A Teacher’s Guide to Moderating Online Discussion Forums: From Theory to Practice
Andrew Feenberg, Cindy Xin & Geoffrey Glass
This manual is designed to provide insight into the “virtual classroom” and techniques for effective online teaching. We begin with a comparison of online discussion forums to face-to-face social interaction. We then introduce an approach to moderating forums, and provide some practical advice for managing them with the help of Marginalia.
To avoid possible misunderstandings regarding the scope and purpose of this manual, let us state a few preliminary caveats. These remarks do not pretend to be the last word. This analysis of online communication is informal, based more on experience than research. No doubt other observers of cyberspace would contest some of the points made here. Readers already familiar with these issues may wish to skip to the second part of this text. The pedagogy suggested there is not the only valid approach to teaching online, but it is a widely recognized approach and Marginalia has been developed specifically to facilitate it.
Marginalia can be used in other pedagogical contexts, as well as in online business or community groups. We are hopeful that those with other approaches and applications will discover uses for Marginalia that we have not imagined.
A last word on two other limitations of this manual. We do not address technical difficulties with equipment and software, nor do we attempt to cover all the ways in which knowledge can be transmitted online. This manual concerns online discussion forums alone, and within that field specific communication requirements of successful forum management. Many educationally significant issues are not addressed here, such as technical support, course conversion, building community, and techniques for explaining concepts and evaluating students’ work. Despite these limitations, there is much to be learned. The online discussion forum is a truly alien environment; study of that environment can aid in achieving competence as a discussion leader.
I. Communicating in the Online Forum
Before beginning to work in an online discussion forum, it is useful to consider just how different it is from our familiar experiences with face-to-face communication. The main differences are due to the narrow bandwidth of computer mediated communication (CMC), the use of writing rather than speech, and the asynchronous flow of messages between participants. Here is a brief account of some of the conclusions reached by experienced users and communication theorists who have studied these aspects of online discussion.
Face-to-face, we communicate through a number of independent channels. In addition to the spoken language itself, there are also what are called “paralinguistic features,” tacit cues, including pitch, tone, gaze, gestures, facial expressions and the like. Metacommunicative features — communication about communication — include tacit rules that are signaled by aspects of the setting and situation. Finally, there are status and role distinctions that are clearly signified (for example by clothing, hair styles, etc.) which form the background to the discussion.
In CMC there is only written language and sparse background knowledge about the nature of the situation. There are no paralinguistic features to provide interpretative cues to intended meanings, except for the occasional and idiosyncratic use of certain textual conventions such as parenthetical explanations or symbols including “ha ha,” “grin,”:> “.)” (for a happy face) and “:<” (for a frown). The lack of a tacit dimension in the online environment can be compensated to some extent by explicit written communication. However, in one especially important area, compensations are typically lacking. Engaging in face-to-face conversation involves complex forms of behavior called ‘phatic’ functions by semiologists. When we say “Hi, how are you?” we signify our availability for communication. We usually close the conversation with another set of rituals, such as, “I’ve gotta go. See you later.” Throughout our talk, we are continually sending phatic signs back and forth to keep the line open and to make sure messages are getting through. For example, we say such things as, “How about that!” or reply, “Yes, go on.” Looks and facial expressions tacitly reassure interlocutors that they are still in touch, or on the contrary carry a warning if the communication link is threatened by technical difficulties or improprieties. Looks and facial expressions are particularly important in group communication, such as a classroom situation, where explicit phatic utterances are distracting.
Like any social act, communicating on-line involves a minor but real personal risk. In the peculiar online world, a response – any response – is generally interpreted as a success while silence means failure. Additionally, the sender of a message needs to know not only that it was received, but how it was received. But nearly all phatic signs are missing in CMC. Even standard codes for opening and closing conversations are discarded. This frustrates our normal expectation of continuous attention and reassurance as we communicate. It is disturbing to do without nods of the head, smiles, glances, tacit signs which in everyday conversation often take the place of words.
The paucity of phatic expression in CMC amplifies certain social insecurities that no doubt were always there, but which now come to the fore as what we call “communication anxiety.” The problem is aggravated by the asynchronous character of the medium which works against feeling the full force of the other and weakens the informal, tacit social controls of everyday face-to-face conversation. As a result, messages are frequently left unanswered without the embarrassment we would certainly feel if, for example, we were greeted by an acquaintance on the street and failed to respond. Thus, corresponding to the anxiety we feel about the reception of our own communications, there is an unprecedented casualness about responding to the communications of others.
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.
All face-to-face interaction is structured by a turn taking system of some sort. Turn order is important and its timing critical. We all know the feeling of missing the moment when our comments might have been relevant and remaining silent as a result. In asynchronous CMC turn order is more or less random. Individuals contribute at times of their own choosing without much regard for the flow of the conversation. This often results in several different topics being discussed at once, or the same topic being discussed simultaneously at different stages in its development. The term “multi-threaded discussion” has been introduced to describe this situation. Multi-threading has its advantages, as we will show, but it also leads to difficulties in knowing when decisions are reached, since they are always open to re-discussion. Procedural matters generally pose greater challenges online than in face-to-face settings. Hence the usefulness of strong leadership in many types of online discussion forums, including educational ones.
On the other hand, the asynchronous nature of online discussion favors thoughtfulness and careful composition. When face-to-face, we standardize the allowed time between turns at talk. Waiting too long or answering too quickly have specific meanings and may be discouraged. This is dramatically different in online forums. A comment may be read by some participants immediately after it is made and by others several hours or even days later. In contrast to face-to-face conversation, participants in online discussion do not have to pay attention to what they are hearing while thinking of what to say next in order to avoid uncomfortable silences or to demonstrate attentiveness. Instead, they can concentrate on capturing the ideas, take time to reflect, consider a variety of answers, do research if necessary and then respond at the time of their own choosing. This strongly enhances the quality of the exchange of ideas.
