Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Facilitating Online Discussions

Mary B. Wall, Ph.D.

Facilitating discussions in online classes is a balancing act. I teach faculty how to improve their online courses, and a question that always arises is: “How do I guide online discussions?” We want to make sure that students are going on the right path and really learn something from each other, but we also do not want to overwhelm the discussion.

I do feel that teachers need to “be present” in online classes. The biggest complaint from online students is that the teacher is not there. Even if the teacher may be reading all posts in the discussion, when they do not participate, or at least give personalized feedback, then students often feel off in cyberspace alone.  Also discussions can meander and be merely a repetition of the first message. However, being active and monitoring facilitations does take time.  A framework is helpful so that we can scaffold our responses. 

Faculty need to keep students on track but allow for enough student expression so that the topic develops and students learn from each other.  How can teachers push their students to think deeper on the subject and to make the discussions a learning experience?

Develop good questions

The first step is to develop good discussion questions. Questions with one right answer, or questions whose answers can be found in the text, might be better suited for a quiz or an assignment. Questions that require analysis, connection to personal experiences, or delving deeper may produce the most learning and interaction among the students.  For example, in a discussion on the use of portfolios in higher education, students could be asked to apply the readings, be presented with mini case studies, or discuss the pros and cons. Examples below are taken from an actual facilitation on portfolios. The facilitator has given me permission to use her work.

Questions Asking for Application of the Readings:

How can interactivity be incorporated into the basic e-portfolio processes of reflection, finalization of projects, incorporation of projects into an e-portfolio, to enable the possibility of engaging student-faculty, student-student, or perhaps student-colleague (in the adult) learning opportunities?

Questions that are Mini Case Studies:

You have volunteered to draft instructions for the reflection component of the e-portfolio for your department. Your task is to explain to your students or other portfolio builders why they are composing reflection statements for each of their portfolio artifacts, to provide concise instructions for the reflection assignment, and to provide a brief rationale for your approach.

Discussing Pros and Cons:

Allowing students to select the content of the portfolio is considered to be very motivating because it connects students to their e-portfolio and allows them an opportunity to construct their own learning. On the other hand, some portfolios are used for assessment purposes with students demonstrating competency by including required portfolio projects, or artifacts. Discuss the pros and cons of the two approaches to e-portfolio content. Include ways that the portfolio process can be designed to encourage students to be motivated and connected to their e-portfolios, that is to say, how can it be made to be “theirs,” even though the projects may be defined?

Give Clear Guidelines of What is Expected

Once the questions are formed, then the discussion can progress. A rubric that is clear and easy to understand helps the process. Faculty should be sure the students know what we expect of them. 

A simple statement like: “No credit for posts like I agree or Good job will be counted for credit” can give students warning that we want analysis, not parroting the previous posts, and often it is helpful to give students examples of good and poor replies. 

We must decide if we want students to reply to others. If we do that should be clearly stated in the instructions, along with how many replies we expect. Should spelling and grammar count? Will we require all references to be correctly cited?

Rubrics should not be too involved. The more complicated the rubric the more difficult and time consuming it will be for the faculty to grade.

A sample rubric for a discussion that is worth 8 points:

2 points
1 point
0 points
Initial postings are well-developed (at least one full paragraph), use correct spelling and grammar and introduce new ideas. Clear evidence of critical thinking; (application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation
Some development of ideas, but spelling and grammar may be a problem or little evidence of critical thinking.
Brief responses, or no evidence of critical thinking or spelling and grammar a major problem
Response postings are characterized by clarity of argument, depth of insight into theoretical issues, originality of treatment and correct spelling and grammar. 
Response postings have some depth, originality or insight.
Response posts are lacking in depth, originality or insight.
All postings are on time.
Postings are one day late.
Postings are more than one day late
Participants replied to at least two other participants posts. Response to your initial posts are collegial but do not count for points.
Participants replied to one other participant posts. Response to initial posts are collegial but do not count for points.
No response to others.

