A view from Down Under

Melbourne Seventh City of Empire, part of the Australia 1930s Exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria
Melbourne Seventh City of Empire, part of the “Brave New World: Australia 1930s” Exhibition at National Gallery of Victoria

I’ve spent the last two week in Australia thanks to a trip to the Royal Australian Chemical Institute 100th Annual Congress in Melbourne. I attended the Chemistry Education symposium.

So what is keeping chemistry educators busy around this part of the world? There are a lot of similarities, but some differences. While we wrestle with the ripples of TEF and the totalitarian threat of learning gains, around here the acronym of fear is TLO: threshold learning outcomes.  As I understand it, these are legally binding statements stating that university courses will ensure students will graduate with the stated outcomes. Institutions are required to demonstrate that these learning outcomes are part of their programmes and identify the level to which they are assessed. This all sounds very good, except individuals on the ground are now focussing on identifying where these outcomes are being addressed. Given that they are quite granular, this appears to be a huge undertaking and is raising questions like: where and to what extent is teamwork assessed in a programme?

Melbourne from the Shrine
Melbourne from the Shrine

This process does appear to have promoted a big interest in broader learning outcomes, with lots of talks on how to incorporate transferable skills into the curriculum, and some very nice research into students’ awareness of their skills. Badges are of interest here and may be a useful way to document these learning outcomes in a way that doesn’t need a specific mark. Labs were often promoted as a way of addressing these learning outcomes, but I do wonder how much we can use labs for learning beyond their surely core purpose of teaching practical chemistry.

Speaking of labs, there was some nice work on preparing for laboratory work and on incorporating context into laboratory work. There was (to me) a contentious proposal that there be a certain number of laboratory activities (such as titrations) that are considered core to a chemist’s repertoire, and that graduation should not be allowed until competence in those core activities be demonstrated. Personally I think chemistry is a broader church than that, and it will be interesting to watch that one progress. A round-table discussion spent a good bit of time talking about labs in light of future pressures of funding and space; and it does seem that we are still not quite clear about what the purpose of labs are. Distance education – which Australia has a well-established head start in – was also discussed, and I was really glad to hear someone with a lot of experience in this say that it is possible to generate a community with online learners, but that it takes a substantial personal effort. The lab discussion continued to the end, with a nice talk on incorporating computational thinking into chemistry education, with suggestions on how already reported lab activities might be used to achieve this.

Gwen Lawrie delivers her Award Address
Gwen Lawrie delivers her Award Address

Of course it is the personal dimension that is the real benefit of these meetings, and it was great to meet some faces old and new. Gwen Lawrie wasn’t on the program as the announcement of her award of Education Division Medal was kept secret for as long as possible. I could listen to Gwen all day, and her talk had the theme “Chasing Rainbows”, which captured so eloquently what it means to be a teacher-researcher in chemistry education, and in a landscape that continues to change. [Gwen’s publications are worth trawling] Gwen’s collaborator Madeline Schultz (a Division Citation Winner) spoke about both TLOs and on reflections on respected practitioners on their approaches to teaching chemistry – an interesting study using a lens of pedagogical content knowledge. From Curtin, I (re-)met Mauro Mocerino (who I heard speak in Europe an age ago on clickers) who spoke here of his long standing work on training demonstrators. Also from that parish, it was a pleasure to finally meet Dan Southam. I knew Dan only through others; a man “who gets things done” so it was lovely to meet him in his capacity as Chair of the Division and this symposium, and to see that his appellation rang true. And it was nice to meet Elizabeth Yuriev, who does lovely work exploring how students approach physical chemistry problem and on helping students with problem solving strategies.

Dinner Date
Dinner Date

There were lots of other good conversations and friendly meetings, demonstrating that chemistry educators are a nice bunch regardless of location. I wasn’t the only international interloper; Aishling Flaherty from University of Limerick was there to spread her good work on demonstrator training – an impressive programme she has developed and is now trialling in a different university and a different country. And George Bodner spoke of much of his work in studying how students learn organic chemistry, and in particular the case of “What to do about Parker”. The memory of Prof Bodner sitting at the back of my talk looking at my slides through a telescopic eye piece is a happy one that will stay with me for a long time. Talk of organic chemistry reminds me of a presentation about the app Chirality – 2 which was described – it covers lots of aspects about revising organic chemistry, and looked really great.

