Moderating successful online forums

As with face-to-face teaching within a campus-based classroom, teaching online through Learning Management Systems is an active process that involves planning and skill to create a productive environment for learning. The tools available to teach online have now been available for quite a few years, but in recent times have become far more intuitive, integrated, and understood within the learning and teaching process. Plus the expertise developed by students to work online; to complete tasks, to act convivially and productively in groups, and to communicate over distance, is increasing desirable as many more work environments become virtualised

 There are numerous tasks that instructors can perform to promote the productiveness in Learning Management Systems. However, the integrated suite of tools in which they are made-up aren’t necessarily productive in themselves and there is a lot that instructors can do to promote their effectiveness to address teaching and learning goals. This partly involves the ability to recognise in the first instance what may work better in a face-to-face setting, and what may work better online. Then instructors must devise coherent, engaging, and convivial activities to sustain the group of students over time, both on and off-line, to work towards these goals.

What works online?

A suggested way to integrate the Learner Management System into a course; it is to first do an ‘audit’ of the curriculum. Tasks such as group writing tasks, discussions and debates, assessment tasks, and the active and critical engagement with content—such as academic articles—can be done either on or offline. It is up to the instructor to decide what mode works best for their particular content coupled with the assessment tasks and learning outcomes. There are of course, tasks that Learner Management Systems do particularly well, such as delivering of core teaching materials such as unit outlines and pre-recorded lectures. However other tasks, such as formative assessment (the informal assessment during tasks), Learner Management Systems also do well and there are an array of communication tools available in them to communicate directly to students, either individually or in a group, to aid this.

Pro-active interaction

Once a decision is made to integrate certain tools, such as forums or virtual classrooms, into the curriculum, it is important to consider how they will be moderated to ensure that the desired learning outcomes are met.  The instructor must take a proactive role to make sure that the interaction with content, the interaction between groups of students, and the interaction with the instructor are constructive and meaningful (see: Salmon; 2012). The tone and calibre of the conversations ensure students may contribute constrictive critique confidently, without the fear of derision or personal reproach.

Instructors should intervene in forums, to moderate and guide, to reward good ideas and drive conversations. This is fairly similar to what takes place in face-to-face tutorials, however there are new opportunities in online forums, such as, to summarise the debate, to reinforce common goals, to place links to content to reinforce or refute an argument, and to reiterate at intervals the benefits of contributing to the forum. Plus forum are in written form meaning they provide a reference point for pursuing ideas for subsequent written assessments.

But as with face-to-face teaching, it is also important to push, to a certain degree, the responsibility for finding course related material and discovering new information—and thus the responsibility for learning— back onto the student.  There is a danger that the instructor becomes little more than a ‘search engine’ offering quick answers to question in an uncritical, encyclopaedic way. Scaffolding, linking, and delivering information in an interesting and challenging way will promote information sharing between students thus assist in the building of knowledge through dialogue.

Building strong foundations

Online sessions may be framed as an ‘online seminar’ or ‘online tutorial’ and may be synchronous or asynchronous, again depending on the content and activities. As with face-to-face teaching, it is important to make the topic of study interesting, to ground the objects of the study in anecdotes, stories, and in real-life experience.  Also, couching the object of study in discursive dialogue between students will assist them in learning from each other. This may take the form of a group of students coming together in a forum to provide feedback on an article; to summarise and critique it, and then develop a set of questions to bring to class to further explore in a face-to-face meeting.  

In general, ideas should be presented to students in such a way that they make sense in the overall course and the substantive conversations directed towards the goal of the course. Activities may be collaborative or practice based, but always with a set of clear and coherent goals.  In summary, building a strong foundation from the start, the planning of activities and the introduction and explanation of online tools in their context will sustain students in the longer term. Both instructor and student are working towards common goals, with shared responsibilities.

For more discussion on moderating successful online forums see: Gilly Salmon, “eModeration: the Key to Online Teaching and Learning, Taylor and Francis, 2012

Scientific Collaborations on the Internet


(A fantastic book for e-Science buffs!)

Modern science is increasingly collaborative, as signaled by rising numbers of coauthored papers, papers with international coauthors, and multi-investigator grants. Historically, scientific collaborations were carried out by scientists in the same physical location—the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, for example, involved thousands of scientists gathered on a remote plateau in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Today, information and communication technologies allow cooperation among scientists from far-flung institutions and different disciplines. Scientific Collaboration on the Internet provides both broad and in-depth views of how new technology is enabling novel kinds of science and engineering collaboration. The book offers commentary from notable experts in the field along with case studies of large-scale collaborative projects, past and ongoing (link)

Private Sheriffs in Cyberspace: Jonathan Zittrain OII Event: London, 19th May 2009

On Tuesday evening I attended an Oxford Internet Institute sponsored lecture by Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Harvard Law School, Co-Founder and Faculty Director, Berkman Centre for Internet & Society (at the salubrious legal offices of Wragge and Co). Zittrain talked about regulation on-line by major Internet players such as Facebook and Apple and asserted that many of the regulating methods employed by them were outside of the rule of law. His contention was that many ‘Web 2’ companies have immense and increasing social and economic power within the fabric of our lives and are regulating their sites in a rather ad hoc and random way in terms of banning application developers, individuals, and groups that do not adhere to their governance structures. He used a number of examples to support his thesis, plus introduced a simple graph to illustrate emergent styles of governance:


Hierarchy >poligarchy


As an example of a ‘bottom-up’ governance structure Zittrain cited Wikipedia which includes a deliberative system to manage thorny editorial decisions. As a top-down system of governance he cited Facebook; although Facebook is beginning to include the community in decisions relating to its structure and functionality. He used the term ‘social governance’ to describe this bottom-up governance approach and suggested ways in which this approach may be designed into a system (through flagging certain tasks that help tap into the ‘reservoir of good will’ of the community). A well-designed system should have mechanisms to ask users for their input.

