During the activity
This section refers mainly to text-based discussion activities, but the principles of active monitoring, engagement and feedback apply equally to other forms of online activity.
In blog-based or online discussion activities, the role of the lecturer will be that of a facilitator. The role is not to impart knowledge but to tease out understanding from the students and encourage participation. The first step is to ensure any discussion-based activity is triggered by a starter post.
If you are using a discussion board, set up a starter post for each thread of the discussion. This makes it clear to students where to post on specific topics. As an example, if you had three case studies that you wanted students to respond to, set up three separate threads, one for each case study.
The starter post would usually include the instructions for the activity, reiterating the expectations, and any relevant content students will be responding to. Whilst this may seem like duplicating content, as the starter post is in the same location as the students contributions, students are not needing to cross-reference between the discussion board and other web pages. This approach also makes it easy to save a copy of discussions to a file that includes the original context of the activity.
For a blog activity, for example a welcome blog on a preparing to study site or a current affairs blog, the first post should mimic what is expected of the students. By demonstrating through your own blog the typical response you would expect from students, this encourages participation as students are clearer about the form of contribution to make.
Approaches to commenting on posts
In Yorkshare, you can use the comment feature on blog posts or replying to a discussion board post. This allows you to directly question students, challenging assumptions and prompting further discussion.
- Start your reply with the student name, targeting your question directly at them.
- Outline how you have interpreted their ideas, as this gives them opportunity to clarify their original post. This may be important if you are encouraging rapid participation, rather than structured essays as students may be posting only initial thoughts rather than developed understanding.
- Pose one specific question.
- Sign off with your name.
Other actions for the facilitator
Whilst the lecturer is the traditional facilitator, such actions may be devolved to others in the group. Part of the role of the facilitator will be to monitor the forms of contribution, as such you may encounter negative behaviours that will need addressing in much the same way as in class. You may wish to speak to individuals ‘offline’ or rather outside the discussion space, for example by email, rather than a public reprimand. Else, other approaches that more directly challenge a point of view from a critical, academic perspective may be appropriate.
There are positive actions that the facilitator should perform during an activity, such as:
- Providing examples.
- Restating participants’ contributions to check understanding.
- Clarifying, synthesising and summarising.
- Directly inviting participation from individuals.
Adapted from: Jacques and Salmon (2007, p.175).
Facilitating synchronous activities
You may already be familiar with running synchronous activities in face-to-face sessions. These tend to be structured, with a clear outline of the tasks you intend to undertake during your 50 minute slot and the content you will deliver. Sessions are very rarely without any form of student interaction, in order to maintain engagement and interest. Just like a face-to-face session, online synchronous sessions (for example through Collaborate) require planning and thought in terms of how students will interact and how you will structure the session.
Tools like Collaborate offer more interactions than Skype or Google Hangouts, with more immediate interactions than asynchronous text-based discussion boards or blogs. In Collaborate you can conduct straw polls, ask students to complete templated activities using the whiteboard tools, get students to present work and use screen-sharing for software demonstrations or problem solving. Just like other tools, Collaborate needs adequate technical support to begin with (see the Opening Help Slide for Participants) and clear expectations as to when students should participate and how they should be involved in the session.
You will need to factor in time for technical de-bugging at the start of the session in case users have difficulty with their audio. It is recommended to ask students to log in at least 10 minutes before the start of the session to do the necessary checks.
Identifying and addressing non-participation
Non-participation may be for a number of reasons:
- Technical difficulties or inadequate technology for access.
- Lack of understanding of the task requirements.
- Lack of understanding of the tool operation.
- Lack of subject knowledge.
- Intimidation from others (this may just be the feeling their own contribution does not bring anything to the discussion).
- Competing agendas, for example assessed work may take higher priority than a non-assessed activity.
The facilitator actions outlined above go some of the way to addressing these concerns. You may also encounter ‘lurkers’, students who view online contributions from other students but do not actively contribute themselves. This approach may be due to a student gaining all they need from others and forming their own understanding internally, rather than contributing to the whole. This can be damaging to group morale and shared understanding, therefore students will need to be encouraged to share their ideas collaboratively rather than adopting individualistic approaches.
In some cases, it may be useful to define that contributions to online activities form part of the assessment requirements. For example in an essay, students could be required to draw upon one of their own discussion points with that of another student that helped form their understanding of a particular topic. Advice on how to reference such posts will be essential.