The Pioneer, National Gallery of Victoria
The Pioneer, National Gallery of Victoria

My slightly extended trip was because I had the good fortune to visit the research group of Prof Tina Overton, who moved to Melbourne a few years ago, joining native Chris Thompson in growing the chemistry education group at Monash. It was an amazing experience immersing in a vibrant and active research group, who are working on things ranging from student critical thinking, chemists’ career aspirations, awareness of transferable skills, and the process and effect of transforming an entire laboratory curriculum. I learned a lot as I always do from Tina and am extremely grateful for her very generous hosting. I leave Australia now, wondering if I can plan a journey in 2018 for ICCE in Sydney.

From Hokusai exhibition, NGV
From Hokusai exhibition, NGV. My interpretation of students managing in a complex learning environment

Using the Columbo approach on Discussion Boards

As pat of our ongoing development of an electronic laboratory manual at Edinburgh, I decided this year to incorporate discussion boards to support students doing physical chemistry labs. It’s always a shock, and a bit upsetting, to hear students say that they spent very long periods of time on lab reports. The idea behind the discussion board was to support them as they were doing these reports, so that they could use the time they were working on them in a more focussed way.

The core aim is to avoid the horror stories of students spending 18 hours on a report, because if they are spending that time on it, much of it must be figuring out what the hell it is they are meant to be doing. Ultimately, a lab report is a presentation of some data, usually graphically, and some discussion of the calculations based on that data. That shouldn’t take that long.

Setting Up

The system set-up was easy. I had asked around and heard some good suggestions for external sites that did this well (can’t remember it now but one was suggested by colleagues in physics where questions could be up-voted). But I didn’t anticipate so many questions that I would have to answer only the most pressing, and didn’t want “another login”, and so just opted for Blackboard’s native discussion board. Each experiment got its own forum, along with a forum for general organisation issues.


A postgrad demonstrator advised me to allow the posts to be made anonymously, and that seemed sensible. Nothing was being graded, and I didn’t want any reticence about asking questions. Even anonymously, some students apologised for asking what they deemed “silly” questions, but as in classroom scenarios, these were often the most insightful. Students were told to use the forum for questions, and initially, any questions by email were politely redirected to the board. In cases close to submission deadlines, I copied the essential part of the question, and pasted it to the board with a response. But once reports began to be due, the boards became actively used. I made sure in the first weekend to check in too, as this was likely going to be the time that students would be working on their reports.

The boards were extensively used. About 60 of our third years do phys chem labs at a time, and they viewed the boards over 5500 times in a 6 week period. Half of these views were on a new kinetics experiment, which tells me as organiser that I need to review that. For second years, they have just begun labs, and already in a two week period, 140 2nd years viewed the board 2500 times. The number of posts of course is nowhere near this, suggesting that most views are “lurkers”, and probably most queries are common. Since students can post anonymously, I have no data on what proportion of students were viewing the boards. Perhaps it is one person going in lots, but given the widespread viewership across all experiments, my guess is it isn’t. The boards were also accessible to demonstrators (who correct all the reports), but I’ve no idea if they looked at them.


The reception from students has been glowing, so much so that it is the surprise “win” of the semester. (Hey, look over here at all these videos I made… No? Okay then!) Students have reported at school council, staff student liaison committees, anecdotally to me and other staff that they really like and appreciate the boards. Which of course prompts introspection.

Why do they like them? One could say that of course students will like them, I’m telling them the answer. And indeed, in many cases, I am. The boards were set up to provide clear guidance on what is needed and expected in lab reports. So if I am asked questions, of course I provide clear guidance. That mightn’t always be the answer, but it will certainly be a very clear direction to students on what they should do. But in working through questions and answers, I stumbled across an additional aspect.

One more thing

Me, when asked an electrochemistry question
Me, when asked an electrochemistry question

Everyone’s favourite detective was famous for saying: “oh: just one more thing“. I’ve found in the lab that students are very keen and eager to know what purpose their experiment has in the bigger context, where it might be used in research, something of interest in it beyond the satisfaction of proving, once again, some fundamental physical constant. And in honesty, it is a failing on our part and in the “traditional” approach that we don’t use this opportunity to inspire. So sometimes in responding to questions, I would add in additional components to think about – one more thing – something to further challenge student thought, or to demonstrate where the associated theory or technique in some experiment we were doing is used in research elsewhere. My high point was when I came across an experiment that used exactly our technique and experiment, published in RSC Advances this year. This then sparked the idea of how we can develop these labs more, the subject of another post.

