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What to Pack When You Move Online:
Discussion-Facilitation Strategies

Mary Schiller

Department of English
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo


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Teaching is teaching, right? You present the material, the students absorb it, they ask questions, you answer them, and then you give tests and hand out the sparkling grades. So what could possibly be so different about conducting all of this online?

Plenty--especially the part where they ask questions and you answer them. There's no raising of hands, no clearing of throats to get your attention, no shouting answers out of turn: in other words, say good bye to all the visual and auditory cues you're used to.

Facilitating a worthwhile discussion online can be challenging. If, however, you practice good techniques in the face-to-face ("f2f") classroom, and you're open to reworking them for the online classroom, your move should be fairly smooth--with a bump or two along the road as you get used to "talking" through typing.

Take a look around your f2f classroom. Wow, there's a lot here: books, notes, drawings, plus some not-so-tangible items like your education, experience, and techniques. It's an impressive collection, but not everything will fit into the moving van--nor should it.

What should you pack when you move online?

The Ability to Develop a One-On-One Relationship with Each Student

Just as in the f2f classroom, developing a relationship with each student can help create an open and welcoming atmosphere where people feel free to voice their thoughts and opinions. Actually, this process may be even more important online, as there's no body language to acknowledge someone's presence in the classroom. You can't smile and nod as people walk through the door.

Instead, consider setting up an introduction area where people can share information about themselves. This area is usually a message board where students write entries, or "postings," and respond to others' postings at whatever time they like (called an "asynchronous discussion"). Once students have introduced themselves, you can refer to these facts later on when communicating with the student by email or in a discussion. When you're an online student, there's nothing better than having a teacher remember something special about you--especially in an environment that can seem distancing and "sterile."

In my own online classes, I have found that students really enjoy writing about themselves and finding others in the class who share similar interests. I always introduce myself in this area, too, sharing fun facts that help the students see me as a person rather than as an entity in cyberspace. I also include a photo, so the students have a human face to relate to.

Patience to Wait For Students to "Speak" Before Interjecting Your Thoughts

In the f2f classroom, you probably count to ten during those awkward silences before interjecting another thought or question. Online, you ought to try a similar technique. Wait to see what students say to one another before you wedge yourself between them. Students tend to see the teacher's comments as "correct" and may lose confidence in their own contributions if you intervene too often. Let a few postings go by before responding, and then do so only in moderation; ask additional questions sparingly (see "Question Mill," below).

I have learned this lesson the hard way by jumping in too soon and cutting off the discussion mid-stream. I now wait until several students have responded to a question before I step in, and I do so carefully. Just as in the f2f classroom, it helps to adopt what I call the "psychologist's strategy." I paraphrase the students' comments, using as much of their own wording as possible, and then ask a brief open-ended question to continue the train of thought.

In addition, I often ask the students to share information and resources with each other, such as links to Web sites with pertinent information. That way, they don't see me as a fountain of correct information and can begin to look to each other for assistance, which goes a long way toward building a vibrant learning community.

Some Traditional Discussion Models: Response to the Readings, For Instance

Just because you're now working online doesn't mean you have to abandon the tried-and-true "response to readings" discussion model. Everyone reads something, and you, as facilitator, begin the discussion by posting a question to get things rolling. Then step back and see what happens before you offer your own thoughts. When I use this technique, I make sure to keep the initial question rather simple, leaving room for more in-depth follow-up questions as the discussion progresses.

A Willingness to Let Students Serve as Discussion Moderators

While the reading response technique works well online, you might want to try a couple of variations on that theme. First, you could assign a reading and ask one or two students (working as a team) to moderate the discussion. A second approach is have a student post a position paper to defend, again allowing the student to act as moderator. With both of these techniques, it's a good idea to model effective discussion facilitation before involving students in the process.

I have noticed that these approaches work especially well online, because the f2f classroom intimidates some students when they're trying to defend a point of view or moderate a discussion. The online environment allows them time to compose their thoughts before they respond, which encourages greater overall participation.

In my experience, the f2f classroom tends to be dominated by the more vocal students unless the instructor makes a specific effort to call on the quieter students. Even then, it is sometimes difficult to encourage students to take a more active role in class participation and leadership.

Online, however, I see greater participation from all students, and they seem more willing to step in as moderators. While I am not sure of all of the reasons, I believe the relative anonymity of the online environment lowers inhibitions and traditional barriers. And, because they have time to think about what they're going to "say," students are more likely to express themselves. I also make participation a high percentage of their overall course grade and emphasize leadership in my grading standards.

What should you leave behind in the f2f classroom?

