution of posts per student was positively skewed (Mean = 10.23, SD = 44.66, Median = 2, Mode = 1), with the total posts per student ranging from 1 to 1442 for those who posted at all. Each student post was time-stamped and identified so that complete conversations could be re-constructed. The data were de-identified and the time stamp was removed prior to initiation of our analysis.