Guidelines for Moderating Online Educational Computer Conferences

Dr. David Winograd

SUNY - Potsdam

winogrdm@potsdam.edu

315-267-2773

What is a computer conference moderator?

A moderator of a computer conference wears many hats. One of the earliest commercial conferencing services, named the WELL, (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) referred to moderators as hosts, and Harold Rheingold, one of the early pioneers of computer conferencing described hosts as:

… the people who serve the same role on the WELL, that a good host is supposed to serve at a party or a salon — to welcome newcomers, introduce people to one another, clean up after the guests, provoke discussions, and break up fights if necessary.".

Carlson defines a moderator as one who:

" helps people get started, give them feedback, summarize, weave the contributions of different folks together, get it unstuck when necessary, deal with individuals who are disruptive, or get off the track, bring in new material to freshen it up periodically, and get feedback from the group on how things are going and what might happen from the group on how things are going and what might happen next...[Further the moderator needs to] communicate with the group as a whole, sub-groups, and individuals to encourage participation.İ

Paulsen lists some roles of a moderator as: lecturer, tutor, facilitator, mentor, assistant, provocateur, observer, and participant, with each of the roles contributing some organizational, social and intellectual elements .

A moderator is a generalist who is sensitive to the individuals and dynamics that make up the conference and through this sensitivity can decide when a conference is doing well or poorly and deciding on actions to take if a conference is going awry. At the start of a conference, the moderator is the most central of characters, kicking things off, keeping things running smoothly, helping solve problems and concerns of the individuals of the group and breathing life, immediacy and personality into what can either be a lively and inviting community of stimulating people having a great time, or a wasteland of uninviting text. The difference between the two is often due to the efforts of the moderator.

Over the last two decades computer conferencing has expanded from the domain of the computer hobbyist to that of large popular online services such as America Online and has become instrumental in computer based distance education. This growth has spawned numerous online communities inhabited by people with an endless variety of interests and moderated by a remarkably diverse and creative group of people. The greatest number of moderators became interested in managing communities as members of previous conferences where their interests were sparked by the interesting friends made online and the amazing possibilities of the medium. In just about every case moderators become moderators because it’s fun. There is a heady feeling that comes with being instrumental in building a vibrant community of people not limited by time and place. Numerous friendships and working relationships have been built between people that, under any other circumstances, would have never met.

Watch and Learn

Thousands of people have moderated computer conferences and most have learned through trial and error, but we can learn from their experiences and benefit from the amazing commonality of the experiences of these moderators and the commonality of what goes on in computer conferences whether for fun or for education. The basic differences between and educationally oriented and general online conferences are that in educational conferences participation is not voluntary, and that there is a set life span to the conference. Being part of a conference on services such as Talk City, America Online or CompuServe can serve as wonderful training and experience. Regarding how moderators of these communities handle their position, solve problems and keep their communities alive reflect directly on moderating educational online conferences. Getting involved in some of these communities with a critical eye to the reasons behind their success or failure will go a long way toward learning the art of moderation.

Preparing for the Conference

In the majority of cases, the course instructor is responsible for the preparation of everything leading up to the conference. Depending upon the structure of the course this initial work may accomplished collaboratively between the instructor and moderator. However done, you should be aware of this information. If proper attention is paid to these organizational aspects of planning, a number of common problems can be avoided.

Technical Problems

At the start of a conference, your first responsibility is to help the members get online and resolve technical problems with their hardware and software. Such problems at the start are inevitable and often prevent a course from accomplishing much during its initial week or two, but with some planning and support these problems can be kept to a minimum. Contact the person or group responsible for technical support and find out as much as possible about what help is available. How can they be contacted? What is the response time? Is there a different group or person handling hardware problems and software problems? Is there a telephone number that the students can call around the clock? If not, what are the resources available to students trying to solve technical problems at other times? All technical support options should be listed clearly on the syllabus or class page.

Familiarity with the Software

\Having a good knowledge of the installation and operation of the software for all supported computer platforms will avoid a good deal of student frustration that can occur at the start of the course and conference. Being able to solve a range of problems over the telephone or via email, in addition to relying on the technical support infrastructure, can go a long way toward instilling student confidence in the conference and the moderator. In many cases, the technical support staff offers instructor training in course specific software, and it would be advantageous if you, as the moderator, could also attend. Printed information on software installation and operation is often available and this information should be printed and distributed to the students along with the software.