The "Question Mill"

In the article "Why Don't Face-to-Face Teaching Strategies Work In the Virtual Classroom? How to Avoid the 'Question Mill'," author Sarah Haavind describes this familiar process: the facilitator jumps into the fray and asks several follow-up questions all in one posting to keep the discussion on track. The result, Haavind says, will be silence, as students become confused and turned off by all the questions, or responses that are unrelated to one another, with each student answering different questions the facilitator has posed. Not surprisingly, the discussion stalls.

If you're tempted to get involved in this way, bite your online "tongue" and instead try paraphrasing a few of the students' comments, adding a quotation from the reading, and asking only one follow-up question at a time.

As someone who has taken online courses as well as taught them, I can say that from the student's point of view, nothing makes me recoil faster from a discussion than a long lineup of follow-up questions from the instructor. Click! I'm out of there.

Overly Specific "Starter" Questions

While it's tempting to try to focus the discussion right from the get-go, it's better to ask an intentionally vague starter question. This technique lets the students explore their own ideas; then the facilitator can find a theme or thread worth exploring in greater depth. You'll notice you can avoid the "question mill" this way, too. Remember, too, that you're not limited to a 50-minute period for a discussion, so there's no need to rush to the conclusion.

I have noticed that the online discussions move in a much better direction when I leave myself, and the students, room to "grow" with the topic. This technique is especially important when I want a discussion topic to last for an entire week--typical of online course design.

The Urge to Summarize

In an ongoing discussion, it's best to avoid writing a traditional summary that indicates your own perception of what everything "means." In addition to hardening the discussion direction, a traditional summary can also undermine nuances of the students' reasoning; the subtleties are lost.

Consider using a different technique, one that suspends judgment. If you can put students' comments side-by-side, in a "landscape" of perspectives, you'll be able to draw more reflection from the students. While the discussion continues, keep developing these landscapes to further enhance the conversation.

Save the more traditional summary for the end of the discussion as the lesson, or week, draws to a close.

The Notion That Socializing In Class Is Forbidden

When forming this online community, remember that just as in the f2f classroom, students need to feel part of the group to get more involved in the learning process and, of course, the discussions. Allow a place in your online classroom for socializing--a separate area that gives students freedom to discuss issues that may or may not be related to the course. You can monitor it, without adding comments, or you can get involved yourself, whichever you choose.

I name this discussion area the "cyber café," and I do get involved in the conversations there. In the f2f classroom, we don't usually have the opportunity to socialize with our students, and I must confess, the cyber café is the first place I visit when I log on to my course Web site. People share everything from recipes to comments on the day's headlines.

To be on the safe side, I always include a description of good "netiquette" in my online course syllabi, so there's nothing untoward going on in the cyber café or anywhere else, for that matter.

Conclusion

Most of all, bring your humanity with you: your thoughts, perceptions, feelings. That's the most important item to pack when you move online.

At first, it went against my grain to share some details about my personal life, which I don't always share in an f2f classroom. Online, however, I've found that the more I can bring my "self" into the classroom, the more students respond and, consequently, the better their educational experience. Because it can often bring us together, I also include humor occasionally, but only in a self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek sort of way to humanize myself.

Over time, I have learned the proper boundaries of both humor and self-revelation. By taking my best techniques of f2f teaching and modifying them for this new environment, today I am much better able to be a human presence online-someone who can encourage deeper thought through gently guided discussion.

References and Reading Suggestions

Bowman, Leslie. "Interaction in the Online Classroom." DegreeInfo.com. April 2002. <http://www.degreeinfo.com/article7_1.html>.

"Building Your Discussion Moderation Skills." Reach for the Sky: A Set of Online Courses for Teachers. Ed. Cynthia Denton. Western Montana College of The University of Montana. <http://www.learner.org/courses/rfts/facbld.htm>.

Coghlan, Michael. "Facilitating Online Learning." Michael Coghlan's Homepage. September 2002. <http://users.chariot.net.au/~michaelc/olfac.html>.

Haavind, Sarah. "Why Don't Face-to-Face Teaching Strategies Work In the Virtual Classroom? How to Avoid the 'Question Mill'." The Concord Consortium 4(3). Fall 2000. <http://www.concord.org/newsletter/2000fall/face2face.html>.

Learning Technology Group. "How to Teach and Facilitate Discussion Online." Division of Continuing Studies, University of Victoria. <http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/ltg/nursweb/DISCUSS.HTM>.

Raleigh, Donna. "Facilitating Online Discussions." Teaching with Technology Today 7(3). 15 November 2000. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. <http://www.uwsa.edu/ttt/raleigh.htm>.

Posted February 3, 2003

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2003 by Mary Schiller.

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