Monitoring the Discussion

You may like to review a summary of the text “Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators” George Collison, Bonnie Elbaum, Sarah Haavind, Robert Tinker (Atwood Publishing 2000)  Summarized by Lisa M. Lane, 2007. http://hub.miracosta.edu/teaching-academy/online/roundtables/collison.pdf  The book is a worthwhile purchase, and the outline can be used as quick guide. The authors suggest that using various Tones, Voices and Critical Thinking Guides can direct discussions.


Examples: In a discussion on portfolios noted above, a facilitator used the material in this text to guide her facilitation (I have received her permission to share this with you). Notice that the facilitator always personalizes by using the student’s name. It’s a small thing, but it makes a difference

Tones , Voices and Critical Thinking, a few examples:.

Tones (Manner of Expression – Encouraging but Probing) :

·        Asking for clarification: “Do you have any ideas about what direction you would go with those, John?”

·        Nurturing: “Hi Sam--I can relate to that feeling of discomfort with technology solutions--we recently started using videoconferencing using Google +, and although it is great when it works, but sometimes we spend 15-30 minutes getting set up. Huge time commitment.”

Voices (Seeking Clarification) :

·        Conceptual facilitator: “Hi Cindy: It sounds like you really got a lot out of the reflection process. Did that come naturally to you?”

·        Personal Muse:  (Letting students get inside your head):  “Susan, I like your thoughts about how to get students oriented and comfortable with the reflection process--backing up and asking questions that lead the student into it sounds like a great approach. I always find myself stopping as I read a reflection from a student who is struggling to get beyond "Description" in their reflections.”

Critical Thinking (Encourage the Poster to Dig Deeper):

·        Sharpening Focus: Glenn, You mentioned social media and how comfortable your son is with it. I find the same with my "grown" kids. It is a part of their everyday lives to connect via twitter and facebook, etc (Pinterest and more). For me, those are "extras" that I just never seem to get to, although I do have a Linked-In account. Do those of us from a time before social media need to get with it? Or can we just leave that for the younger folks?!

·        Digging Deeper: Thanks, Stuart --by “overdoing it”, do you mean that we may sometimes ask students for too much, but that in this case, the miscellaneous is a good "extra"?

Notice that in each of the examples, the facilitator did not just accept the student’s message and reply something like “Nice work” or “Well done.” Those comments, while encouraging, do not guide the learning process.

Usually, after an initial comment like those above, the discussion will get back on track and proceed. The facilitator may have to reply initially to each student’s post, especially at the beginning of the class.  However, as the class continues, students soon learn from this guidance what is expected and the facilitator’s need for intervention decreases.

Time Saving Tips

Yes, monitoring an online discussion takes a lot of time to do well. Faculty have developed ways to lighten the load;

1.     Using Voice to Text Software. Most faculty can speak faster than they can type. Using Voice to Text Software enables the faculty to speak and have their words turned into text. Google now has a Voice to Text app that I tried and found it works well https://docs.googleblog.com/2016/02/type-edit-and-format-with-your-voice-in.html

2.     Macros. If there are comments that must be consistently added then it may be worth the time to develop a macro. For example, if faculty need to give feedback on “This work is late” then developing a macro key shortcut may reduce the need to write the same comment over and over. http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/record-or-run-a-macro-HA010099769.aspx

3.     Copy and Paste. I give a summary of the discussion each week after the work is graded. I make sure to highlight the main points because I know that, especially if the class is large, students will not read every post. I save these summaries, and review them each time I teach the course. Then I can quickly make revisions and copy and paste into the class.

4.     Verbal feedback. Some teachers do give verbal feedback instead of written. Many students do like this, but by ADA legislation we need to have a text equivalent for verbal or written information in our courses.

Guiding the Discussion is Worth It!

In student evaluations I often find the comment that the online discussions were the best part of the class. It does take a lot of faculty time but asking good questions, making expectations clear, and guiding the discussions by using tones, voices and critical thinking prompts pays off for the faculty and the student.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Plus and Minus of Moving Your Video to YouTube   

The Plus:

·        It is easy to do. Clear directions are on the YouTube site. You must set up your space on the site.
·        Most students are familiar with YouTube.
·        You own the video. It is YOURS.
·        You can make it private so that ONLY the people to whom you send the url can access it.
·        YouTube has been around for a long time. Other sites sometimes go out of business and then your video can no longer be accessed.

