Chapter Five


Moderating Discussions in the Electronic Classroom


Rae Wahl Rohfeld

Roger Hiemstra

Syracuse University


In Berge, Z. L., & Collins, M. P. (Eds.). 1995. Computer mediated communication and the online classroom (Volume III: Distance Learning, pp. 91-104). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc. Reprinted here by permission.




Teaching through discussion relies on a learner-centered approach, whether the participants meet face to face or on the computer screen. It rests on principles of collaborative learning and egalitarian relationships (Eastmond, 1992; Florini, 1989; Harasim, 1989; Kaye, 1989). Effective dis­cussion requires that everyone involved, instructor and students alike, share in both the teaching and the learning. All participants assume responsibility for furthering discussion, although students may require special preparation and clear guidelines to participate effectively.


          Providing guidance for learning through discussion is one role of the instructor or facilitator. Students bring to the discussion knowl­edge they have gained from reading, listening, experience, and other interactions outside the class. However, a moderator, or facilitator, who is usually the designated "teacher," accepts the responsibility of keeping discussions on track, contributing special knowledge and insights, weaving together various discussion threads and course components, and maintaining group harmony.


          This approach is entirely consistent with our teaching and learn­ing philosophies related to adult learning at Syracuse University, where we have introduced courses delivered via computer conferencing. As we looked for new ways to meet the needs of part-time graduate students who lived some distance from campus, delivering courses by computer conferencing appeared promising. The compatibility of our existing teaching styles with the requirements for computer conference facilitation provided the foundation on which faculty developed and offered four courses using PARTICIPATE® conferencing software in 1992-93. Although our experience is based on teaching adult graduate students, a similar approach with, perhaps, a little more direction from the instruc­tor/facilitator should be successful for undergraduate students who are comfortable in a text-based computer environment.




Those involved with facilitating or moderating computer conferences face a number of special challenges that are usually not present in more traditional settings, where collaborative learning is often absent. Such challenges center around encouraging learner participation and main­taining viable discussions during the "electronic classroom" experiences. Some of the major challenges we encountered follow.


Using Text-Based Communication


Most, if not all, of the conversations among learners and between learners and facilitators take place without the benefit of face-to-face speech, vocal tones, nonverbal expressions, and other social-context cues that can sup­port the process. Learners who rely on such interactions to "read the instructor'' or to identify classmates who are likely to be available for group work, support, or even friendship will have some adjustments to make. We built in some text-based mechanisms like special introduction techniques, dyadic partnering, and even some assignments that facilitated informal dis­cussion among learners, to facilitate a feeling of interactive communication.


Building Group Rapport


The lack of face-to-face interaction also may retard the building of group identity and cohesion. At Syracuse University we were able to bring most learners together, at least for an initial get acquainted and orientation session. If that is not possible, the facilitator needs to substitute something like the dyadic partner assignments mentioned earlier or an early placement of learners into small groups for informal electronic exchanges. These dyads and groups can set up their own spaces for meetings in the "electronic campus."


Nature of the Discussion


In addition to substituting electronic contact for face-to-face meetings, computer-mediated discussions are asynchronous and must be extended over longer time periods. These exchanges can seem disjointed, especially to new participants in such a classroom. Although students enjoy the interaction they can achieve from workplace or home, some miss the spon­taneity and the wealth of social contact cues in a classroom discussion.


Competence with Technology


Learners will come to the conferencing classroom with a wide variety of capabilities and prior experiences with technology. Brochet (1986), Eastmond (1992, in press), Florini (1990), and Harasim (1989) are among those who describe the necessity for ensuring that learners obtain a cer­tain level of competency in using computers to be successful in conferencing. As participants attempt to learn and use new software features, they will continue to need support.


Software Variations


Considerable variation exists in the user friendliness of different com­puter conferencing software packages; and this can affect the amount of user support needed, as well as the ease or level of participant discus­sion. We evaluated several conferencing software packages that would run on a VAX platform before selecting PARTICIPATE®. (It has now been migrated to a UNIX platform.) We chose this software because it allows instructional designers to simulate a campus environment and offers a user-friendly way for participants to be involved in several sepa­rate discussions simultaneously.