Again I have no idea if students liked this or followed up these leads. But it did ease my guilt a little that I might not be just offering a silver spoon. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I am certainly going to continue with discussion boards for labs while I work it out.

Supporting Virtual Communities: Reflection on Module

As we complete the Supporting Virtual Communities module, we are asked to reflect on our learning during the module, by replying to some of a range of prompts given. Two prompts are considered in this report: “The Muddiest Point” and “To the Future”. While they draw on different aspects of the module activities and my own learning, they focus on my main interest in e-learning – namely the facilitation of discussion boards. References marked with an asterisk are ones that are new to me and I have included them in my annotated bibliography.

The Muddiest Point

Why do we interact online?” This was the question posed by White (2002*) who argues that pre-planning of interaction spaces online is important to identify the tools and expectation of what is wanted from an online space. I’m not convinced the large majority of e-tutors (including myself!) know what exactly to do with discussion boards (hence I am doing this module!). It was an issue that arose from one of our scenario activities in the Supporting Virtual Communities (SVC) module, when we were asked to consider the time we spent online for the module. In response to this, I posted the following:

…what do we want the discussion board for? If it’s a support mechanism, well then it’s probably fine to have non-critical messages… But if we want to use them to encourage discussion, and the zone of proximal development et al, … the only way is to link it in with assessment. My worry there is that if you do this, do you discourage discussion at a trivial but useful level. As an example, if you [module tutor] had said, I want anything you post to be backed up by a reference/example from literature. That would no doubt enhance the apparent criticality of the discussion posts, but very much reduce the volume. [25 May 2010]

Learner-learner interaction is an important aspect of distance education, along with learner-content and learner-tutor interactions (Moore, 1993, pp 20 – 22). I have written before (Seery, 2010) about some problems I see arising out of discussion boards, citing the work of Angeli et al (2003) and Kanuka (2005) who examined the contributions to discussion boards by both students and tutors and found that in general the level of discussion was low. However, I tended to lay the blame at the door of technology, or see assessment as a key to encouraging participation. In the discussions in this module, an interesting reference to a subsequent paper by Kanuka (Clarke and Kanuka, 2007*) was highlighted. This identifies three barriers to critical discourse – a confusion or lack of clarity on the nature and purpose of discussion posts; critiques of other posts were considered an attack and time constraints. The work suggests using highly structured activities to encourage critical discussion. The scenario-based activity in the SVC module was structured so that while it required reflective posts, based on a consideration of one’s own approach to scenarios, it also required that we respond to others’ contribution – hence encouraging dialogical interactions (Pena-Shaff and Nicholls, 2004*). Reviewing my posts on the scenario based activity (which was highly structured), I felt I engaged in a meaningful dialogue with others and learned a lot from their contributions to my posts.

Clarke and Kanuka (2007) also found that students in their study found use for the discussion board beyond critical discussion. Like the students in their study, I found that discussion posting and engaging in others postings helped clarify my own thoughts on an issue. I posted this when reflecting on the use of discussion boards:

…With a discussion post, you have to commit to something – clearly (and concisely) outline your case. It’s there, then for all to see, so you tend to read it through others eyes more than you might if it was just a notion in your mind. [5 June 2010]

A thought-provoking response to my post about discussion boards from a classmate argued that discussion boards had a role in aligning module delivery with Salmon’s five-stage model (Salmon, 2002) – in particular that it had a role in the knowledge sharing and construction phases, but perhaps was limited in the in-depth analysis (stage 5) of peer’s work. I think this resonates a lot with what White, Rourke and Kanuka (and indeed Salmon herself) have written about, as discussed in the preceding paragraphs. The pre-planning of what we intend to use discussion boards for, and the subsequent structuring of activities and support around these plans, mean that the potential is there to use them effectively in the later stages of Salmon’s five-stage model.

Finally, the situation I found myself in as a participant on the SVC module was one where I knew my classmates well from other modules and had built a good rapport. I wondered about the importance of this rapport in the determining the nature of the group’s interactions, in a reflective post to the boards:

…for an online module where participants did not know each other, I wonder if some sort of induction/initial exercise would be required to develop this level of trust and awareness of each other – so that they will seriously consider opinions posted in the process of  challenging their own. [5 June 2010]

In Rourke and Kanuka’s study (2007), they describe a participant who at the start of the module explicitly invited other participants “to feel free to critique her work” (p. 119) so that they could all learn, but as the module proceeded, only three of her 97 contributions involved a disagreement with someone else’s post. Another participant who himself did demonstrate critique in his postings also explicitly requested that people change from a “tone of politeness” (p. 120). Reflecting on my own contributions to the discussion boards, I felt comfortable in making comments/disagreements where I wanted to because I knew the class members well from face-to-face discussions, and when they made their contributions, I could almost imagine their non-verbal interactions from the classroom! Therefore I think for a module where participants do not know each other, early structured activities (perhaps organized around induction) prompting responses from participants, perhaps led and demonstrated by the tutor would be useful to break the ice a little on demonstrating how to offer a counter-opinion without the worry of offending other class mates.

