I've read a couple of articles lately about student engagement versus student achievement. Clearly they aren't the same thing, but for years we've worked on adding student engagement to our online classes (usually through the latest cool Web 2.0 tool) on the theory that student engagement leads to student achievement. A recent article in Faculty Focus written by Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti asked the question "Is there too much interaction in your online courses?" The research she quoted panned learner to learner interaction. I was left with a couple of questions though - I wanted to see what learner to learner interaction was expected of students.
For years we've all added discussion areas to our courses on the theory that building a community of learners will increase course completion rates. And I think they probably do increase success rates, if they are carefully designed. On the other hand there are a lot of discussions in courses that really aren't discussions -- they are a lot more like busy work. Particularly in first year community college courses it is unrealistic to expect learners to manage a good discussion of the course material on their own. Valuable discussion happens in the online world the same way it happens in the classroom -- under the guiding influence of the course instructor. An instructor can help learners apply content to their own lives and can help them move through the content in a timely manner, without wasting everyone's time. Expecting new learners to do that by themselves is a lot like leaving the classroom for an hour every week and expecting your students to focus on the content in a productive way. And good luck with that. :^)