Managing the Conference


For a while, learners may find managing participation in a computer conference confusing, even with the best software choice. Learning where to send different types of messages can be an issue: Should a par­ticular message go to the instructor, to one other student, to an informal gathering, to a topic, or to a branch? If to a branch, which one? (A branch is a subtopic that the facilitator sets up and invites class members to join for special discussion. A topic may have multiple branches.) Participants also need to learn how to store and find previous messages and how to deal with the disjointed nature of some of the discussion. Conference management is another aspect of the training students need, beyond the purely technical issues of connecting and interacting electronically.


          Such challenges need to be considered during the entire instruc­tional design effort. For us, this meant allowing more up-front time than normal in designing the courses and developing the study guides. We also considered the various ways we could promote learner involvement and discussion, although our prior experiences in teaching adults and encouraging students to accept responsibility for their own learning facilitated our decision making. Finally, we used formative and summative evaluation techniques as each course progressed to guide our efforts. These are discussed in the next section.




As the literature reviewed in Paulsen's chapter (Chapter 4) in this volume shows, the moderator's roles are numerous and vary as the conference con­tinues over time. Despite the shared responsibility of all conference mem­bers to participate, it is the moderator who makes the major difference between a successful conference and an unsuccessful one. That individual nurtures the conference to accomplish objectives and create a productive experience for all participants. As Eastmond (1992) states, "A healthy com­puter conference carries an aura of excitement. The topics are engaging, comments build upon each other, and everyone participates" (p. 30).


          To achieve this outcome, the moderator must attend to two types of group processes which Davie (1989), citing small group litera­ture, identifies as "group building" and "maintenance." Group building relates to the task the group is undertaking. In a course, this involves advancing knowledge and understanding in accordance with the objec­tives of the facilitator and learners. Maintenance refers to the functioning of the group as a group. It requires helping members to communicate effectively and, as we noted in the prior section, to build a sense of group identity and cohesiveness. All the group members have roles in the group process, but the moderator must be a participant-observer and introduce adjustments as necessary.


          To get the initial classroom experience off to a good start, we found that special attention needs to be paid to several details or instruc­tional functions.


Training Learners to Use the Software


Once the instructor or institution has selected the appropriate conferenc­ing software, plans need to be made for training the learners who will use the system. This may involve making available various training options. At Syracuse we used all of the following activities: holding face-to-face tutorials with individual faculty or technical support personnel, holding large group orientation sessions on the course and software, developing a manual to supplement already available materials pertaining to use of the software, and making available ongoing electronic communication between learners and faculty or support personnel throughout the course. The amount of support novice users are likely to need cannot be overestimated.


Establishing the Tone for a Positive Experience


To encourage effective discussion and learner participation, it is impor­tant to build a setting in which learners feel comfortable and respected. We accomplished this through both electronic discussion and by provid­ing written materials about the learning environment. We also promoted positive feelings by establishing an informal setting, encouraging early and extensive introductions of learners and facilitators to each other, and creating one or more conference topics about which conversations outside of course work could take place.


Developing Carefully Prepared Course Study Guides and Other Learning Materials


Learning will be enhanced by ensuring that appropriate technical sup­port materials and well-designed course study guides are available. We tried to create support materials that were user friendly and provided help or reminders for using both hardware and software. The study guides provided introductory information, a summary of the course activities, required and supplemental resource materials, and full descriptions of various course components or procedures. For each com­ponent, lesson, or study unit we included introductory information, rel­evant resources, learning activity descriptions and requirements, expect­ed computer conferencing activities, and any necessary supplemental material. We worked hard to design study units that made the best pos­sible use of the electronic medium we were using.


Planning for Varied Electronic Communication Opportunities


The facilitator needs to consider the various means available in this medium for eliciting conversation, thinking, reflecting, and critiquing. Usually this can be accomplished through the development of various topics or areas to which learners and the instructor can post comments, read comments from others, or extract ideas for later reflection. We designed opportunities for private conversations among two or more people, created branches as needed from any topic for specialized inter­ests or follow-up discussion, and created learner centered topics for informal conversations, bulletin boards, read-only materials, or even private conversations among students.