To the Future

The question for me now is what can I take from this learning for input into my own practice as a teacher? Considering the range of activities and reflections from the module, I can draw out three themes.

The first builds on the concept of structured activities discussed above. I think there is a great deal of merit in using suitable structured activities, for example in a problem- or context-based scenario. A specific example would be present a scenario involving an analysis in a module I teach which covers a wide range of techniques, asking students to provide a response to how they would approach an analysis, and comment on others responses in a guided peer-review. This concept has been used in the MyExamopedia site (MyExamopedia, nd), which aims to help students structure their exam answers, although I would direct this discussion towards a more general concept of building an awareness of critical analysis, rather than specifically for exam questions (although I recognize that exam question work is a great motivator for students).

The second theme is to use the online interactions and discussion to better prepare learners for in-class activity. Dietz-Uhler and Bishop-Clarke (2001*) describe a study where students were given assigned reading to discuss, with some students having an online discussion prior to the in-class discussion and others who did not. They found that the students who had the online discussion prior to the in-class discussion had a greater range of perspectives and enjoyed the face-to-face activity more than students who just had the face-to-face discussion. I think this method points to a useful aspect of discussion boards – providing learners with a range of learning styles more time and opportunity to discuss issue relevant to their learning than a purely face-to-face session might allow for.

A sub-component of the second theme draws from my experience from my involvement in the group activity in the SVC module. This demonstrated that even very experienced learners can lose direction in a collaborative group project. Reflecting on the activity in my blog, I posted this:

When we give our own students group presentations to do, I am disappointed in cases where a group break a presentation into three parts, each member take a bit to work on and then marry it together at the end just before the presentation, the glue of the uniform theme of Powerpoint still wet. It looks like three pieces and it sounds like three pieces – with little internal reference to each other, and possibly in the worst cases little knowledge of each others’ contribution. But having completed an assignment in this way in our own group, I can see how easily it is done. [24 May 2010]

Students need very detailed guidance and scaffolding if they are to really engage with each other in developing a group project (rather than cooperating to produce a product). The same arguments for encouraging critical discussion would appear to apply here – students need guided structured activities to guide them through the process of group work. I think an online discussion space would prove invaluable in this regard.

Finally, the overall message from several aspects of the SVC module was that online work requires more pre-planning than equivalent in-class activity with the instructor shifting from the role as content provider to facilitator (DeVries and Lim, 2003*). Because interaction by students with the materials is asynchronous and can happen at any time, and the scope of materials is much broader as students can access information on the internet, the tutor cannot hope to be an expert in every aspect of what students may bring up, but move to a position whereby students can be guided through such material. In this regard, online tutoring is generally more demanding on tutors time than in-class work (Mandernach, Dailey-Hebert and Donnelli-Sallee, 2007*).

As I polish off the last of my assignments for the first year of the MSc, I ask now: am I ready to become an e-Teacher? At times there is a bewildering array of information, often conflicting about what works and does not work. In our final debate, the motion “it is straightforward to teach online – if you are a good teacher in the classroom, you can be a good one online too!” I agreed, against initial general consensus, with this motion. When we think of online teaching, we tend to think of the gadgets and tools and swirly diagrams (well maybe not those). At the heart of good face to face teaching is a motivated tutor, who wants to create a dynamic learning environment whereby students can feel free to ask and discuss materials made available in a structured, engaging manner as pre-prepared by the teacher. But the lesson I have taken from this module especially and the year as a whole is, these are at heart the same qualities of a good online teacher too.

References (references marked with an * are included in the annotated bibliography)

Angeli, C., Valanides, N. and Bonk, C.J. (2003) Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34(1), 31 – 43

*DeVries, J. and Lim, G. (2003) Significance of Online Teaching vs. Face-to-Face: Similarities and Difference, E-LEARN 2003, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, November 7-11, 2003.[PDF at http://bit.ly/d3OpyK]

*Dietz-Uhler, B. and Bishop-Clarke, C. (2001) The use of computer-mediated communication to enhance subsequent face-to-face discussions, Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 269–283.