Contract for Conference Participation

In conferences where participation is voluntary, it is common for only about 20% of students to post anything at all, and for those who do post, it’s been found that participation of those with little computer experience declines significantly over time. Some students feel uncomfortable posting a message due to computer anxiety, fear of the unknown, inexperience with being online, etc. Full participation in a conference is mandatory to its success and it has been found that a good way to achieve this is to contract for participation. This can be done by establishing either a written or a verbal contract between the students and instructor or moderator agreeing to a defined minimum number of messages to be posted each week. Additionally a certain quality of participation might be agreed to depending upon the course and the instructor. For example, messages like, ‘I agree’, aren’t sufficient since all messages should be well considered and relevant to the topic at hand. Conference participation, or the lack of it, should be able to raise or lower the assessment of a student by a full letter grade.

Conference Size

Assuming full participation, a good size for a conference is between 10-15 members. A lower number may not generate enough messages for a conference to seem vital and alive. A higher number can cause the conference to become unwieldy and hard to follow.

The Welcome Messages

The first thing a student will read when entering an area of the conference should be a welcome message written by the moderator. Online, as well as in person, first impressions are critical and once made, cannot be reversed. The welcome message sets the intellectual tone of the conference and must be carefully written to present the proper impression. If crafted well, the message can create a good deal of the appropriate atmosphere. The language used in the message should be appropriate to the conference section and demonstrate the expected discourse. If the conference section is informal and lighthearted, different wording should be used than a section intended for serious academic discussion. Although different for each context, the tone should be kept as informal as possible. Conference members are often uncomfortable concerning what is expected of them and they will emulate the discourse of the welcome message. Research has shown that modeling expected behavior is an excellent strategy and should be used as much as possible.

All welcome messages should be warm, friendly and personal, letting the readers know that they are important members of the community and you, as the moderator are glad they are here. In each section of the conference, the welcome message should be tailored to the context. In the main content oriented section, the welcome message should tell a bit about you, explain what the conference is about, and what is expected of the conference members. It should mention that every contribution is valuable and imply that everyone will have a good time and learn from and with each other. Asking an open-ended question at the end of a welcome message is a good technique to elicit response. If a face-to-face first session wasn’t possible, this would be a good time to ask about individual expectations for the course and their feelings about online communication. Another possibility is to ask to list five things each person loves and five things they hate and explain why in a sentence or two for each item. It is a good idea that before posting, to let some friends or colleagues review the welcome messages and to go back and revise them it until they gives others exactly the intended impression.

Create a Social Space

Aside from the content oriented areas of the conference, a few others should be built, and one of them is a social space. This message section should be given a name that makes it clear that it is not for subject matter content. It could be a coffee shop or restaurant or anywhere that people would "hang out". In the welcome message it might be useful to build a word picture of what the room looks like and the attitude found there which will tend to give it a context that could be adopted by the group members. Make sure that the section is used by posting to it frequently. A good strategy is to collect a number of interesting messages or topics that can be dropped in to this section if things start to wane. A good deal of the immediacy of the conference can be built and maintained in this section.

Create a Technical Space

Issues revolving around the technology will be a large part of the first few weeks of the conference. Things won’t work, people will get frustrated and having a technical space can go a long way toward alleviating the resulting anxiety. This message section should be given a rather whimsical and non-threatening name, such as "things that plug in and light up". A major theme at first is to soften the technology and make it less impersonal and forbidding.

The welcome message of this section should contain all the technical support information and should be written in a warm and friendly voice that says; ‘we’re all in this together’. This is a place to vent, it is where members can write about problems they have encountered with the technology and others, along with the moderator, can provide answers and solutions. Reading that other people are having problems can help build group unity. After the initial shakeout, the section can be used for celebrating success in getting the technology to behave and serve as a place to post tips and tricks that people find along the way. If possible, especially during the first few weeks, it would be advantageous to have someone from tech support participate in this section.

First Meeting — Face to Face if Possible

If the majority of students live close enough to campus to meet together at least once, it is a good idea to have the first session as a face-to-face meeting. A first meeting can serve to distribute information, allay concerns and introduce the students to one another.

If possible a trainer or support representative from the technical support group should attend and conduct a full demonstration on how to install and operate the software. This is a good time for students to ask questions and voice concerns dealing with technical issues. The trainer should explain all aspects of technical support available to the students. Being able to connect a comforting face to getting help with something as cold and impersonal as a computer problem goes a long way toward alleviating anxiety when problems occur. All information, especially phone numbers and email addresses should be printed and handed to each student on paper along with it being posted online.