Asynchronous discussion in online forums is also especially effective in bringing out the best in participants who in other environments may be introverted or shy. Several studies have shown that the medium is helpful for members of minority groups, and this seems to be true for all people who regard themselves as marginal for whatever reason. What they have to say in an online discussion forum is not an imposition on the time of others, and does not have to be sandwiched in between the remarks of other seemingly more powerful participants. The ability to think before entering a comment makes it possible for everyone to contribute without the stress of the face-to-face environment. Again the lack of tacit cues plays a role. Because they communicate in writing alone, participants do not feel evaluated according to physical appearance, accents, or gender. Ideas are much more likely to be appreciated on their own merit rather than the status of the author. Consequently, a relatively low status person who has interesting ideas and writes well can have equal influence with high status members, particularly if the latter write clumsily or carelessly.
The Imperatives of Explicitness and Brevity
We mentioned above that explicit communication helps compensate for the lack of tacit signs in the online environment. This is particularly important where questions of understanding arise. In ordinary conversation, when we do not understand what is being said, we are likely to communicate that fact tacitly by facial expression. The speaker will usually pick up our distress immediately and, by adding a sentence or two on the apparent subject of confusion, resolve the problem before explicit and possibly embarrassing notice of it need be taken. Complete withdrawal in the face of minor communication problems is thus relatively unusual because it is perceived as far more rude than bringing into play corrective measures that generally suffice to straighten out misunderstandings.
Because these tacit correctives are unavailable, online discussion places a higher premium on clarity and explicitness than does everyday face-to-face conversation. It is embarrassing to concede confusion in writing, and the delay between message and response compounds communication problems. As a result, one commonplace way of dealing with unclear and ambiguous messages is to keep quiet. When a message succeeds only in reducing the interlocutors to silence, it has clearly failed in its purpose, but it may be some time before the writer becomes aware of the problem and can take corrective action. The tenuousness of online discussion thus imposes a degree of clarity and willingness to discuss communication problems that is rarely experienced with any other medium.
Participants frequently respond to this situation by adopting literary techniques such as the use of redundancy which reduce ambiguity by narrowing the range of meanings and connotations of terms. The multiplication of slightly different ways of presenting the same ideas, using synonyms and different encoding schemes, increases the likelihood of the message getting through. But these techniques have the disadvantage of violating another important rule of CMC, the imperative of brevity, which responds to the constant danger of “information overload.” A clear message that is so long no one bothers to read to its end may be even more demoralizing than a short, ambiguous message that can be ignored.
While it is obvious as a general rule that in all communication length must be matched to complexity, it is not always easy to find the right trade-offs between brevity and clarity. Two models of effective on-line communication obey each of these two imperatives. They are the telegram and the memo, each of which corresponds to different types of on-line situations.
Many discussion forums work well with brief messages of half a dozen to a dozen lines. Telegraphic messages represent an extreme trade-off of clarity against brevity. They are inherently more ambiguous than other forms of communication because they completely eliminate redundancy. Some forums achieve quasi-telegraphic solutions to the clarity/brevity dilemma through using technical language to discuss a very sharply defined theme. Technical languages are designed to restrict the semantic range of terms, thereby reducing the need for redundancy.
The popular item/reply architecture of most newsgroup and web based bulletin board software supports the telegraphic style by enabling users to attach messages to others that serve as their context and help to disambiguate condensed expressions. However, the item/reply architecture has disadvantages for online education. In theory it serves not only to contextualize comments as they are made, but also to classify information in the archive of the conference for retrieval at a later date, for example when it is time to review for the test. In practice, it is often quite difficult to recover information from an archive constructed in this way because users classify their messages under headings that are not intuitively obvious to each other. The Marginalia software discussed in part three of this manual offers a solution to this dilemma.
The memo suggests an alternative model that is better suited to educational conferences. A message structured like a memo supplies its own clear context for the ideas it presents and uses an outline format to organize points, helpful techniques of communication. The memo model yields comment lengths in the hundreds of words rather than short bursts of a few lines. This is particularly appropriate in forums that have a fairly fluid context and participants with very different backgrounds as is typical in education. In these forums one cannot assume a shared technical language but must use ordinary language to introduce and explain any technical content. Here somewhat longer messages tend to be the rule for the teacher at least and, where the participants are interested, for them as well. The exercise of writing such comments is unparalleled as a way of disciplining thought and expression while learning to reflect on ideas and experiences. Teachers should model and encourage the writing of such comments in preference to the brief interjections that students find easier to compose.
Online discussion is frequently said to build community, but the idea of community implies bonds of sentiment that are not always necessary to effective on-line communication. A group of interested individuals may produce a successful conference whether they form a community or just a functional gathering. In any case, the mere existence of community cannot explain the excitement of a good conference. Rather than focusing exclusively on the concept of community, it would make sense to study the dynamics of online discussion on its own terms. This may open a way to understanding the sociology of the online group, its specific ‘sociability’.
Online discussion dynamics involve the management of time, both the personal time of the participants and the overall time of the forum. Sometimes these dynamics are determined by extrinsic factors, such as job deadlines, tests, or the urgent need to accomplish a mission. Forums are surprisingly fragile, however, and no amount of external time pressure saves hopelessly mismanaged on-line groups. To a lesser extent, we see something similar in face-to-face meetings, which require not only an extrinsic raison d’etre but also skillful leadership to keep on the agenda and insure a hearing for all those with something to say.