Kanuka, H. (2005) An exploration into facilitating higher levels of learning in a text-based internet learning environment using diverse instructional strategies, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(3), article 8.

Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

Moore, M. (1993) Three Types of Interaction in Distance Education: New Perspectives, eds. Harry, K.,  Hohn, M. and Keegan, D., London: Routledge.

MyExamopedia (nd) http://sites.google.com/site/myexamopedia/ (June 2010).

*Pena-Shaff, J. B. and Nicholls, C. (2004) Analyzing student interactions and meaning construction in computer bulletin board discussions, Computers and Education, 42, 243 – 265.

*Rourke, L. and Kanuka, H. (2007) Barriers to online critical discourse, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2, 105–126.

Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: the key to active online learning, RoutledgeFalmer: London.

Seery, M. (2010) Interacting Online – problems arising out of discussion boards, (blog post) http://bit.ly/cIfLcZ (June 2010)

*White, N. (2002) Defining the purpose of your community,

http://www.fullcirc.com/community/communitypurpose.htm (June 2010)

Supporting Discussion Boards – Some Literature

The following is an annotated bibliography for the Reflection on Learning post for the module Supporting Virtual Communities. Links to references are available at: http://www.delicious.com/mkseery/SVC

  • DeVries, J. and Lim, G. (2003) Significance of Online Teaching vs. Face-to-Face: Similarities and Difference, E-LEARN 2003, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, November 7-11, 2003. [PDF at http://bit.ly/d3OpyK]

This conference paper compares face-to-face teaching with online teaching and notes many similarities. Some strategies for encouraging learner-learner interactions, which the authors discuss as a very important interaction in online learning, are outlined – including pairing/grouping new learners to seed discussions and build on these to generate discussions to the group. The role of the instructor is to provide guidelines and guidance, and weave the discussions to keep them focussed. While the paper lacks an element of criticality, it is a useful guide and “call to arms” reassuring lecturers new to an online environment that they already have a lot of skills in their repository to approach online teaching.

  • Dietz-Uhler, B. and Bishop-Clarke, C. (2001) The use of computer-mediated communication to enhance subsequent face-to-face discussions, Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 269–283.

This paper explores the value of online discussion and/or chat prior to an in-class activity by using a quantitative experimental study, where some of the class do not interact online prior to a discussion, and others do. The work is in the context of social psychology, and the impacts of this on the nature of social communication – for example, that individuals communicating online feel less inhibited. Students were required to read a short article. Two groups communicated online (one chat, one discussion board) and one did not communicate prior to the class discussion. While no difference between the two online groups were observed, when these groups entered the face-to-face component of the activity, they felt more confident, got more enjoyment and were able to discuss several different perspectives when compared to the group who only discussed the article face-to-face. The authors argue that this method could be useful for improving in-class discussions.

  • Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

This paper aims to determine the time involvement in facilitating an online module (rather than developing). Courses from a wide range of disciplines were studied.  They foud that instructors logged in on average 5.46 days a week, consisting of an total online time of 3.12 hours in the weekly period. The authors argue that while this is less than the equivalent the instructors would be spending in class, these interactions are over and above the learning students are engaging with through the online materials. In addition, while the weekly interaction (5.46 days) appears to correlate with a “face-to-face week”, the tracking noted that instructors logged in over the seven days, resulting in a significant shift in workload for instructors. The paper therefore provides some useful data to the debate about equivalence of face-to-face and online teaching.

  • Pena-Shaff, J. B. and Nicholls, C. (2004) Analyzing student interactions and meaning construction in computer bulletin board discussions, Computers and Education, 42, 243 – 265.

This paper provides an analysis of knowledge construction of student posts in an online module, in the context of the alignment of computer conferencing with social constructivist theory. The results show interesting finding on the timing and contributions of posts, including a higher proportion of posts at the beginning of the module, and replies to posts after a week tended to get no subsequent reply. Knowledge construction for students involved clarification, and elaboration, with students tending to post “reflective” rather than “dialogical” posts. The work provides some interesting things to consider in scaffolding critical discussions – structured activities are recommended to encourage dialogical as well as reflective postings, along with clear objectives for the discussion based activities.

  • Rourke, L. and Kanuka, H. (2007) Barriers to online critical discourse, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2, 105–126.

