Swinburne Astronomy Online (SAO) is an online graduate program in astronomy intended particularly for amateur astronomers, science communicators and educators. SAO emphasises the development of conceptual understanding and good communication skills in astronomy. The use of asynchronous discussion forums is a central feature of SAO. These 'online tutorials' were introduced partly with the intention of breaking down the isolation of distance education, but mainly to provide a venue where students could deepen their conceptual understanding of astronomy and hone their science communication skills while discussing course material with other students and instructors.
In this project aspects of the use of discussion forums in SAO were investigated, with comparisons made between average marks awarded for discussion forum contributions and those awarded for other assessment tasks, plus analysis of the rate at which students post to the forums, and an investigation of whether gender makes a significant difference to participation rate and assessment results. Responses by students to surveys that probe their ability to express themselves and communicate with classmates in this online form of distance education are discussed. Finally, possible implications for the use of discussion forums as a supplement to face-to-face teaching in astronomy are explored.