The social cohesion of the forum therefore depends not only upon the extrinsic motives participants bring from their off-line lives, but also the intrinsic motives that emerge in the course of the on-line interaction. To understand these intrinsic motives, we must discover how the forum empowers its members to speak up and provokes them to reply. Several metaphors help to explain this.
The sociability of online discussion forums resembles that of sports or games where we are drawn along by interest in the next step in the action. Suspense and surprise keep us alert and interested. Every message has a double goal: to communicate something and to evoke the (passive or active) participation of interlocutors. “Playing” at online discussion consists in making moves that keep others playing. The goal is to prolong the game and to avoid making the last move. This is why online discussion favors open-ended comments which invite a response, as opposed to closed and final pronouncements.
Erving Goffman introduced the terms ‘absorption’ and ‘engrossment’ to describe the force that draws us into an encounter such as a game. 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.
The comparison of online discussion with a game is suggestive but it omits the strangest aspect of the activity, the fact that the “game” consists in writing and reading texts. Online discussion is in fact a new form of collaborative writing. From this point of view, a completed online conference forms a single text with several authors rather than a collection of singly authored texts. Naturally, there are conferences which have no real unity, and which are in fact anthologies of texts by individual authors but these “monologic” conferences do not employ the medium to its fullest capacity. One of the most exciting things about online discussion is its power to achieve something more than this, a real “meeting” of the minds, if not necessarily agreement between them.
How does a conference acquire the kind of coherence we associate with a text? Normally, when several authors collaborate they revise each others’ contributions, and it is this which makes a collective product of the result. In this usual case, the order of production bears no necessary relation to the order of the final result. But participants in online forums generally lack a commonly agreed on plan or outline and cannot modify each other’s contributions. The order in which messages are deposited in the forum is fixed and no final revision brings the ideas of each to bear on the others’ actual formulations. A large measure of contingency and unpredictability is intrinsic to this process, far more than to ordinary collaborative writing.
The work of giving coherence to an online discussion might be called “textual management” to signify the kind of collaborative relationship characteristic of this medium. The various moderating functions discussed in the next section are the means of textual management available online. These functions include requesting comments from participants, setting an agenda for the conference, and pulling it together periodically around a common theme.
This list suggests yet another metaphor for online discussion since these means might be better compared with those at the disposal of the leader of a jam session rather than with those employed by the editor of an article or book. Each participant takes his or her turn at “improvising” a contribution to the group’s performance under the direction of the moderator. The result is a new kind of text.
Games, collaborative writing and jazz improvisation each supply a piece of the puzzle that is online discussion. These pieces come together in the idea of the online discussion as an improvisational game played with text. From the world of writing, online discussion borrows the unique property by which texts propel us forward from the first to the last line through deploying suspense and surprise to generate intrinsic motivations for continuing to read. These motivations are transformed in the course of “play” into the cement of a continuing social interaction that consists in the exchange of “improvised” texts.
Such texts are sometimes reread later just as recorded jazz improvisations may be played again. In an educational context, where the teacher uses the discussion to introduce and explain the main themes of the course, the forum text can be an essential resource for the students. They can find material in it useful for preparing for tests or writing papers. But just how useful the archive of the forum will be depends largely on the skill of the teacher in leading the discussion.
II. The Moderating Functions
Online discussion forums promote collaborative work and learning. Indeed, communication in a forum is by its very nature collaborative. Lectures are not appropriate to the medium. Instead, teachers must adopt a dialogic style involving students actively in the electronic classroom. Collaborative learning theory finds its most compelling realization in this setting. Online teachers must exploit this potential of the medium to create an educational experience comparable in quality to the conventional classroom. Properly performed, the moderating role in the online discussion forum can serve as a basis for this new type of collaborative learning.
Like many other small groups, educational forums are most successful when skillfully led. The technical conditions for this are usually defined in the forum software as a ‘moderating function’, i.e. setting up groups of participants as forum members, establishing and naming a file in the central computer in which to store discussions, and deletion of irrelevant messages from the file.
These technical powers represent, however, only a small part of the moderating groupware, which Hiltz and Turoff describe as follows:
In order for a computerized conference to be successful the moderator has to work very hard at both the ‘social host’ and the ‘meeting chairperson’ roles. As social host she/he has to issue warm invitations to people; send encouraging private messages to people complimenting them or at least commenting on their entries, or suggesting what they may be uniquely qualified to contribute. As meeting chairperson, she/he must prepare an enticing-sounding initial agenda; frequently summarize or clarify what has been going on; try to express the emerging consensus or call for a formal vote; sense and announce when it is time to move on to a new topic. Without this kind of active moderator role, a conference is not apt to get off the ground.
These are certainly important moderating functions, but perhaps the most important of all is missing. The moderator’s first and most basic task is to construct the social reality of the electronic meeting room by choosing a “communication model” for the group. The basic human relationships of communication differ in characteristic ways from one communication model to another, for example, in meetings, courses, informal conversations, parties, doctor’s visits, and so on. As soon as we enter a room, we orient ourselves more or less consciously in function of tacit cues we notice in the context of the communication process we are about to join. These contextual cues establish a shared communication model from which flows norms, roles and expectations. Since no tacit signs visible in the environment can establish a communication model for participants in on-line discussions, moderators typically must make an explicit choice for the group they lead, reducing the strangeness of the medium by defining a familiar context with a familiar system of roles and rules imitated from everyday life.
This contextualizing function has the unusual property of proceeding largely through the use of “performative utterances.” These are statements which bring about the very reality they describe. An example would be the principal’s statement to the assembled students to the effect that “school is now open for the new term.” Such an utterance effectively “opens” the school, and so is called a “performative.”