Students should take turns introducing themselves and answering a few light questions such as why they decided to take this sort of a course and their expectations. Each student should speak for a few minutes giving everyone else enough time to put a voice and face to the name. Doing this is an effective way to eliminate some of the potential apprehension of not knowing who is out there which is often experienced by people new to conferencing when they post their first few messages. Pictures should be taken and uploaded to the course web page or conferencing software.

The First Week

At the start of a conference, a number of students can be expected to be tentative and confused. No one wants to do the wrong thing, post to the wrong place, seem dumb or break something. This is a time of vulnerability when a common fear is that if one makes a mistake it will color others opinions of them. It is the job of moderator to combat this by helping create an atmosphere of invitation, warmth and support. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

Responsiveness to Messages

Just as first impressions are critical, so are first reactions. When an uneasy member builds up the nerve to post a first message he or she is at their most vulnerable. Not knowing whether it was done properly, people have sent their first message and waited at the computer for someone to respond to it. Without fully understanding how the medium works, if a number of hours goes by with no response, it seems like an eternity and the member may become disheartened with the conference even before it has begun. This is an extreme case, but it does happen. The same is true if someone has a technical problem and after spending hours to try unsuccessfully to resolve it, sends an email, and waits. The frustration increases with the time without a response. Because of these, and less extreme cases, it is important that first messages receive a response as quickly as possible. In a perfect situation, you would check the conference and email at least every two hours during the first week. This, under most circumstances, is not realistic, but during the first week or so, a you should be as responsive as possible checking in a number of times during the day and responding to first messages promptly. When responding, the member sending the message should be referred to by first name and regardless of the content of the message, should be praised. Providing a positive first experience with posting a message is instrumental to community building.

The Ongoing Conference

Once the conference gets underway a large part of your job is to keep things going and on track. Here are a number of things a you can do to assist a conference toward its goals.

Keep things clear

Face-to-face everything we say is mediated by our body language which gives physical clues to the meaning behind the words. For example, if someone says, İI really like mathİ while rolling his or her eyes and assuming a pained expression, it will be taken ironically that math is not liked at all. If someone were to type the same words, they would be taken literally. Although some people do use smileys or emoticons, such as ;-) as a sly wink to mediate literal expressions, it is quite easy for words to be misinterpreted. Membersİ misinterpreting and responding to a message derail a conversation and can result in hurt feelings and a lot of work for a moderator to put things back on track. When you see an ambiguous message itİs a good idea to post a response asking for clarification by restating what you believe the message means and asking if your take on it is correct. This is called İmeta-communicationİ and it is a useful online technique. When used, it acts to reassure the initial person posting that the message was understood and is important. It also assists the conference as a whole because if you are not clear on the proper meaning of a message, you can be sure that others are also confused.

Solicit Conflicting Opinions

A moderator often provokes and instigates discussion by questioning various postings. Online there is a propensity for agreement that can serve to shut down discussion. If someone makes a point and is flooded with useless messages such as. İI agreeİ or İyesİ, the discussion ends. A useful strategy is to play devilİs advocate by taking a conflicting position and asking why the opposite is not just as valid, or to pick the proposition apart for potential logical flaws, and then ask their opinion. When a discussion gets too complacent, it can cease to become a discussion although the topic may not have been fully covered.

Summarize discussions

Periodically, usually at the end of a content section, the moderator, or a member of the group assigned to the task, should summarize the flow of the discussion in one message. This acts to restate the ideas and put it in a linear format. It also serves to correct misconceptions as a form of meta-communication if the summary misstated the intention of posting. At the end of every major content section in the course a summary should be written.

Don't Let the Group Lose Sight of the Objective

If an off topic posting is sent to a content oriented message thread others can take it as license to also post off topic messages such as jokes or anecdotes. You should make sure that content oriented threads stay on topic and leave gentle messages reminding the group of its purpose.

End Message Threads When They Have Run Their Course

When a topic is finished the moderator or a group member designated by the moderator should post a final summarizing message. If the software allows, freeze the thread to disallow further posting. Without a definite ending someone who hasn’t read everything in a timely manner can post to thread that’s months old. A conference with threads having no closure feels ragged and unfinished.