Although I tend to agree with many of the arguments of Zittrain, I feel there is a tendency to overstate the importance of sites such as Facebook and Youtube to the broader public. Sure they are popular, but this isn’t the British Library, the University of California, or the Library of Congress we are talking about! They are just large and fashionable web sites; a small part of the fabric of our complex lives. And commercial companies will perhaps always act in their own interests; either commercially or ideologically.

I suppose what is needed is some sort of bill of rights/responsibilities that is general to the operation of the Web within a certain geographical region balanced with the specific values of the site in question. There is nothing wrong with sites asserting behaviour norms upon users; but then again governance structures should be transparent and open; not outside of acceptable norms of the broader public sphere. A site should never assert policies that are deemed racist nor discriminatory (perhaps this is Zittrain’s anxiety when he claimed than many sites operate outside of ‘the rule of law’). The relationship between the community and the platform should always be fair and equitable; especially in large user-based sites such as Facebook. In my mind, governance structures, whether online or off, should always be open and transparent.

One of the respondents to the talk, Ian Brown, a Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute (and author of the recent report Database state) asserted that the relationship between Citizen and State and Cyberspace needed to be reconsidered. He also claimed (from his experience) that that the issues raised by Zittrain are not well-known in the UK;  especially in senior government levels. As an historian (and not a legal expert), my  scepticism relates to the actual significance of the entire debate.  I suppose that the significance of the debates depends on the importance the public places on systems such as Facebook and their governance structures. I may agree with Eric Hobsbawn that Terrorism is more a perceived threat in the UK that an actual threat (to the state), but then again the public is led to believe otherwise so it now painfully significant.  So if the debates about governance are perceived to be important by the public; then they will become important. So we may have a ‘Facebook Parliament’ in the making deliberating about the rise of rudeness on Facebook . They should start with the Tube system!

New forms of doctorate

I attended an ESRC funded seminar today and organised by the Landsdown Centre for Electronic Arts on new forms of doctorates. This was the third seminar in the series. As someone who undertook a practice based PhD some years back (that admittedly was not altogether a totally a rewarding institutional experience), I found the seminar both stimulating and cathartic. David Durling, a Professor of Art and Design at Middlesex University, discussed the history of the PhD within the Design field emphasising the difference between ‘practice’ and ‘research’. He also discussed the difference between a ‘Doctorate’ and a ‘PhD’ which the former being more professional and vocational whilst the later is research-based. He stressed in his talk is that not all disciplines have identical cognate skills and some require the development of research skills in areas such as visual communication and performance.

The research qualification that is the PhD must provide reliable evidence that is discoverable and re-usable by others. And a PhD must provide an original argument within the rigours of a peer-assessed field and this argument must stand up against competing evidence. If it does this; the form shouldn’t be the major concern as the major concern should be whether the form presented is adequate enough evidence to communicate the tacit knowledge of the researcher and the research endeavour undertaken (and the required cognate skills). Many forms aren’t up to this task.

And I do worry a little that debates about new forms of PhDs may be so complex and un-containable that they are in danger of being hijacked by anti-academic and simplistic discourses such a technological determinism. Not all technical ‘progress’ is in the interest of research and education.

The second speaker, Professor Stephen Boyd Davis, Director of the Landsdown Centre for Electronic Arts, talk was titled ‘Defending the Thesis: why the written thesis is better idea than ever’. He argued that a PhD makes explicit the implicit and makes overt the tacit. I liked his term ‘cognitive performance’; something that is developed though the rigours of arguing a position via a linear, argumentative and evidence-based narrative over a long period of time.

I do worry that new communication devices at times privilege the short term and the practical and research should never shy away from grand and significant questions that may not have a quick and practical fix. I particularly liked how he presented his own thesis to the audience revealing his use of image and text. As he implied; how we understand the ‘traditional’ written thesis has changed considerably, at least in terms of access to it and the content within it. Many theses are now available online that can be searched and parsed by search tools and text-mining tools thus making the text more readily available and perhaps contestable.

Many of these debates are incredibly important to the Digital Humanities as practice is so central to the field. Within the Digital Humanities I prefer the concept of an ‘ETD’ or Electronic Theses and Dissertation as it retains the ‘traditional’ framework of the written thesis but also allows computational digital objects to be embedded within it. It could also be used as a framework to publish critical editions of classical texts whist embedding the critical and argumentative apparatus within it. An ETD could also be published in two versions; one digital and one paper. This is as long as the digital component adheres to digital preservations conventions and standards and the University has the ability to store it (in many Universities the later is not the case).

More information can be found on the seminar series blog:

How to create a virtual museum

A good introductory article from the Relics and Selves Archive produced here at King’s College.

This virtual exhibition originated with the idea of deconstructing the rarefied and sanctified museum atmosphere, and thus subvert the order and cataloguing of objects which were important to the consolidation of national imaginaires in 1880s Argentina, Brazil and Chile. The Relics and Selves project, then, seeks to take these items out of their cases and the order imposed on them, so that visitors themselves can un-order and re-order them. Using database and Internet technology, we can bring together thousands of images it would be impossible to handle via traditional publication methods (link).