In most face-to-face interaction, performatives play a minor role because so much tacit contextualizing information is available to establish the communication model. In online discussion forums, on the contrary, explicit contextualization is required to define it. Unless someone opens the conference by saying “This is a meeting,” “This is a class,” or “This is a support group,” the participants have no way of being sure what kinds of contributions are appropriate to the essentially imaginary “situation” in which they find themselves. The moderator’s contextualizing functions are all-important in relieving some of the anxiety participants experience in a communication setting that is not defined in advance by tacit cues. Once a communication model has been chosen, the moderator must play the specific leadership role it implies, such as chairperson, host, teacher, facilitator, entertainer, and so on. In part, this role will consist in monitoring conformity with the communication model and reassuring participants that their contributions to the discussion are indeed pertinent, or where they are not, gently guiding them toward a better understanding of the model.
Thus contextualization and monitoring are two basic moderating functions. The teacher defines the communication model, makes the basic procedural decisions that enable the group to form with some confidence that it has a common mission, and checks for conformity with the model and the mission in the course of the discussion.
In an educational context, these moderating functions combine with the pedagogical responsibilities of the teacher. The social duties of the moderator are not entirely separate from the communication of educational content. On the contrary, it is in the course of performing the one that the other is best performed. For example, setting an agenda for the discussion is also an opportunity to introduce basic concepts in the field; granting students explicit recognition for their contributions can often be combined with substantive comments on those contributions; raising topics and summarizing discussions both keep the conversation flowing (a social function) and communicate ideas (a pedagogical function.)
More often than not, when forums fail it is because the person in charge is unable to overcome the initial difficulty of transposing leadership skills acquired in face-to-face settings to the on-line setting. The usual way in which we learn to play dominant roles is through our experience in dominated roles. Thus the ability to chair a meeting is widespread among people who have attended meetings; and the ability to teach is readily cultivated by many who have been taught. It is in the course of these experiences that participants acquire an understanding of the implicit codes on the basis of which a specific type of group communicates. But since so few people have participated in online forums, it is often difficult to find an experienced leader who knows the on-line equivalents of the codes operative in face-to-face groups. Furthermore, the codes of on-line activity are still very much in formation and to some extent each forum contributes to inventing them. These are transitional problems, but for the moment they are very real and suggest the need for specialized forums where moderators can exchange experiences and pass down lore. In the remainder of this section, We will briefly sketch some of this lore as it relates to the various moderating functions.
Even experienced moderators are not always sure how to begin an online discussion. They are staring at a computer screen and not at attentive faces. It is sometimes hard to know when the discussion has actually begun since the participants read the opening comments at different times. Thus, the moderator should not expect acknowledgment from the participants in a synchronized fashion as occurs in face-to-face meetings. It is useful, therefore, to issue a request for some initial communicative act on the part of the participants to serve as the functional equivalent of “coming to attention” as the conference begins. Very often this can involve having them write a simple, brief opening comment about themselves.
Subsequently, topic raisers need to be offered on a regular basis to reopen the discussion. Topic raisers need to state a problem and provide the conceptual background to understanding it so as to provoke responses. One of the most effective types of topic raiser resembles a miniature essay. Essays offer an example, an “occasion” that has been selected because it is particularly rich in implications. The occasion serves as a point of entry into the theme of the conference. Participants are encouraged to comment on it and to draw their own conclusions about it. The moderator too enlarges on the occasion, offering various interpretations of its meaning. Thematic unity and interaction are reconciled in the essay comment by the fact that a single concrete instance, the occasion, is used to discuss a general theme. The essay comment can be particularly effective where it draws on occasions supplied by the students in their own comments.
The essay comment invites many-faceted and open-ended discussion because the occasion on which it is based can be approached from as many different angles as there are participants. Each participant can contribute a comment modeled on the topic raiser and serving as another occasion for discussion. This approach suits educational purposes very well. While a linear narrative or expository logic is interrupted by the participants’ comments, and therefore silences them, the fragmentary form of the essay enhances interactive uses of the medium.
Setting the Norms
The moderator should open the conference with comments that establish the conference norms and agenda. Clear rules and expectations are not experienced as oppressive by participants but on the contrary help to relieve communication anxiety and enable participation. Such things as the appropriate length of comments need to be stated explicitly. The moderator should help students to relax about their writing, at least to the extent of not wasting a lot of time on formatting and spell checking. The norms may also include suggestions for the use of email for individual help or developing friendships and working relations among participants.
Most participants in online discussions draw on their previous experience of face-to-face classes and meetings to make sense of virtual ones. The moderator can rely on some aspects of this experience as a resource to establish the communication model. But there will also be aspects that obstruct effective performance. For example, many participants have had long practice sitting silently in classes and meetings. This attitude must be overcome in the online forum where success depends on interaction. The moderator can frame more appropriate expectations by offering clear guidelines to contributing. Otherwise, participants may assume that all they have to do is sign on and read. The moderator must reverse the expectations shaped by lecture courses so that participants become resources for each other.
Another type of norm concerns “where” items should be placed online. The “social architecture” of an online discussion refers to the subdivision of the group’s discussions among several related forums that serve as virtual conference rooms for different sorts of activities. These subforums or “seminars” should have characteristic names and specific themes. Part of the early training of participants must include clear directions on how to get into these discussions and what is appropriate in each of them.
Setting the Agenda
Participants need a road map in the form of an agenda to help them keep their bearings, know where they have been, where they are, and where they are going. A good agenda provides participants with a head start and allows them to plan ahead. The agenda should contain a brief outline of the process, mention the background materials of the discussion, and describe a more or less precise schedule indicating when participants will be expected to be ready to discuss these materials. An agenda setting message should also contain specific instructions regarding tests, dates when assignments are due, and similar matters of timing.