This paper examines the level of critical discourse observed between students in a fully online graduate humanities course. It includes a useful literature review on the scope and rationale for encouraging online discussion. In line with previous work, they found that there was little evidence of critical discussion observed on the discussion boards. This was attributed to three reasons.

The first was that the students had “competing orientations” towards contributions to the discussion boards. Only one of the five students interviewed incorporated any level of criticality – evidenced by referring to others posts, to literature, presenting an argument based on these, etc. Second, critiques of others’ posts were interpreted as attacks by the students concerned. Thirdly, the time limitations of the students mitigated against making contributions that they would have otherwise made. In addition, some participants felt reluctant to post a critique of others comments where they felt the other had more time to read prescribed texts.

The paper notes that the students found positive outcomes from contributing in discussion boards, even though their contributions were not critical in nature. These included clarifying thoughts on writing, relieved isolation and stayed on schedule with tasks. However, the authors point to work that demonstrates that a higher level of critical discourse is observed when students are given highly structured activities.

This essay prompts the consideration of the purpose of online interaction, giving several ideas for consideration – the intent for the group interactions, the target audience, the type of interactions, the time frame and the guidelines and governance. She argues that these are some considerations that should be developed prior to delivery of an online module and consequently matched with the tools (discussion board, chat room, etc). I would have added here for a learning perspective, that the assessment and activities would also be matched in with the purpose of the discussion boards.

Photo Credit

Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

E-moderating: Reflection

In the third week of the supporting virtual communities module, we were given a range of scenarios, and asked to outline what our response to the scenario would be. It was a very interesting and engaging activity, and through posting my own thoughts, reading others and reading replies to mine, a lot of issues got teased out during the week.

The Lurker

The first scenario asked us to compose a brief message that we would send to a student who had not yet made a contribution to the discussion board. My response is posted below. Some points I tried to address in my response (which was really guided by Salmon (2004))  were ensuring that the student (“Jack”)  was aware of the pace of the module and that he could be left behind as well as providing practical suggestions about how he might contribute, perhaps guided in some way by any interests that Jack may be known to have. I was a little surprised to my peers’ response to this message, which I thought was quite good!! Their feeling was that I was too formal (using “Dear” instead of “Hi”), and was sending this email without being aware of why the student had not contributed.

Dear Jack,

We are near the end of week 1 and I would encourage you to contribute your response to the 1st week’s task. As you will note from the course outline, there is a lot of material to discuss over the coming weeks, and it is easy to get lost if you don’t regularly contribute.

In contributing your first message, you might approach it by answering one of the following questions:

  • Did you agree with Jill when she said…
  • Why do you think we need to use a system suggested by Mary?
  • Fo you agree with the proposal made by James when he said…?

If you are having technical difficulties, please email me or telephone me, details below.


An interesting discussion ensued, around whether a tutor should be formal, informal, friendly, professional or a mix of all. I concluded that while I would certainly be much more informal in a face-to-face session, my style of writing is naturally more formal. However, a lot of my peers opened their reply with statements like “I know you must be finding it very busy, because I am too” or “I know the technology is difficult, I found that too”. If these statements are not true, I fundamentally disagree with using them – they are in a sense self-deprecating the tutor unnecessarily to put the student at ease. In the overall, very excellent, scenario feedback, our module tutor mentioned that online module requires a lot more thought about pre-planning and support. Therefore if the module workload has been well planned and formal support mechanisms are in place, then there should be no reason why Jack cannot contribute, or at least contact the tutor to request support. Self-deprecating comments, while well intentioned, can result in a lowering of the bar of expectations by giving learners an opt-out (“well the technology is difficult”). This concept was considered (understandably) pessimistic by some of my peers, but I do think for learners that are not highly motivated, a path of least resistance is often more attractive. However, with that in mind, a consideration of the type of lurkers is worthwhile.

It is worthwhile considering the types of 'lurkers' before considering a response to prompt input (Photo Credit at end)

Types of Lurkers

Salmon (again!) mentions three types of lurkers:

  • free-loader – someone who just reads posts and doesn’t contribute back
  • sponge – someone who learns a lot from discussion but is reluctant to give back because they feel they don’t know enough
  • lurker with skill/access problems – people who want to reply but can’t

Admittedly my response to Jack probably considered that he was in the first category, with a nod to the fact that he might be in the third. I think the scaffolding questions to stimulate a response do deal with freeloaders/sponges. But after this scenario, I will probably keep my formality a little more in check, especially for learners who I do not know face to face. However, the difficulty here, and one to tease out in future, is the level and nature of boundaries between tutor and student. Again, in the feedback we received on the session, the tutor asks us to consider the nature of the tutor in the discussion board – as a co-student; a guide, offer different approaches, etc. This comes back to the issue of pre-planning the module in advance, and the role of the tutor. I think this can depend on the nature of the module and the students.

