Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Moderating Online Discussions For Learning
Moderating Online Discussions for Learning
Moderation is yet one more process that has been remediated from the classic form – that of presiding over a meeting – to the more modern example of e-moderators – one who presides over an electronic, online conference or meeting. Computer-mediated conferencing in this format requires a much broader range of expertise; from computer skills to inter- and intra-personal communication (Salmon, 2000). Moderating an online discussion for learning is a very complicated task. More so than in face to face courses, the ‘teacher’, ‘moderator’, or ‘facilitator’ must work to see that instructional objectives are met, while providing a friendly environment in which to work. It becomes the moderators goal to not only evaluate content for clarity and subject matter, but he or she must also be aware of the need for learners to build concepts by working together. Such cooperative learning can flourish in online environments only if they are treated as separate from their face to face predecessors. In fact, it has been suggested that when these conferences fail, it is because of an inability of a e-moderator to carry-over the skills of face-to-face leadership to the online setting during the initial stages (Collins & Berge, 1997).
Salmon (2000) notes that most e-moderators are most often active in the first 1-3 weeks of the conference. At this point the activities need to be very structured in order to allow students to explore different aspects of the program and conference, as well as to develop a comfort level with the material. During this time the e-moderator often works as a group facilitator, conference developer and content provider. It is also important to provide the rules for the conference and to start to develop the shared understandings and trust that will allow the conference to flourish (Salmon, 2000).
As the conference develops, Salmon (2000) refers to the experience of a case study of the Open University Business School in Wales, in which the e-moderator withdrew from active participation. This allowed for the students to develop a commitment to each other and to the activities themselves. Thus the conference became more reflective and the role of ‘expert’ was no longer required.
In online learning environments the terms ‘separate’ and ‘connected’ ways of knowing are becoming more popular (Love & Guthrie, 1999). Rather than used to assess student work, these themes are used to help users understand the level to which they are communicating effectively in an online forum. Each post can be evaluated based on its demonstration of either separate or connected ways of knowing, however, it is possible to demonstrate a combination of the two types. ‘Separate Knowing’ is represented in posts that are objective, use logic to defend theories, and are critical of new ideas unless they are well supported with facts or come from someone whose authority in the area is respected. ‘Connected Knowing’ is represented in posts that are more empathetic, try to understand the shared experience that has led to the knowledge, and will offer to help others if possible (Clinchy, 1996).
Some studies have demonstrated that males often demonstrate more separate ways of knowing versus females who generally demonstrate more connected ways of knowing. Yet for a truly collaborative group to succeed, both ways of knowing must be represented (Clinchy, 1996). Clinchy (1996) also notes that a single post often displays both of these characteristics.
This brings to light another important point of moderating online discussions: though we often assume everyone understands how to function appropriately in online situations we often forget that many users have had no training in the specific skills necessary to survive in an online environment. Chau (n.d.) comments that, “Students have to learn to respect perspectives that are very different from their own. Without non-verbal cues such tone, gesture, and facial expression, it is more likely for someone to misinterpret a comment which sometime results in flaming (i.e. heated, hostile exchange of comments).” Feenberg & Xin (n.d.) add to this,
This situation poses a special problem for teaching since student motivation to participate must be maintained through recognition of contributions to the discussion despite the lack of the tacit signs of attention and appreciation that play such an important role in the face-to-face classroom. We will discuss this problem in more detail in the section on moderating which follows this one.
It is very possible, especially with younger students, that a contributor will take a comment out of the context in which it was written. Here the e-moderator must select the best way to stop the escalating behaviour, whether using email, a phone call, or, if possible, a face to face meeting to help to remedy the situation (Chau, n.d.). In respect to these difficulties, the instructor/e-moderator must play a coaching role as well. His or her job changes from delivering the curriculum to facilitating an environment in which students gain the key learning experiences necessary from the online activities developed. Coaching must focus on how to keep discussions on topic and when and where to add comments to promote connected ways of knowing (Chau, n.d.).
The e-moderator must also ensure that the community with which they work are ‘absorbed’ into the online discussion. Absorption is a term that comes from the work of Erving Goffman who also referred to the term, ‘engrossment’ as a description of the sociological factors that compel us to participate in social encounters like sports and games. “The concept of absorption refers to the sharing of purpose among people who do not necessarily form a community but have accepted a common work or play as the context for an intense, temporary relationship. The term nicely describes participants' feelings about an exciting online discussion. They are 'absorbed' in the activity as one might be in a game of poker or tennis.” (Freenberg & Xin, n.d.) The moderator needs to work within these structures by welcoming new users and maintaining lines of communication with those returning. The more a user feels encouraged by the environment in which the discussion takes place, the more absorbed he or she will become. Chau (n.d.) suggests that moderators should go a step further by bringing so called ‘lurkers’ – those that read, but rarely, if ever, contribute to the discussion – into the fold by sending them private messages encouraging participation.
Lastly it is important to understand the role of the moderator in a learning environment. It has been made clear that this is a very different role from that of the face to face facilitator, but what exactly are the duties of an e-moderator? Chau (n.d.) suggests that the majority of tasks revolve around the discussion it self, not surprisingly. Firstly it is important that the questions themselves be carefully created in order to promote discussion. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a categorization of questions divided based on the learning that can be generated by a given question. Single-word answer questions, so called, ‘copy and paste’ questions, and those requiring little thought take the lowest level. Evaluation questions, or those which call for the answerer to choose between a set of options and describe why he or she has made that choice, are found at the highest level (Bloom, 1984). E-moderators should incorporate questions from all levels of the taxonomy in any online discussion. Furthermore, an e-moderator must create clear guidelines that help users understand exactly what is and is not allowed in the discussion forum. Lastly, an e-moderator will be called on during the course to reword questions if the discussion gets ‘off track’ and to provide feedback, summarize the discussion to date and recap previous discussion to reinforce the learning objectives (Chau, n.d.).
Moderators of online discussions for learning have a much more difficult task than they often realize. It is through their hard work that students are able to develop not only a course subject matter understanding, but the skills required to appropriately socialize online. In a society which is moving more and more toward electronic communication, it is necessary for students and moderators alike to become well grounded in the theory of disembodied communication.
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