In designing an agenda, it is critical not to expect too much of the participants at first. This is an experience where technical and social skills are being learned at the same time as an academic subject. Thus, it is important to develop a supportive spirit supplemented where possible with technical assistance for new participants experiencing problems. The pacing of the course should allow those with early problems to catch up. This may require considerable flexibility on the part of the teacher, more than is customary in the familiar face-to-face environment.
Most face-to-face courses rely on contextualizing materials such as textbooks. This is true of online classes as well with certain differences. The context of discussion can be efficiently broadened with hyperlinks to relevant information on the Internet. Textbook or other reading assignments in offline materials are also used routinely as in a face-to-face classroom. However, since interaction in the forum is the core of the online educational experience, it is especially frustrating for the teacher when students do not keep up with the work. Students are unlikely to contribute messages regarding material they have not yet looked over and referred contexts of discussion are often overlooked or reviewed late. At least in a face-to-face classroom one can revert to lecturing in this situation, but that is not possible online. One way around this problem is to summarize referenced materials briefly and provocatively to help students engage in discussion even if they are behind in the reading. Their participation may motivate them to do the missed assignment.
Participants need frequent reassurance that their performance conforms to the norms of the group. Online this cannot be delivered tacitly and so must take the form of explicit written recognition. There may also be occasions when participants ask for explanations or answers to questions. Then the act of recognizing the participants can be contained in the pedagogical intervention responding to their request.
Some unexpected problems with recognition arise in online forums. Occasionally the moderator and/or participants will feel ignored or even snubbed by the group without any real evidence of ill will. The unpredictability of responses often gives rise to the question, “Is anyone out there reading me?” Participants, including the moderator, may feel hostility when there is no response to an eloquent comment. Students who do not receive direct feedback may feel neglected and experience self doubts. Discouraged, they may withdraw.
The moderator’s frustration is often directed at the group as a whole. When participants appear too slow to communicate, it is tempting, but ill advised, to send a text expressing anger or ridicule. The moderator may use humor to soften the criticism, but this may make things worse. Humor is very difficult to express in this medium without danger of misunderstanding. What is the solution? Withdrawal is not a pedagogical option. The teacher is there to teach. If a moderator is upset he or she should take advantage of the asynchronicity of the medium to reflect, to gain perspective on the problem, and to exercise emotional control.
Participant alienation can usually be prevented by making sure no comment goes without a response. If no one else seems interested, the moderator can intervene. Even the briefest mention of a comment will reassure its author. Recognition can also occur in the form of a private message, although public acknowledgment in the forum is more likely to have an impact on the participants’ willingness to comment again.
The moderator will often want to request specific actions from individual participants or from the group as a whole. Many standard pedagogical activities fall under this heading. Asking a question about the material is a form of prompting. Asking one person to comment on another’s ideas belongs under this heading as well. Distributing roles in a simulation, assignments, setting up debates between participants also prompt action. The variety of pedagogical uses of prompting is unlimited. Prompting also has more specifically social roles to play.
Once norms have been laid down, the moderator is responsible for enforcing them. This may require diplomacy and firmness. For example, it is important to gently insist on civility. In the rare case when a participant becomes truly troublesome the moderator can delete his or her comments, or, in a more severe action remove the participant from the forum. The case of the overly verbose participant is more complicated. In a face-to-face meeting such participants often dominate if the moderator is not active in cutting them off to let others speak. In an online discussion verbosity does not hog the floor, but there is a natural tendency for such comments to be ignored. This is frustrating for the writer and the readers as well. This problem is best dealt with by messaging the overly talkative participant by email. In most cases a few gentle reminders about brevity will suffice.
Another type of prompting involves helping those who fall behind to get back into the discussion. Many online discussion programs offer a way for the moderator to keep track of a participant’s progress. It is important to insure that no one falls too far behind in reading comments. This can quickly become discouraging to participants who feel that they will never catch up. When the moderator notices that a participant has a problem keeping up, it is appropriate to send an email asking what is wrong. In this manner special assistance can be provided outside the conference, avoiding potential embarrassment. Very often short email consultations can significantly improve performance and participation in the forum.
Assessing consists in any formal and usually scheduled activity aimed at insuring that individual participants are in fact fulfilling the substantive purpose of the online forum. In educational contexts, this usually takes the form of testing, but it can also be carried out through review sessions in which students are responsible for sharing their knowledge with the group. Another common procedure is to ask students to place their research papers in an appropriate forum for discussion. In one sense every substantive comment students add to the conference is an opportunity for verifying their knowledge of the subject, however, formal procedures are commonly employed as well.
Moderators play an important role in initiating and sustaining meta-communication, i.e. , communication about communication. Meta-communication is particularly important as a means for re-establishing a threatened communication link by calling attention to problems in the communication process. Most meta-communication in face-to-face interaction is tacit although occasionally we engage in explicit meta-communication, as for example, when we ask our interlocutor to speak up or to come to the point. However, tacit signs, cues we give with our bodies and tone of voice, are so effective that we can often carry on quite complex conversations without ever employing explicit meta-communication. Not only can we get along most of the time without making our meta-messages explicit, it is often embarrassing to do so.
But the only tacit sign that we can transmit on a computer network is our silence, a message that is both brutal and ambiguous, far more so than the subtle uses of tone of voice, expression and gesture on which we normally rely. The solution to this dilemma is explicit meta-communication. Whenever problems arise, participants must overcome their inhibitions and request further explanation of unclear remarks, call attention to information overload, request clarification of emotional tone and intent, suggest changes in the rules of the forum, and so on. It is important that participants have a forum for this purpose alongside the main forum. Sometimes a separate meta-conference, or “café conference,” serves this function, either under the supervision of a moderator or as a self-directed group.