The Minus:
  •  If a student uses the computer at their office or at a library YouTube may be blocked.
  • YouTube jointly owns the right to your creation. I have never heard of YouTube exercising this right, but it is in black and white with the agreement.
  • Most Learning Management Systems (LMS) allow you to attach a video directly from your disk. However some institutions do block this because of fear of overloading their servers with video.
  • If you design a course on your own but teach for an institution that institution may still consider it part of their intellectual property and claim it for use of others even if it is in YouTube. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mary Wall's Strategies for Dealing with Technology in Teaching Online Classes

First - I organize my disk. I use a PC, and Word, so I make folders for each class. Then, inside each folder I use subfolders for  each semester I teach. So I have a main folder for the school then inside I have subfolders for each semester: Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Winter 2015, Spring 2016 etc.

I believe that each week should have reminders of what is due, and summaries of what has been accomplished. Inside each subfolder I have the "Read Me First" posts in Word, and retrieve and modify it each semester, based on previous experience. I also save each Summary and the Weekly Announcements and save and modify those also. I find I can never simply cut and paste - I always have to modify - but this way I can build on past classes and constantly update without forgetting anything.

Navigation and Editing
I use the Windows Shortcut Keys for easy navigation and quick editing, especially Copy, Paste, Bold, Italic, Select All  and Undo (I use that one a Lot!) The complete list for Windows 10 is here http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows-10/keyboard-shortcuts. You may have an Apple, and you can find the complete list of the control navigation keys here: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201236.

If I forget to press Use Advanced Editor in Moodle (it's a shame I have to do this in some versions of Moodle) then I highlight the text I have  written, copy using the Ctrl C key, start a new Forum, Press Use Advance Editor, and then Paste (Ctrl V) what I have written and make modifications.

Dealing with the technology. If you are like me you hate to read directions, but it really does help to do this. I like the fact that Moodle (especially Gnomio the site for free Moodle classes)  has a two column screen when you go to Add an Activity or Resource. As you click on each item in the left column as you face the screen you will see in the right column the description of its purpose and how it can be used.  Be sure to scroll all the way down as you read that column because it gives good tips and directions. Press the More Help key at the bottom of the Column for More Help. For example, when I press the CHAT button I see on the right screen the general information but then, when I press the More Help at the bottom of the screen it links me a guide on how to best set up the information. I think this information is NOT used as much as it should be. The Moodle resources online are also very good, and it is easy to Search for them.

I know from personal experience that a big problem in working with Moodle, or any software is NOT READING THE ENTIRE SCREEN. I neglect to scroll down, for example, and in working with Gnomio I didn't realize the More Help until I accidentally scrolled down to see all the documentation. Users don't even realize for example that, in the Assignment you can select Paper Submission, Type in text, or both. Depending on the length of the assignment you can make a choice.

Advanced features:  Some teachers, who have large classes, use Voice to Text software. I use the Chrome Browser and I find that its Voice to Text extension is very helpful and works surprisingly well.

If teachers of large classes need to correct a lot of papers they often invest the time and energy to learn how to use Macros in Windows. So, for example, they can insert the words "comma splice" by simply pressing a key combination. I don't do this but I see how it could be very helpful. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Every Learning Management (LMS) has options to facilitate student/teacher private conversation. The tools have different functions and if you are designing an online class be sure know which is the most appropriate for you purpose.

               The assignment tool is for an essay or paper. This tool is poorly named, because there are many things we, as teachers, consider assignments. However, in many LMS, this tool is exclusively used for written work submitted for grading.

               The quiz usually is for short answer questions. It can be formative or summative. If it is formative you should allow students to retake at least once.  Most LMS allow teachers to include short answers or fill in the blanks in the quiz. However, that means the teacher must go in and correct, which is usually not the purpose, especially of a formative quiz, where students are checking whether they have mastered the concepts. Also, "fill in the Blanks" causes problems because it is often impossible to anticipate every response.

