Introduction and aim
General dental practitioners are facing many professional challenges to meet the oral health needs of the public throughout the 21st century (1). In response, the American Dental Education Association’s Commission on Change and Innovation in Dental Education (ADEA CCI) proposed changes that should be made to the dental educational strategies, based on best practices in the literature. The teaching of critical thinking skills is considered to be an important educational principle that helps dental students in developing life-long learning (2).
The incorporation of online elements in education has been reported to bring many added benefits to traditional face-to-face teaching (3). Researchers have recommended the use of online discussion boards for its pedagogical strength. It supports online virtual communities, which engage groups of students allowing them to collaborate and learn from each other in a social learning network. Such innovations remove time constraints and are claimed to enhance in-depth critical analysis and reflection (4). Despite their potential, developing critical thinking skills in these virtual text-based environments remains a major challenge for educators. It requires the construction of an inquiry-based environment that encourages students to challenge assumptions as well as reflect on their own experiences (5).
The potential of online discussion boards to support learning in the health professional fields has been recognised as a successful educational strategy, particularly in supporting collaborative learning in distance education (6). However, reported evaluation of such technology and learning methods in a blended approach in dental education is sparse and requires more research.
Several elements and tools have been proposed in the literature for evaluating the design and components of online discussion boards. Garrison et al., in their Community of Inquiry Framework, identified three prerequisites for the successful performance of such communities. These elements are social, cognitive and teacher presence (7). Kay (8) identified a further 12 dimensions that were considered to be important when designing online communities and developed a comprehensive multi-component metric. These dimensions are social learning, cognitive processing, quality of discussion, initial question, role of educator, navigation issues, challenges for students, types of users, attitudes towards discussion, response time, learning outside of school and learning performance.
Different methodologies were also used to assess and translate the structure and successful functioning of online discussion boards. Content analysis was found to be a potentially rewarding methodology as it can provide important insights into why a session on the discussion forum is successful. However, the process of analysing discussions on such boards can prove to be time consuming (9).
The purpose of this study was to explore the dynamics of using online discussion boards and investigate methods of maximising their success in dental education.