“I’ve posted”, where’s my reply?

A second scenario we considered was one where a student, John, had posted a statement complaining that when he posted, people did not reply, and by the time they did the topic had moved on. I didn’t post a formal response to this, as John’s tone annoyed me too much! However, I followed peers responses, and some issues started to get teased out. John could have been having a bad day, could be highly motivated and frustrated that others are not, and so on. But stepping back, it begs the question, what are discussion boards for? If it is a space to consider and develop thoughts with others, it is useful. A great paper by Angeli and Bonk found that most posts to discussion boards in a module they studied where usually a low level of learning or acknowledgement, both on the part of tutor and students. Therefore, if a module is using the discussion board as a place for creation and dialogue, this needs to be formally built into the course design, along with the expectations of students to interact. If it is, and explicitly so, poor old John might get a reply to his posts sooner. A caveat is that John could be posting very long posts, and wanting to know what others think of his opinion, rather than engage with others. In this case, John might be encouraged to shorten posts to one point, or if something is a fluid discussion, a move into synchronous chat may be more appropriate.

Angeli, C., Valanides, N. and Bonk, C.J. (2003) Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34(1), 31 – 43

Salmon, G. (2004) E-Moderating, The Key to Teaching and Learning Online, 2nd Ed., Kogan Press: London.

Photo Credit

Facilitating online group work: Reflection

Having been part of a group required to complete a task online over a week, it was interesting to view the process of a group task from a students’ perspective. Some reflective points are considered along with thoughts for how to facilitate group work with my own students in the future.

This week on the MSc Supporting Virtual Communities module, we were required in our group of six to conceive a group activity and write a tutor support guide for facilitating this activity online. The activity, conveniently enough, consisted of six tasks, which led to pretty equal division. This divide and conquer method suited me and with reasonable efficiency and the odd hiccup, we compiled a document which resembled something like the assignment asked us to do.

When we give our own students group presentations to do, I am disappointed in cases where a group break a presentation into three parts, each member take a bit to work on and then marry it together at the end just before the presentation, the glue of the uniform theme of Powerpoint still wet. It looks like three pieces and it sounds like three pieces – with little internal reference to each other, and possibly in the worst cases little knowledge of each others’ contribution. But having completed an assignment in this way in our own group, I can see how easily it is done. The cycle of the group work is incomplete. No one can doubt that dividing tasks and independent work are important, but to complete the cycle these constituent parts must be made a whole. It’s uncomfortable, teasing out the bits needed and not needed – it needs some diplomacy and a lot of give and take. But it also needs for students to be aware of this component in the cycle of group work, or they may not realise that they are not getting the best out of each other as a group.

Summing together each group member's contribution does not result in a final "group" project.

Moving this online is potentially more troublesome. The nuances of face-to-face conversation are not available, and so subtle diplomacy and give and take can be misinterpreted. One mechanism we had in place as a group was a group contract – with each person given a role. I think in our own case, the activity was just too short for these roles to garner real impact, but it is a tool in the scaffolding of group work – assigning a responsibility to each member. Another tool we used in the group contract was incorporation of deadlines for submission of material, and what to do if someone didn’t submit. this means the show can go on if one member of the group can’t contribute to a specific sub-task. We also used a one-hour chat session, which was very useful at the beginning of the task to ensure everyone was on the same page as regards what to do. The failing of the group, was that we did not return to this group chat towards the end of activity to begin the review cycle. Finally, in our scenario, we were lightly moderated, and rightly so – as we all have experience in group work. But based on our own situation, people inexperienced in group work would need a lot of early moderation and feedback to ensure that they were aware of their roles and responsibilities. Hopefully, as a module of activities proceeded, this moderation could be less invasive.

In terms of technology, we used Google Wave as our interface. I loved it in terms of technology and ease. Others had difficulty with their being too many waves – and while there were a lot, I didn’t feel that was a problem. I suppose my main outcome from it was that the end result didn’t feel “concrete”. There wasn’t a document you could print off – it essentially just ran on from a discussion. I think the way data is presented is important (I can’t read academic papers in html format, I go for the formatted pdf). Of course the final stage of a Google Wave development could (and probably would) take the fully edited document with everyone’s contributions incorporated – as in a wiki – and put it into something like a Google document or Word. But as it was it felt transient and almost insignificant. Part of the problem is that it is so easy for a Wave to get polluted with side chat and irrelevant information, which while valuable in one space can affect the flow of a document. Therefore it might be useful to put in some comments in a group agreement if using Wave in the future.