               The questionnaire or survey is for responses that can be anonymous. The default option is viewing only by the teacher/mentor, unless the teacher elects the option to show results to the class. It is mainly used to get feedback on the class.  Presently the survey option in Moodle requires that you select one of the preloaded surveys. The Questionnaire allows you to add your own questions.

               The journal is for teachers/student interaction in short paragraphs. Teachers can comment within the text. This tool is often used for reflections.

               Use of the right tool will make your life easier as a teacher and save you time too. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Skills We Hope Student Have at the Start of Our Online Classes

Helping Students to Succeed

We would like to believe our students know how to navigate the Learning Management System but we cannot be sure of that unless we teach in a class that is beyond beginner level in an institution with many online courses. We may need to help students by explicitly stating where to find information in our courses. Some teachers have a “Treasure  Hunt” or “Scavenger Hunt” so that students will know where material is located.

It is a good idea for online teachers to TAKE an online class that uses the required Learning Management System before they online. Being a student gives teachers a good idea of what student face. Teachers should be prepared to help students with class navigation, but any institution with online courses should have technical help, and this help should be staffed fully the first few weeks of classes.

We hope students can compose, spell check and save files in a Word Processor.  Even today, they may not all use Word, however, and may need help in learning to save in .rtf format. We might expect them, depending on the class, to be able to open PowerPoint files and, if they do not have PowerPoint to be able to download the PowerPoint viewer. Some classes require students to use a Spreadsheet. If this is a requirement the students need to know at the start of the class.

If the class requires citing work students need to know which format is used: APA.MLS. Turabian, Chicago Style. They may need online resources to help them learn or review how to do this.  

Any special software used in the class should be explained to the students before they register for the class. It is not fair to the students to sign into a class and find they need to purchase an expensive piece of software.  

We hope our students realize that discussion in a college class is formal learning and the language in the class is academic writing. They may not know this and need to be told. They may also need to be reminded that discussions in the course require respect for others.

To help students succeed we need to give them the information that they need and assume nothing. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

  Intellectual Property Agreements at Institutions of Higher Learning

The intellectual property agreements of our institutions affect all faculty. It is often interesting to compare agreements.

For faculty, the main issues are whether the college can use the materials faculty create and give them to another instructor who will teach the course and whether faculty can take those materials and develop the same or similar courses for other institutions. This gets complicated if the faculty has been paid to develop the course materials. In this case a contract should clearly spell out rights.

My concern is that in the future faculty may NOT be asked to design new courses, and that function will be delegated to the Information Technologists only. I think that there should be collaboration between the teacher, the IT professionals and the librarians, but faculty should develop and teach the courses. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Students often hate group work and one of the many reasons is that they have problems working on one final document for project completion. As files are passed back and forth they are corrupted. If students are instructed to use their group in the  discussion board they can attach files back and forth, HOWEVER, while one person is editing file 1 another person is also editing file 1, and there are two versions of the same file.

The solution is a wiki. A wiki is a document that can be edited by a group, BUT it has record locking. If  one person is working on a file and another person wants to edit it the second person will be locked out. This keeps the latest version of the file. When the first person is finished and saves, then the second person can edit the CURRENT DOCUMENT. There is no need to pass files back and forth.

A problem can be that if students make a mistake or delete information that should not be deleted then their final changes stay in the document. To stop this problem good wikis have a history function so that the owner of the wiki (usually the instructor/mentor) can revert the material to the previous edit. There is a trail of all the edits made and my whom.

Most of us a familiar with Wikipedia, but now wikis are part of many Learning Management  Systems.  The final file can be submitted by the group as the culmination of group project.

This site has an excellent graphic illustrating the differences between a wiki, a blog and a discussion. We need to use the right tool for the right purpose!

The University of Adlaide. (ND). Differences between Discussion Boards, Blogs and Wikis. http://www.adelaide.edu.au/myuni/staff/resources/tutorials/content/Differences_between_Discussion_Boards__Blogs_and_Wikis.html