by Leslie Bowman, M.S.Ed.
George París Conway, M.S.Ed.
Educator, Instructional Designer and Consultant
September 2002 Article Part 3
This is Part 3 of our conference paper and presentation. In this section, we discuss the strategies for effective facilitation of online discussions. You may recognize some of this as it was revised from one of Leslie's Teachers.net Gazette articles about communication in online learning.
I've designed the questions - Now what?
Instructors must also model good discussion techniques for learners. This means becoming part of the discussion without being overbearing or taking over. Instructors should guide the discussion, not turn it into another lecture. They should summarize points where appropriate and follow up with more questions that encourage learners to delve deeper into the issues. Effective instructors do this all the time in traditional classrooms. It is second nature to ask questions while learners are discussing something in class. With experience, instructors get to the point where they can automatically sense where learners are headed with their discussions, so they can maneuver them in the right direction.
Here are a few examples of traditional classroom strategies that can be transferred to online discussions:
- Sequence discussions so that each one flows into the next in a logical progression. This may mean only posting one discussion prompt at a time and following with others as you ascertain how and where the discussion is going.
- Set start and stop dates
- Require participation
- Set expectations up front about participation guidelines and acceptable behavior
- Ask learners to post summaries periodically throughout the discussions
- Ask them to expand upon their original answers to promote reflective thinking
- Show them how to cite, quote, and paraphrase others' comments in their summaries
- Don't let them get sidetracked into arguments (stating their opinions over and over in different words)
To what extent should I participate in discussions?
This is an important question that has perplexed many online instructors. The answer is that, since each class has its own dynamic, the instructor's participation is different for each class. What works well for one class may not necessarily work for another. An online instructor must be able to find in each class the proper balance between "talking" too much and not "talking" enough (and this is not as simple as it seems). The general assumption is that if a discussion is going well, it is better for the instructor to allow the discussion to evolve without interference. Personal emails can be sent to those students who are not participating or to those who seem to "hog" the discussion, so that such communications do not affect the flow of the discussion.
Sometimes in a vibrant and meaningful discussion, the instructor's presence can serve to shut down the process rather than enhance it. This is because self-guided, independent students generally see the instructor's role as one of summarizing and putting closure to the lesson. In this environment, the instructor must know how to exhibit involvement without interrupting the flow of conversation. However, if there is little or no interaction at all from the instructor, then learners feel that the instructor is too busy to bother with the course. All online learners, regardless of age, need to sense the instructor's presence. They need to feel that the instructor is "listening" and paying attention. Bear in mind that students are not shy about letting their feelings be known about instructor participation when instructor/course evaluations appear at the end of the course.
What about a discussion that is going well, and in which the instructor is NOT needed? How is the learner's need to "see" the instructor satisfied without inhibiting the process? Very simply, the instructor can provide the acknowledgement and encouragement that students need through comments such as "Good point, to which article are you referring?" or "That's an interesting statement. Would you mind clarifying and expanding it?" This type of instructor participation is needed even if discussions are going well, and even more so in discussions that are stalling or drifting.
There are many factors that can cause discussions to stall or drift, including group dynamics, age of students, relevancy and interest in the topic(s). Sometimes even the timing of a particular discussion within the course schedule can have detrimental effects on students' participation. For example, if an important issue is to be discussed during a week when a position paper is also due, then it stands to reason that the discussion will be rather limited that week.
Here is a personal experience that we had that is directly related to the issue of scheduling discussions: In one class we took together in our Masters program, we had a unit in which we were to prepare a group debate. Several discussion topics were also posted during that same week. Since group collaboration takes a great deal more time than discussion, most of us spent more time preparing our debates than taking part in substantive discussion.
The lesson here is that organization and correlation of class written assignments and discussions must be carefully planned to optimize the time spent on each.
In those cases in which a discussion just does not go anywhere in spite of the instructor's best facilitation efforts, it may be better to just move on to something else. When this occurs, it is better to chalk it up to an instructional learning experience rather than to try to force the issue with students who have no interest in the discussion.
Finally, how much instructor participation is too much? It is neither necessary nor advisable to respond to every student because this clutters up discussion threads and can serve as a distraction. It is, however, prudent to ask for clarification where appropriate and to insert some level of "expertise" into the discussion, as well as to provide simple acknowledgement. The instructor should always leave "footprints" throughout the discussions. It is a balancing act for the instructor, leaving footprints without distracting the flow of conversation, and it takes practice. As we learn and apply this, we find that it is well worth the effort because learners will explore, reflect, and truly discuss issues, and we become more effective facilitators of online interactive communication.
In Part 4 we will discuss Assessment of online discussions.
Gazette Articles by Leslie Bowman & George París Conway: