Benfield Online Discussions

Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development OCSLD Learning and Teaching Briefing Papers Series Designing and managing effective online discussions The explosive growth of the Web and of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) like WebCT has brought easy access for teachers to online communication tools. Many academics are now grappling with how best to use them in their teaching. There are several advantages that may be gained by having discussions online. Online ‘discussion’ by its nature c
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  The explosive growth of the Web and of VirtualLearning Environments (VLEs) like WebCT hasbrought easy access for teachers to onlinecommunication tools. Many academics are nowgrappling with how best to use them in theirteaching. There are several advantages that may begained by having discussions online. Online‘discussion’ by its nature creates a written artefactthat documents both process and product. Studentshave flexibility to contribute to the discussion at atime and place that suits them. They also gain time toreflect on their contributions and those of others.Although the basic principles and many of thetechniques of managing group discussions areessentially the same online as those for face-to-facediscussions, there are important differences.Teachers new to online conferencing often confrontquestions like, ‘How do I get the students involved inan online discussion?’ and ‘How do I keep themengaged?’ Even more important, especially forteachers of on-campus modules, is ‘When and forwhat is an online discussion useful and appropriate?’Time is an important issue in online conferencing.Questions arise like ‘How long should an onlinediscussion go on for?’ and ‘What is an acceptabledelay before someone replies to a question?’ Thetempo of an online discussion is different from that of a face-to-face one and it may take some time for abeginner to get used to it. Teachers and students mayboth be rightfully concerned at the impact of onlineconferen-ces on their time. Poorly designedconferences inexpertly moderated can be enormous‘time sinks’. Following some simple guidelines canprevent this.Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) has beenused in some form in higher education for twodecades or more. There is by now a fairly substantialbody of research literature on the educational use of CMC. What follows are some snippets of advicebased on the research literature and informedpractice. This paper concentrates on asynchronousconferencing (also called threaded discussion) ratherthan synchronous (real-time ‘chats’), because this isthe most widely used form, especially with on-campus students. Avery short list of some usefulresources on the topic for teachers in HigherEducation is provided at the end of this paper. Teacher/tutor as facilitator The simplest and most common form of onlinecommunication is email. Email discussion lists, or‘listservs’, were an early form of asynchronousdiscussion tool that are still used for academic andprofessional purposes. These have largely beensuperseded for educational purposes by morefunctional web-based bulletin or discussion boards.There are functional differences between conferencingusing web-based bulletin boards and email. Email isan example of ‘push’ technology, where a message isdelivered only to those to whom it was addressed.The recipient is usually notified when they receivenew messages, and they will likely read them rightaway. Conferencing requires the members to activelygo to their web-based conference and search for newpostings. Individuals will likely be involved in morethan one conference, so they will have to open eachone in turn to read their new messages and respond if they want to. Moreover, every message posted to aconference is public to all other members of theconference.Teachers who begin using online communicationtools must be prepared for a shift of the locus of control in the discussions, away from theteacher/lecturer, towards the students. Rather thanusing physical presence and/or personality toinfluence a discussion, the e-moderator must rely ontheir ability to persuade. Phrases like ‘from a sage onthe stage to a guide on the side’ and ‘teacher as afacilitator’ are commonly used to describe this changein the teacher’s role. But it should be noted that agood ‘facilitator’ does not imply a passive one. The ‘e-moderator’ must actively work to ensure onlinediscussions engage students and lead to high qualityeducational outcomes. Take the time to induct students in CMC Before students can independently use onlinediscussion tools to construct knowledge, they mustbecome comfortable and proficient using theenvironment. Salmon (2000) offers a five-step modelof teaching and learning online that emphasises theimportance of online socialisation and familiarisationwith the environment.At a very basic level, this means that students need tobe taught how to reply to messages, create newdiscussion threads, how to customise their onlinediscussion environment, and so on. At a morecomplex level, they may need to overcome an initialreluctance to ‘expose themselves’ and their ideas toscrutiny in the relatively more permanent (thanspoken discussion) environment of an onlinediscussion. The e-moderator must be able to create Designing and managing effective online discussions 1  Greg Benfield27 June 2002 Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development OCSLD Learning and Teaching Briefing Papers Series  ©Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development 2002  2OCSLD 2002 and foster an environment