In addition to the various kinds of opening comments and topic raisers moderators must write, there is one other unique type of message for which they are principally responsible. These are summary or “weaving” comments that define regular phases of the discussion and sum up what has been accomplished. The weaving comment grasps in one text the pattern found in a number of previous comments. To write weaving comments, the moderator or another participant must go over the discussion archive carefully, refreshing the memory of earlier discussions, clarifying confused expressions, identifying the themes, making connections, “indexing” the material. Some moderators develop prodigious weaving skills and are able to build patterns and connections over several weeks or months. An artful weaving comment accomplishes several important functions: it rewards numerous participants at the same time by putting their names and ideas in print “in” the shared reality of the conference while at the same time advancing the pedagogical agenda of the course.
To integrate many participant comments the writer of a weaving comment must find the common thread they each contain. The weaving comment should do more than just summarize the previous discussion in the language of that discussion. It should connect the comments to the themes of the forum and apply higher level concepts from the teacher’s discipline to the students’ ideas and experiences expressed. Weaving comments supply a unifying discourse, interpreting and integrating participants’ contributions, and periodically “retotalizing” the unfolding discussion by drawing its various strands together in a temporary synthesis that can serve as a starting point for the next round of debate.
In sum, weaving comments are essential to giving on-line groups a sense of accomplishment and direction. They supply the group with a code for framing its own past and advancing into its future. They thereby establish a common boundary, shared by the whole group, between past, present and future.
The moderating role consists of functions that can be delegated to students from time to time. Just as students can be asked to bring substantive materials to the forum for discussion, so they can be assigned to write weaving comments or introduce topic raisers. These are challenging exercises which can help them to understand the flow of the conversation, the ideas of their peers, and the content of the course. Subconferences can be created around student papers, and the author assigned to moderate a discussion of his or her own work. In these ways the burden of the online teacher can be lightened to the benefit of the students.
A Review of Moderating Functions
- Opening Discussions. The moderator must provide an opening comment that states the theme of the discussion and establishes a communication model. The moderator may periodically contribute “topic raisers” or “prompts” that open further discussions within the framework of the forum’s general theme.
- Setting the norms. Norm setting consists in suggesting rules of procedure for the discussion. Some norms are modeled by the form and style of the moderator’s opening comments. Others are explicitly formulated in comments that set the stage for the discussion.
- Setting the agenda. Agenda setting involves managing the forum over time, selecting an order and flow of themes and topics of discussion. The moderator generally shares part or all of the agenda with participants at the outset.
- Referring. The conference may be contextualized by referring to materials available on the Internet, for example, by hyperlinking, or offline materials such as textbooks.
- Recognition. Recognizing participants consists in referring explicitly to their comments to assure them that their contribution is valued and welcome, or to correct misapprehensions on their part about the context of the discussion.
- Prompting. Prompting participants consists in addressing requests for comments to individuals or the group. Prompting may be formalized as “assignments” or tasks. Prompting may be carried out through public requests in the forum or by private messages.
- Assessing. Participant accomplishment may be assessed by tests, review sessions, or other formal procedures.
- Meta-commenting. Meta-comments are remarks directed at such things as the context, norms or agenda of the forum; or at solving problems such as lack of clarity, irrelevance, and information overload. Meta-comments play an important role in maintaining the conditions of successful communication.
- Weaving. Weaving consists in summarizing the state of the discussion and finding threads of unity in the comments of participants. It recognizes the authors of the comments it weaves together, and often implicitly prompts them to continue along lines that advance the conference agenda.
- Delegating. Certain moderating functions such as weaving can be assigned to individual participants to perform for a shorter or longer period.
The performance of these functions is essential to the vitality of any online discussion. The more members of the group share with the moderator in performing them, the more its discussions will be absorbing and successful. If recognizing, prompting, weaving and meta-commenting are listed as moderating functions, it is not because there is only room for one person to perform them, but rather to insure that there be at least one person who accepts responsibility for doing the things that must be done to keep the group alive.
III. Using Marginalia
The Problem of Weaving
The original impetus for developing Marginalia grew out of problems with weaving in early online discussion forums. Newer programs have not improved matters. Marginalia introduces a keywording capability that is intended to facilitate weaving. Many of the features in the program are for convenience and efficiency. However, this feature, keywording, is far more than a matter of convenience and reflects pedagogical needs identified by many students and practitioners in the field. Serving these needs well is important enough to justify introducing a new type of software.
Much of the confusion over the value of online education is the result of exaggerated claims for the ability of canned materials to deliver a valid educational experience by themselves. Instead, we need to focus on the well established pedagogical value of discussion. Like classroom discussions, online discussions can be used to communicate an educational agenda. Teachers can provoke and guide discussion by offering conceptual bridges between students’ ideas and the concepts and methods of an academic field. This is a form of collaborative learning better suited to the online environment than “lecturing” – that is , writing long documents for students to read online.
In face-to-face settings, the fast pace of discussion and turn taking problems constitute major obstacles to mutual understanding. We cherish those rare individuals who can sum up the discussion periodically, recalling what has been said and pointing out the similarities and differences between the various ideas that have been brought up. Such interventions put participants in touch with each others’ ideas, recognize their contributions, and shape a consensus. This summarizing activity, called “weaving” in online discussion forums, should be considerably easier on the Internet where the record of the discussion is available for retrieval and study.
Unfortunately, it is not easy to manage online discussion and writing weaving comments is especially challenging. Some teachers adopt a passive role, only responding to questions about course procedure. Although restful for the teacher, it is a peculiar idea of pedagogy that would have the teacher abstain from substantive interventions that introduce students to the concepts and culture of the field. In the absence of strong leadership from the teacher, discussion often fails to get going and when it does students sometimes have difficulty staying on subject, understanding and responding to each others’ comments, and feeling a sense of recognition and accomplishment.