Providing a Variety of Learning Options


Further, a course needs to use various learning options to stimulate learn­er participation and interaction. We used such techniques as small group discussion of individual needs, debates, polling activities, dyadic learning partnership exchanges, one-on-one message exchanges, and small group cooperation in developing materials for electronic distribution to other class members or to the instructor. We also facilitated several individual­ized learning experiences outside the conferencing environment, such as reading, writing, reflecting, and the practical application of learning.


          Of particular concern is how to provide ways to help learners develop what Brookfield (1989) calls critical or reflective thinking about the issues being studied. Some activities we used to stimulate reflective thinking (both in the electronic and face-to-face classrooms) were journal writing, interactive reading and discussion, and reflective feedback on products learners submitted. Good weaving (linking various contribu­tions) and questioning can also serve this purpose.


Incorporating Other Electronic Resources


The computer-mediated course can also be enhanced by encouraging the use of learning resources available only to those with computer access. These include the numerous electronic databases residing in a variety of locations, such as online journals, network discussion groups, library cat­alogues, indexes to periodical literature, and various other databases. Learners need training, support, and encouragement to access such infor­mation electronically. For example, we provided students with a guide on how to effectively use the Internet system (Darby, 1992), and some facilitators included in the study guide a suggested learning activity involving a comparative search of three online library catalogues.


Using Learning Contracts to Guide Participant Planning


As in our face-to-face courses, participants in some of our online courses used learning contracts so that they could negotiate individualized plans (Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990; Knowles, 1986). Following completion of a form to assess individual needs, participants used computer conferencing to discuss and clarify their needs via small group or dyadic interactions. They completed the first draft of a contract that matched their needs with available resources using suggestions we had presented in the study guide and ideas they had for meeting their individual needs. After submitting a draft electronically, or by some other means, we provided feedback electronically on their plans.


          Most of the work for assuring a successful conference initiation occurred in the course planning period. Facilitators were teaching cours­es they had previously taught face to face, thus reducing the amount of new development necessary. Nevertheless, preparation for the computer conference was extensive and time-consuming. Facilitators first had to learn to operate the conferencing system and then to think through how their material and activities could be adapted to fit the new learning environment. Taking adequate time for planning and organizing the first events makes it likely that the course will begin with positive expe­riences for both facilitators and learners.




The conference will vary in the amount of activity and enthusiasm as it continues. All along the way, the facilitator must find the means to guide and maintain involvement in productive discussion (Davie, 1989; Feenberg, 1986, 1989; Morgan, 1991). In a credit course, instructors can require students to sign on a certain number of times and make contri­butions on a regular basis. We indicated in our syllabi that each week we expected students to sign on at least twice and make three contributions to the discussions. Such requirements help assure that participants will keep up with the course and engage in active discussion.

In designing the course to achieve maximum participation, we found it useful to divide the material into topics suitable for discussion periods of about two weeks each. We assigned readings and other activi­ties (interviews, observations, visits) for each topic and discussed them during the conference. (This is in contrast to Feenberg's item 11, cited in Paulsen's chapter [Chapter 4], which advises a self-contained conversation in which the facilitator summarizes readings to be discussed. In Syracuse University courses, offline work was an important spark for conversation.) If participants are signing on and entering comments as directed in the syllabus, two weeks generally provides enough time for a good discussion of the topic, although more complex issues may last three weeks.


          Typically, the moderator opens the discussion with comments that provide background and issues to be explored. This opening state­ment concludes with a question designed to stimulate conversation. The introduction, and indeed any single contribution by anyone, should be limited to no more than two screens. Long discourses are hard to read on screen, become tedious, and impede discussion. If the instructor wants to "lecture," it is better to send the lecture separately as a reading, either electronically to be downloaded, or by mail. Then it can serve as a basis for class interchange.


          As discussion on a topic progresses, the moderator follows and observes, intervening as desirable in order to maintain an interesting and productive conversation. Sometimes participants will build on each others' comments so well that the moderator serves best by staying silent. Then, in order to fully explore a topic, the moderator may want to probe for a further elaboration of ideas or ask what would happen if one looked at the matter from another perspective. Many times the modera­tor will connect ideas that have been shared and weave together various strands that have developed in the discussion. If the topic has several components, the moderator can provide transitions from one to another. At the conclusion of a topic, and sometimes in the middle if it has been very active, a moderator needs to summarize the discussion and reflect on what has occurred.