in which participants feel‘safe’ to voice their opinions and are respected fortheir views.To begin with, those new to online discussions mayprefer to ‘lurk’, or be non-contributory browsers. Thisis very normal. New e-moderators often worry abouttheir ‘lurkers’, but these concerns are misplaced. Suchstudents are probably learning, just doing it ‘quietly’.Some will take longer than others to ‘speak up’. Thee-moderator needs to ensure that there are a varietyof activities for students to do that encourage activeengagement of all them. As with any classroom, therewill be quiet ones and ostentatious ones. Theimportant thing is to ensure that everyone in theclassroom/conference has equal opportunity to learn.Techniques for managing ‘dominant’ students orsupporting reticent ones in online discussions aresimilar to those used face-to-face. Email may take theplace of the ‘private chat’, but the most importantthings are careful organisation of groups, and wherenecessary their re-organisation, and a tutor’swatchful eye and timely interventions to guide thediscussions and set the standards. Strive to humanise the environment The absence of all the sensory cues normally presentin face-to-face communications can reduce a web-based learning environment to a cold, sterile place. Itis very important to emphasise being personal inonline communications. Students should beencouraged to use personal forms of address(Murray, 2000b), and to add clear comments as tohow certain remarks should be taken if there is roomfor ambiguity. (Sarcasm, for instance, does notconvey well online. Some jokes may appearparticularly heavy-handed and distinctly un-funnywhen offered in written form.) The best way of teaching this is to model it by doing it yourself,making explicit to the students that you are doing itand why.We often forget just how important is the socialchitchat that occurs in our classes and lectures until itis removed (or it interferes with the educational goalsof the session). For this reason it is useful to providestudents with a discussion topic or conferencespecifically designated to be for social, non-academicdiscourse. This allows and encourages socialcommunication and also provides a place for it tooccur without confusing or distracting from the goalsof the learning activities.Whether online or face-to-face, new groups in whichthe members don’t know each other need ‘ice-breakers’ to help get them working together. Perhapsan ‘introductions’ topic, to which all add a brief ‘bio’by way of introduction, preferably with a photo (that‘humanising’ element). This is a useful activity thathelps participants learn to use the discussion toolsand allows them to put ‘faces/characters’ to thenames they will see listed beside the discussionpostings. Games may be played to add fun. Forexample, rather than an ‘introductions’ conference,you can set up a conference of anonymous postings,in which members contribute a short ‘story’ aboutthemselves that does not identify who they are.Everyone then engages in a ‘20 questions-style’exercise, anonymously asking questions of the others,with only ‘yes/no’ answers allowed, that aim toidentify the contributors of all the srcinal postings.Aprize is awarded to the first correct (or most correctas there may not be time to complete it) list posted.Be sure to guess how long such activities may take.Keep them short and snappy. Establish clear guidelines for conduct of thediscussion The ‘e-moderator’ needs to set clear, explicitprotocols or guidelines for the conduct of thediscussion (Murray, 2000a). Protocols for onlinediscussions vary widely according to mode(synchronous/asynchronous), purpose (‘informal’discussion, debate, role play, group project, problemsolving exercise, review of academic papers, etc.),level of course (graduate/undergraduate/continuingprofessional development) and, of course, thepersonal ‘style’ of the individual teacher/tutor/ academic who will moderate the discussion.Guidelines should include things like:ãhow frequently or on which days students canexpect tutors to read and respond to postings;ãthe kinds of content that is or is not appropriate(eg, ‘don't post technical queries, send them to thehelp desk’, or ‘use email rather than the discussionboard for private communications’, ‘observe“netiquette” norms’, etc);ãsize and style of postings (eg, ‘make your point inyour posting, not in an attachment’, ‘keeppostings brief, no more than two screens’,‘spelling,punctuation and grammar are irrelevant’, etc).For example, you may be looking for clarity of thought and vigorous exchange of views, and for thediscussion to stay tightly focussed on one or twomain themes. So you might 'ban' long-winded'dissertation'-style contributions, say by setting amaximum line length, or a ‘two screens maximum’.There will be discussions where a relatively highlevel of formality is required, for example incompilation of position papers or analysis andcritiques of journal articles.Many students will be nervous about whether theircontribution will be similar to those of otherstudents. Others will worry about whether they are‘saying’ the ‘right’ thing. Some students will try toimpress their teachers and all students need to know‘the bottom line’. So you have to make it very clear tothem what it is that will impress you and what it isthat won’t. It gets in the way of learning if studentshave to figure this out by trial and error. The best  ©Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development 2002  3  way to do this is by making your guidelines quiteexplicit and modelling them yourself in your ownpostings. Online discussion should be purposeful andcollaborative The