Weaving

When a moderator weaves, he or she looks at a large group of messages and attempts to find the important points , common threads and disagreements to clarify a discussion that has gone off in directions that people are having trouble following. Weaving is a skill that a good moderator learns by being aware that a discussion over time is not necessarily linear. It takes practice to start to see things that appear out of order as a coherent discussion. One method of doing this is to print out all the messages in a topic oriented thread and put them in the order that most logically and clearly tells a linear story. Next, decide if any other threads from different topics reflect and expand upon the point at hand and should be included. If so, they should be printed out and sorted into the messages in the most logical and linear order. From the ordered pile of messages the moderator should write a message summarizing the narrative, weaving together the major points and crediting the group members who made the points by name.You should do this at least once a week. The main difference between weaving and simply summarizing discussions is that summarization is a mere restating of points while weaving is an analysis of seemingly disparate ideas into a coherent whole that may not be immediately apparent to the group as a whole.

Responsiveness to Messages During the Ongoing Conference

Once the conference is underway, the level of responsiveness of the moderator should dramatically change. In a maturing conference the moderator must develop a sense of intuition in knowing when to post and when to remain silent. If someone posts a message and it’s quickly jumped upon by the moderator, participation from other members of the group can be stifled. In posting, a balance should be sought between not posting too soon, and waiting until the group has lost interest in the discussion at hand.. This sense of timing is something that is developed over time through trial and error, but an awareness of the dynamic and a sensitivity in knowing that the balance must be achieved will help a moderator greatly.

Common Problems and Suggested Solutions

Lack of Participation

Problem: Although everyone has contracted to participate, there are those who will do no more than type a few words and hope it is enough. Some common examples of this are messages that say "I agree with what she said" or even "Here’s my message. How much credit do I get?"

Suggested Solution: Full and active participation is a key to taking advantage of the collected knowledge and experience of the group, so it’s another of the tasks of the moderator to get everyone involved. One method of doing this is through email manipulation. Since everyone should be assigned to write a biography at the start of the conference, it’s easy to get a basic idea of an individuals’ experiences and areas of expertise. If someone posts a question that could be answered by an infrequently posting group member, you should send email to that person pointing out the question, affirming their knowledge of the subject and requesting that he or she to post an answer. Doing this, builds the person up by acknowledging their expertise in the subject and telling them that their help is needed. Alternatively, email can be sent to the person who wrote the first message saying that person X knows something about it and suggests that they email person X asking to post a response to the conference. After the elicited message is posted the moderator should positively reinforce the behavior by posting a follow-up message. This is manipulative, but it can work very well.

Posting Messages in Incorrect Place

Problem: In the midst of a message topic dealing with course content, someone posts something totally off topic e.g., a socially oriented message or something having to do with a different topic.

Suggested Solution: A message posted to the wrong place damages the flow and structure of a discussion often creating confusion. It’s important that the moderator makes sure that no messages are posted incorrectly. A useful method is to copy the misplaced message to a text file in a word processor and delete it from the message section. The saved message can then be cut and pasted into an email message to the author, gently saying that the message was posted to the wrong place, suggesting what the right place would be, and requesting that the author re-post the message in its proper location. This should not be done as a reprimand since in most cases it was an honest mistake. The advantages of this procedure are that it works with any conferencing software since it’s nothing more than copy, paste and delete, and that it maintains the authorship of message when it’s re-posted.

Dealing With Flames

Problem: A group member replies to a message personally attacking the original author. Such a message can include swearing, name-calling, hostile comments or other socially unacceptable behavior.

Suggested Solution: In most online conferences, it’s fine to politely attack an idea but attacking an author is never allowed. Such messages are called flames, and if posted to a conference, they must be dealt with. Unchallenged flames can destroy the supportive atmosphere of a well-run conference. In dealing with flames, it would be a mistake to publicly chastise the flamer as soon as the message is viewed since doing so could be taken as stifling and overly authoritarian. In many cases, the group will handle the problem internally without any intervention from the moderator. If that doesn’t happen in a short period of time, you should delete the message and send email to the author explaining that such messaging is improper behavior in the conference and how damaging such messages are both to the conference and to the course. In an educational conference, that should solve the problem in the great majority of cases, but if it does not or if more flame messages are posted disciplinary action may have to be taken.

References:

Carlson, L. (1989). Effective moderation of computer conferences: Hints for moderators. In M. G. Brochet (Ed.), Moderating conferences (pp. 6.10-16.13). Guelph, Ontario: University of Guelph.

Paulsen, M. F. (1995). Moderating educational computer conferences. In Z. L. Berge & M. P. Collins (Eds.), Computer mediated communication and the online classroom (Vol. 3, pp. 81-89). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Rheingold, H. (1993). The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. (1 ed.). New York: Addison Wesley Publishing.

 


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March 9, 2001