Weaving can help the teacher address the difficulty with which students focus and interact, while also introducing sophisticated concepts and methods in the course of commenting on students’ contributions. Weaving comments can summarize the state of the discussion, compare and contrast the various ideas expressed in a batch of comments, and launch the discussion into a new phase on the basis of what has been achieved. Weaving comments are among the best techniques available online for enhancing dialogue among students, building the understanding of a discussion topic, and advancing the agenda of the course. Students can be assigned to write weaving comments too, an excellent challenge to their ability to engage with the ideas of others. This is a valuable way to fulfill the dialogic potential of online education.
One would think that given its widely recognized pedagogical importance weaving would be well supported by online educational software, but this is not the case. The weaver faces a mass of documents sent by many different authors in which are embedded many remarks worthy of comment, but there is no easy way to see them all online while composing or to get them all into a writing pad to prepare a synthesis and reply. The conference archive is inaccessible in practical terms and therefore very much underused. Serious weaving comments are most often prepared by marking up printouts, a laborious procedure, but necessary in the absence of any easy way of working with the archive online. Marginalia should make this much easier. It offers a seamless merging of annotation and online discussion which facilitates intelligent access to the conferencing archive and weaving of its contents. This is Marginalia’s most important contribution: in facilitating weaving it encourages dialogic interaction, the essence of collaborative learning.
Reconciling Past and Present
Why is weaving so difficult to support technically? Reflection on this question leads to the conclusion that there is an internal contradiction in the time structure of online discussion. Its two temporal dimensions, the forum present and past, are not easily reconciled.
The present is the moment of production in which interest must be sustained through an advancing argument or encounter. Topical pertinence is more or less relevant to this process depending on the type of group involved, e.g. more in the case of project management, less in a class, still less in a group organized around a hobby or shared interest. Where topicality is important, attempts are sometimes made to reflect it in the conference architecture, the organization of discussion in conferences and subconferences. But in no case should topicality be allowed to become excessively confining or else production breaks down as thought processes and synergies and are blocked.
The past is a stored archive of text which is more or less usable depending on how rationally it is structured. A very high degree of rationality is desirable here, far higher than anything that would be tolerated by users in the production mode. Thus one might wish to review a discussion taking place in a single forum under 20 or 30 or even 40 different index heads. One solution would be assign each topic its own forum. This is more or less what is intended by the item/reply structure of typical web based bulletin boards. But if one were to ruthlessly enforce the topical divisions, production would cease as users spent more time trying to figure out where to file their comments than in writing them. For this reason, the forum archive evolves in a rather chaotic way and it is rarely usable for rapid retrieval of relevant information. Similarly, the tagging of contributions by their authors promises to facilitate retrieval, but turns out to be far less useful in practice than in theory since it must be consistently applied by authors, and standardizing tags in a group is usually impossible.
The tension between production and retrieval is an unfortunate heritage of early computer conferencing, which was created on the traditional timesharing model of networking. In this model users access an intelligent host with a dumb terminal. There was no way to give them the local power to classify documents usefully, hence all classification had to occur on the host in the course of production. Strangely these designs persist even today, when users have long since abandoned dumb terminals for powerful microcomputers – even as tagging has become widespread in other areas. The reason seems to be the shift away from the specialized conferencing software of the 1980s, which could have incorporated many advanced features as personal computers replaced dumb terminals, to web based forums which have long made limited use of the potential of the user’s computer. Using current Web technology many problems of network design could be resolved, including the contradiction between production and retrieval. Generally, however, users are still limited to the old item/reply structures and author keywording, the limitations of which are well known.
The alternative explored by Marginalia is to permit readers to annotate and keyword contributions as they read according to their own lights. The contradiction is resolved and weaving made far easier to perform and hence far more likely to be performed.
Since weaving, an important moderating function, depends utterly on the accessibility of the archive, the contradiction between production and retrieval is a serious obstacle to effective moderating. The technical conditions for successful online education must include support for this function. Solving this problem would contribute more to the quality of online education than the many high tech issues such as web multi-casting and digitizing video that have captured so much attention and funding in recent years. But there is nothing so very “dazzling” about weaving, nothing to engage the support of computer companies looking to sell expensive equipment or administrators anxious to cut costs. Only teachers and students are likely to care. This is why Marginalia had to be implemented under a government grant rather than emerging from the many far better funded software companies active in the field of online education.
What is Marginalia?
Marginalia is an enhancement for the Moodle course management system that enables forum participants to highlight passages of text and write notes in the margin. The following are the major features of the software:
Margin notes: Annotations are written and displayed directly beside the text being annotated. The ability to comment beside the text being read is easier than going to a different page to craft a complex response. This allows for a layer of less formal talk along side more in-depth analysis often present in full-fledged posts. This encourages engagement, drawing into the conversation students who might otherwise be hesitant to write a full post.
Private and public annotations: An annotations may be shared with others, or made private so that only the author of the annotation can view it. In the former case annotations are used for communication; in the latter, participants may create notes and records for future reference.
Summary and search: Threads and search programs are sometimes useful for finding items for review, but quite often fail us because authors are not consistent in their use of the reply function and choice of subject lines. The capability to summarize and search annotations allows a users to find and view text that they marked as relevant for later use. It is thus easier to draw on an archive of previously-written posts rather, helping to address the problem of too much focus on what was last said and forgetfulness of what has been said before.
Tagging: The autocomplete feature enables keywording by making it easy to type multiple margin notes with the same text. This allows readers to categorize material they read for later reference. The summary page can then pull up a list of annotations with the same margin notes.