          Sometimes all does not go well. Participants may breach eti­quette and respond with harsh or vulgar language. This did not happen in the Syracuse University experience, probably because many students knew each other from other courses and because the culture of the pro­gram emphasized being supportive and nurturing. Our course syllabi did include a short paragraph on 'Tone" which discussed the need for a friendly tone and contained a warning against derogatory comments. Sometimes people may come across as flip or sarcastic without realizing it. If problems do occur, the moderator needs to react and remind people about computer etiquette. This is useful because, sometimes, a simple reminder to reread that section is sufficient. When tempers flare, it is helpful to have a preexisting behavior standard to which to refer. If breeches continue to occur, it could be useful to have a discussion involv­ing all the participants about maintaining decorum. Or, a more direct, private conversation with any offending participants may be required.


          Some students will be hesitant to contribute because they are fearful about saying something wrong or silly, or because they feel their ideas have already been stated. If someone has not participated, a per­sonal exchange with that individual can be helpful. The cause can turn out to be a technical problem interfering with the process. Otherwise, giving assurance can help, and, when the participant does send a mes­sage, the moderator can gently offer recognition of the input. Mentioning what people say encourages the hesitant. A student empha­sized this point when, in evaluating a special computer discussion between two classes whose members did not know each other, she wrote, "A ... concern I had was that my responses might be less than adequate and read by all. Instead, the person who summarized our responses made me feel I had indeed made a contribution" (Rohfeld, Eastmond, Gunawardena, & Davidson, 1991, p. 156).


          Most of all, the moderator is modeling effective teaching and learning through discussion (Morgan, 1991). In essence; the facilitator's contributions should reveal enthusiasm for the medium, the communi­cation process, and the course content. In running a conference in the manner discussed here, the facilitator is exhibiting confidence that par­ticipants will indeed contribute to each other's learning. The interaction of the facilitator—through questions, expressed reflection, and silence— enables everyone to succeed.




It is normal for conferences to go through periods of relative inactivity or low energy. There will be times when students are finishing up their learning activities or are less likely to participate in discussion because of a holiday or some personal situation. We have developed various tech­niques for reenergizing the discussion when it seems at a low ebb.


Polling or Brainstorming Activity


The PARTICIPATE® software has a polling feature that allows the facili­tator to design certain stimulator questions to which learners then respond with discrete statements. We also have posed open-ended ques­tions about some course issue or topic and asked participants to brainstorm possible answers or solutions. The brainstorming rules require simple, nonevaluated responses that can be entered quickly. This sets the stage for more involved evaluative discussion later.


Using Debates


We have also used a debate technique in which we ask one small group to take one view on a course issue and a second group another. They then use the conference as a means for debating the issue. The facilita­tor's role becomes one of posing the issue, doing occasional weaving, and providing some sort of summary remarks at the conclusion of the debate period.


Same Time Discussion


The asynchronous nature of most conferencing discussions has both advantages and disadvantages. On occasion, we have established a certain time period, usually one to two hours, during which all participants agree to be active in the conferencing environment at the same time. Although such conversations are not totally synchronous, they almost seem so, and often generate considerable discussion and spark new interest.


Inviting a Guest Lecturer or Discussant


Introducing a new voice also renews interest in the conference. We fre­quently will have one or more guest lecturers connect into the conferenc­ing system at scheduled times during the course. During a 1- or 2-week period they can present some initial ideas, interact with learners as they post their responses, and then provide summary remarks at one or more points in the discussion.


Arranging for Student-Moderated Discussions


We invite interested learners to moderate aspects of the course discus­sion. Volunteers then take on the role of initiating discussion, interacting with participants, and providing weaving or summary remarks. Obviously, this could be made a requirement of the course if appropri­ate. In either case, a facilitator should provide appropriate training, sup­port, and intervention if needed.


Doing Adequate Weaving


With many people contributing ideas over a period of time, participants may have difficulty connecting parts of the discussion to each other. Weaving can help them keep track of the conversation and stimulate continued thought. The facilitator finds unifying threads, calls attention to opposing directions, summarizes, and prompts people to pursue the topic further (Feenberg, 1989).