The above comments are really some random thoughts on my experience for the week. Some of the online moderating supports are taken from Salmon’s E-moderating (2004), but the biggest learning experience of the week for me was that I really need to brush up on my knowledge of facilitating group work. I’ll be getting Jaques out on my next visit to the library.

Online Induction and Socialisation: Reflection

This post summarises some points of reflection having completed the first week of the module “Supporting Virtual Communities”, on the DIT Msc Applied E-Learning. The first week of the module had the theme induction and socialisation, and I have incorporated some thoughts on the week, prompted by the reflective prompts given by the module tutor, Roisin. Before these thoughts, we were given an article to read from the Crafting Gentleness Blog, which prompted some thoughts on my view of e-learning.

The use of e-learning as a teaching method could be seen as a panacea for all education problems – design high quality materials and deliver them en masse with Tutor X, Y or Z available to deliver the well-designed content. Materials, designed with the principle of ADDIE in mind, will be of good quality, and relying on the quality of the materials, these will be scalable, relatively independent of the teacher who collects the grades at the end of the online session.

This slightly tongue-in-cheek scenario (unfortunately only slightly) of course reduces the concept of e-learning to content and delivery. What the blog post teases out carefully though is that the role of the teacher is of course central to the informed engagement of students in the module and the promotion of learning. While a model like ADDIE (to which I subscribe as a suitable model for design) is useful in the development and redevelopment phases, it is not a learning model. The shift in concept therefore moves from one of content delivery to one of interaction, involving questions and problem with discussion. A simple analogy would be that we would not expect students to come into a classroom with a textbook, read through it and use its beautiful graphics and carefully framed worked examples, answer the questions and submit them for marking. In short, the teacher has a role.

Breaking the online ice is an important step in developing an online community*

With this in mind, I approach Roisin’s two feedback prompts. The first is on the thoughts of the induction and socialisation that we as students experienced in our first week on the module, and the elements of these that we would like to use in our own practice. In my own situation, I have used online modules with students who otherwise see each other every day, so there is not the same need for personal socialisation. However, there is a need to break the online ice in terms of getting them to post online, express their thoughts and confusion and ideas in a manner they are not used to. Online socialisation is the second of Salmon’s five stage model (Salmon 2002) and she says that “you create a special little cultural experience belong to a group at this time”. To recognise that online socialisation is different, and illustrate this point to a group of learners who know each other well, I think it would be useful for learners to post what they want to achieve from the module, perhaps in reply to some prompts. Salmon (ibid) lists a large numbers of ice-breakers. My opinion of ice-breakers is mixed; I know they have a role in pushing people across a barrier, but I find if they are silly, there may not be buy in, from me or students. Therefore, I would prefer authentic/realistic ice-breakers, activities that in themselves may be picked up or developed later on in the “real content”.

Linked in with this, is the second prompt of the week; namely the role of the online tutor. For the moment, I will just consider the role in terms of online socialisation and socialisation of the tutor. This comes back to the points made above about the value and integration of the teacher in the online module. Roisin achieved this very effectively by making her presence felt in the boards and behind the scenes in a subtle but obvious way (example: a quick email of reassurance). In addition to this, audio feedback on the weekly chat session added another dimension to her persona as tutor – as well as displaying a level of personal commitment that gives the environment a real sense of value. Roisin’s subsequent posting of her own thoughts on the progress of the week emphasised this sense of a learning community worthwhile engaging in. Salmon (2004) mentions one of the qualities of a more developed tutor is they can show “a positive attitude, commitment and enthusiasm for online learning”.

These are the elements in which a tutor has a central and unassailable role. Online learning, no matter how good the materials, needs a good teacher to engage and interact with learners. Reliance on the materials alone, may mean that learners become disassociated and unwilling to commit. It is tempting to get caught up in the tricks and tools, but amidst the gadgets and technology, it is worth reminding oneself (me!) about the value and the role of a teacher in the online environment.

Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: The Key to Online Learning, Routledge Falmer: London.

Salmon, G. (2004) E-moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online, 2nd Ed., Taylor and Francis: Oxford.

*Image: MarcelGermain’s Photostream [reproduction with attribution permitted]