most active and effective online discussions arehighly purposeful and task oriented. If students donot see an immediate educational and/or practicalvalue in the exercise, then they will not be inclined todo it. Busy students will not offer up valuable time topost their thoughts and suggestions to other studentsfor philanthropic reasons.Discussions should focus on a task, and they shouldinvolve a ‘product’. No matter how interesting adiscussion topic may appear to be, students willseldom take the time and trouble to participate in anonline discussion because of its inherent interest (atleast at first). There is little point, for example, inasking students to ‘discuss the use of capitalpunishment in Victorian Britain’ for the next week. Atutor introducing a face-to-face seminar with such aninstruction would likely be met with silence, somenervous giggles and possibly some tentativequestions seeking information about what she/hewants to hear. The outcome is undefined and thestudents will be uncertain or confused about whatthey should do.Care should be taken to ensure that participation inonline discussions provides a useful advantage tostudents. Why, for example, would they not simplymeet in the café if they are on-campus, or talk to eachother on the phone if they are distance learners? Theanswer usually lies in the fact that the online‘conversation’ provides a text-based digital record of thoughts, concepts, plans, answers, strategies,proposals and the like. This digital artefact may becompiled, edited and converted to various otherforms.The educational aims of the discussion of ‘capitalpunishment in Victorian Britain’ are probably to havestudents acquire political, social, historical, and/orethical information about the topic beforehand, andanalyse and evaluate the arguments presented basedon a variety of criteria. As in a face-to-face seminar,the discussion is a means to an end: to engagestudents with the content on various levels. Like aface-to-face seminar, a good online discussionpresupposes preparatory activity. For example, thestudents could be asked to research and prepareposition papers on the issue as a prelude to debate. Adifference and benefit of the online discussion overthe face-to-face one is that this ‘preparatory’ activity(eg, research, reading, initial problem solvingattempts, etc) can take place in tandem with theonline discussion, which stretches out over a periodof possibly weeks. New information can becontinuously brought to bear on the onlinediscussion, while face-to-face all the preparatoryactivity needs to have been completed before thediscussion takes place. Structuring online discussions The e-moderator needs to provide a structure for thediscussion, for without structure students may groupthemselves into ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps based ontheir existing beliefs and experience and never trulycome to grips with the content. For them to want to‘discuss’ the issue there needs to be clear reason forpeer collaboration. Hence, the debate could beorganised in teams, and the ‘products’ of these smallgroup discussions would be their positionpapers/arguments. There may also be a team orteams of online adjudicators, who may create aproduct – a synthesis of the debate. As withclassroom activities, the greater the scope forstudents to choose their topic, or the format of theirreport/presentation/solution, etc, the greater thelikelihood of them animatedly expressing theirdiverse points of view and learning from each otheras they do.In general, to encourage students to ‘talk’ to eachother they need to be set challenging tasks in whichthe sharing of their ideas, experiences, knowledgeand skills is useful. Small (5–10) collaborative groupsthat prepare solutions to problems, or presentations,or reports to share with the larger group (as well asyou, the tutor) are the best way to achieve this. Theanswer to a question asked by one student might berelevant to many, so post answers to an FAQ(frequently asked questions) conference/topic/forumwhere all can see. Such a forum can quite quicklybuild up into a valuable resource for current andfuture cohorts, and students will begin to add to itthemselves if encouraged to do so.It is much harder to make modifications ‘on the fly’to online discussion than face-to-face discussions.The effect of a tutor’s intervention into onlinediscussions may take longer to be realised than in aface-to-face seminar. It takes more time to persuadeonline participants that the discussion is going off ona tangent than suddenly using a loud voice, orstanding in the middle of the room clapping one’shands, for instance. On occasion, the tutor’sintervention may be disregarded entirely. Amongstother things, this means that online discussions needto be carefully planned. Their intended outcomesmust be absolutely clear. Good online discussionsrarely happen spontaneously. Online discussions need deadlines Discussions never work well if they have no clearbeginning or end and participants enter and leave asthey see fit. The attempt to make online courseshighly flexible, so that students can ‘work at theirown pace’, is fraught with difficulty at the best of times, providing busy students with a host of opportunities to procrastinate. Online discussion ‘attheir own pace’ is doomed to failure. There is little The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning DevelopmentOxford Brookes UniversityGipsy Lane CampusOxford OX3 0BPTel: 01865 484610Fax: 01865 ocsd/ Date modified:22 February 2002Other papers in this series areavailable at services/ocsd/4_resource/ 4_resource.html  ©Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development 