Quoting annotations into new posts: The ability to easily insert annotations into new forum posts helps students write weaving replies or expand on comments about specific points made by others. We have found that forum participants sometimes carry out back-and-forth conversations in the margin. The quote feature makes it easy to fold that discussion back into to main flow of the forum, using informal notes on the side as a basis for more thoughtful discourse. These quotes also include hyperlinks back to the original text being commented on. The ability to quote from several messages builds a context for the user’s own comments on current discussions while also constructing an item/reply thread readers can use to better understand the relations between messages.
These features support several of the moderating functions described in the previous section. Note that Marginalia is not strictly required for the performance of these functions. It merely makes them easier to perform. Our task in designing an interface is to make what is technically possible convenient and obvious to support the type of practice we wish to encourage. Moderating definitely belongs in the category of practices that software should facilitate as much as possible. The list below links moderating functions to the Marginalia features most useful in supporting them. The list is not intended to be exhaustive but to serve as a starting point for discovering the many uses of Marginalia.
Recognition: Margin notes demonstrate to post authors that others are reading and responding to what they write. Often margin such are encouragements like “yes” or “I agree” that might otherwise go unstated. The quote also assists recognition by encouraging participants to reference what others have written, and by automatically including the name of the person quoted.
Prompting: Annotations can aid in keeping track of individual contributions for later reply. For example, the teacher may plan to question a student on his or her comment at a later stage in the discussion, when other students have had time to contribute to the current discussion. A suitable annotation or tag can help to find the original student comment and the passage in it that has provoked the question. The teacher can then quote the passage in a prompting message which poses the question. Similarly, passages can be quoted in a message questioning the group as a whole. This creates a context for continuous development of ideas, for example, by directing the attention of the group to an important point that has been overlooked or misinterpreted and calling for a response.
Assessing: A teacher can write private annotations or tags to track a student’s participation. These can then be reviewed through the summary page (filtered to show only annotations on that student’s work) to help assess the student’s contribution.
Meta-commenting: A commonplace occasion for meta-commenting involves misunderstandings. These can be personal, procedural, or conceptual. In many cases it is helpful to quote from past messages in a meta-commentary designed to defuse the conflict, clarify the norms, or explain the concepts in question. An annotation summary (possibly of tags) may help to find relevant passages in the archive. Quotation has another rather surprising use: showing participants what they actually said. Rudeness online can lead to serious trouble but often it is inadvertent. When a participant is unaware of how his or her words will be read, it is essential to quote the implicated passage back in an appropriate explanatory context. This is far more likely to evoke an apology than returning the insult.
Weaving: Tagging or annotating while reading (active reading) creates an archive in which materials can be easily reviewed by theme and summarized. The teacher can send an initial list of tags to the students. Students can make their own additions as the course progresses. When the time comes to prepare a summary of the discussion the material is neatly summarized on the summary page. there, classified neatly and easy to access in user created keyword threads. The quote feature facilitates replying to multiple messages in the composition of weaving comments.
Delegating: The most important moderating function teachers often wish to delegate is the weaving function. When students must summarize a discussion, they learn a great deal about each other’s ideas and how to integrate them to the higher level concepts introduced in the course. Hence the features useful for weaving are also relevant to delegating. Another type of delegation involves creating seminars for students to moderate. This gives them an even deeper experience of the moderating role. Such student led seminars are usually focused on student papers or projects.
Appendix: Some Recommendations for Managing an On-Line Educational Forum
Teachers who come to online education for the first time often express dismay at the lack of answers to obvious questions about what to expect and how to behave. Here is a list of practical recommendations moderators may want to try out as they approach their task. This is by no means a set of “rules” for teaching online. Some will agree, others disagree with various items on this list. Experienced teachers could no doubt make up their own list. But this one does suggest a coherent teaching style that may be a good starting point for beginners who need simple clear advice on how to proceed.
- Hang loose: present an agenda but be sure to follow the flow of the conversation, while guiding it toward the subject.
- Be patient: be prepared to wait several days for responses; don’t rush in to fill every silence with your own words.
- Be responsive: respond fairly quickly so that no one feels left out, either by message or by mentioning the author’s comment in one of yours.
- Be objective: don’t generalize about your forum without looking first at the facts concerning who has contributed what and when.
- Don’t overload: contribute about one comment every few days. Cut back if the students have so much to offer the slower ones can’t keep up.
- Keep up to date with the pace of the class and don’t let too many fall far behind.
- Expect less: be content if you succeed in making two or three good major points in the course of a month of discussion.
- Don’t lecture: an elaborate, logically coherent sequence of comments produces silence. Such communications should be sent by mail or posted in a separate place online. In the forum, use open-ended remarks, examples and weaving.
- Prompt frequently: use private messages to remind participants to enter the discussion, to set up debates, and to solicit suggestions.
- Request meta-comments: ask participants to tell you how they feel about the course in the forum itself.
- Don’t rely too much on a schedule based on off-line materials: the conversation must be largely self-contained to work; hence, it helps to summarize assigned readings on-1ine.
- Use simple assignments: don’t be afraid to assign tasks to the group, but keep the threshold of participation low until you can gauge the competence and motivation of the students.
- Be clear: begin with an opening comment that clearly states the subject of the conference and your expectations, and continue to clarify the argument and your expectations as you go on.
- Write weaving comments every week or two: summarize the state of the conference often as a means of focusing discussion.
- Set up co-participant interaction: encourage members of the group to address each other as well as you.
- Synchronize and resynchronize: make sure everyone begins together and not in disarray, and offer periodic chances to restart in unison.
- Take the procedural initiative: on-line procedural discussions are frustrating and most groups therefore rely on strong leadership.