Personal Journal Writing


As mentioned earlier, we encourage learners to carry out critical reflec­tion and thinking throughout the course (Brookfield, 1989). Gunawardena (1992) refers to this as creating a "questing learner" who independently searches for solutions to real-world problems. Space is provided within the conferencing environment for each learner to write personal reflections or reactions to readings, discussions, or other learn­ing experiences. Some learners use such personal journal information as bases for final course products.


          Using a mix of these activities and styles can change the pace of discussion and provide alternative modes of participation. This variety also brings out different aspects of the topic by drawing on experience and reflection, action and theory. Such facilitation has the best chance of maintaining interest and involvement throughout the course.




Although still in the beginning stages as a distance education medium, computer-mediated conferencing provides opportunities for individual­izing instruction, offering education to learners in various locations, and providing learning opportunities to people who otherwise would have difficulty participating in educational programs. It provides an impor­tant resource to distance education by allowing extensive interaction among students and between students and faculty while removing trav­el and scheduling difficulties.


          We obtained valuable feedback regarding the impact of the con­ferencing from a variety of evaluation procedures that we used throughout the courses. We had a mid-course, face-to-face session that included a dis­cussion about the pros and cons of the computer conference and possible changes to be made in the course. Facilitators frequently asked for reac­tions, and one conference branch dealt with overarching issues about the course. At the conclusion of each course, we had a summary evaluation discussion. We also provided one or more questionnaires to be returned to the technical coordinator either electronically or by regular mail.


          Our students generally found the computer-mediated courses to be good learning experiences. Although many had initial difficulties in connecting to the mainframe, everyone soon learned to perform the nec­essary operations to succeed in the course. Most reported that they learned only the techniques they actually had to use. If they did not have to upload and download, for instance, they did not try to learn those fea­tures. Some students who had been tempted to drop out early in the semester felt a great deal of satisfaction in having mastered the skills for computer-mediated conferencing.


          Although many students missed seeing the people with whom they were studying and experiencing the nonverbal communication and spontaneous interaction of a face-to-face classroom, they recognized some of the benefits offered by computer interaction. Some people felt their com­ments were more thoughtful because they could not just blurt out whatev­er came to mind. Our course guide did encourage people to write directly into the conference using only the editing features of the software and not to prewrite offline first. The manual indicated that mistakes in composi­tion, spelling, and grammar would be overlooked in the conference (but not in submitted written assignments). We felt this procedure would encourage more timely and less self-conscious responses. However, the very process of writing comments required participants to reflect, and those given to speaking out hastily in class recognized the benefits of hav­ing to think before speaking. At the same time, it gave a stronger voice to the reflective student who found face-to-face communication too fast and who now had time to compose a thoughtful contribution.


          Students in computer-mediated courses have a high level of con­trol over their learning (Beaudoin, 1991; Eastmond, 1992; Harasim, 1990). First, they decide when and for how long they will "go to class" each week. Then, because they share responsibility for the direction and quality of any group discussion, they can introduce ideas or emphasize the issues that interest them. If they want to confer privately with the instructor, they can interact directly without having to play "telephone tag" or catch the person after class. It may increase the "interaction" load for some instructors, but both students and instructors can deal with issues at their convenience and still have timely communication. Thus, the electronic classroom encourages students to take responsibility for their learning, both by the philosophy underlying computer discussion and by the tools it provides. Because helping learners take increasing control over personal learning is a goal for most educational endeavors, computer-mediated conferencing can be supportive of such fundamental educational values.




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Eastmond, D.V. (in press). Alone but together: Adult distance study through computer conferencing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

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1Gunawardena was part of a large group of distance education scholars who participated in the Bangkok project. This project was a worldwide, distributed, electronic symposium that focused on issues of importance to distance educa­tors. The project consisted of six discussion groups under the overall leadership of Terry Anderson, Network Coordinator, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada (ANDERSON@ACS.UCAL-GARY.CA). It ran from October 12, 1992, through December 1, 1992, and coin­cided with the Sixteenth World Conference of the International Association for Distance Education held in Bangkok, Thailand, November 8-13. The project was the first electronic conversation designed for distribution across all the world's major electronic forums and networks which distance educators frequent. A total of 288 discussion items were posted during the project.