2002  4OCSLD 2002 value to you or me if you offer a solution to myproblem of six months ago. I’ve already moved onand you’ve wasted your time. Moreover, schedulingconferences aids students with their time manage-ment in general. If they know in advance when theywill have to devote time to an online task, they canplan ahead.Here are some tips from Gilly Salmon (2000 p44) toprevent conferences becoming ‘time-sinks’:ãclearly specify the expected time to be spentãinexperienced online learners and e-moderatorswill need longer than experienced ones, so buildin extra time for themãmake sure the online time is used for what it’sgood for (don’t force-fit activities into CMC)ãreduce face-to-face activities by as much as onlineactivities have been increasedãask participants to do one or two important onlineactivities in a time bounded way, within a timelimit, until they gain experience at managing theironline timeãset clear expectations of frequency of tutor ‘visits’to the conferences.Web-based discussion boards skilfully used cangenuinely be time savers (or at least not time wasters)for teachers, even those of very large classes. But to beso, you must set tasks that require students to talk toeach other. If they end up wanting to talk to you allthe time you will be quickly overwhelmed by thesheer volume of responses you need to make. One of the chief advantages of web-based discussion boardsover email is that you, the tutor, can ‘talk’ to everyoneat once, much as you can in a classroom. If you findthat you are engaging in multiple one-to-oneconversations with students online, then you mayneed to reassess the design of your discussion activity. Online discussions need tutor feedback Like good face-to-face discussions, online discussionsrequire periodic and timely summaries. The e-moderator has a critical role to play in identifying keyissues remaining to be addressed, making explicitideas or issues that have newly emerged, suggestingpaths for further development, and so on. Agood e-moderator has to both stand back and let theparticipants have their say and also intervene todirect the discussion into useful channels. There isconsiderable value for learning in encouragingexperienced online students to play this role,especially in collaborative group activity. But to do sothey need to be taught, by the tutor first modellinghow to do it and then making explicit the techniquesthey used.Providing timely feedback is important. If studentquestions go unanswered for too long, they will tireof posting them (and eventually tire of logging on atall). This imperative needs to be weighed againstlimitations on tutors’ time. ‘Timely’ in this casedepends on what expectations students have as towhen they can expect replies to their queries. This iswhy you have to make these explicit from the outset;eg, ‘I will respond to postings on Mondays,Wednesdays and Fridays’, or ‘you can generallyexpect a reply within 72 hours’.What newcomers to online teaching often miss is thatin general there is a need for more active offering of ‘verbal’ (in this case written) confirmation of studentefforts online than there is face-to-face. For onlinestudents, ‘no news’ is not necessarily ‘good news’, inthe way that it might be face-to-face. If you arecirculating around the room watching students work,your approval of what students are doing may beinferred if you do not speak to them or intervene intotheir work. You are probably also offering non-verbalconfirmation in various ways. Online there is noconfirming eye-contact, approving smile or pat onthe back. If students’ online actions are notacknowledged, then they may be left with theimpression that they were not noticed. Even thesimplest online events, from the submission of anassignment, to the entry into a discussion of apreviously reticent student, or the unevencontributions of members of a particular group, willneed to be actively acknowledged in a way that isdifferent to the face-to-face context.Reassurance and praise go a long way. It is importantto offer students plenty of positive feedback andencouragement, simply to indicate that you arepaying attention and believe that their work isprogressing as it should. Do not forget that you canalso create expectations of high standards by callingattention to good postings or important observations. Online discussions should be assessed Although some students may feel that a topic isinherently interesting, many will not and they willavoid participating unless compelled. To put itbluntly, there must to be a clear link between thetime students invest in the online task(s) and theirfinal grades. Like it or not, the bottom line for moststudents is ‘what’s it worth?’ The answer has to beclear and explicit at the outset. Mandatoryparticipation (a ‘hurdle task’) is not, by itself, theanswer either. If all that is required of students istheir ‘participation’ in a discussion forum, the levelof contribution will probably be shallow andperfunctory.How to assess, what to assess, when to assess?Complex decisions at the best of times. There is asbig a range of answers for CMC as there is for face-to-face discussions. Some give a nominal ‘mark’ forparticipation. Sometimes just certain contributionsthat students make to discussions are assessed. Forinstance, students may choose their ‘best’ threecontributions for grading. Some use CMC to allowpeer assessment of student projects or solutions.Davies (2001) describes a system in whichindividuals are graded on their justification for the  ©Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development 2002


Jan 30, 2018
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