This guide has presented some important topics, ideas, and suggestions for your consideration as you begin to design your online course. It cannot, however, guarantee a successful course. The quality of the course and its content is still, as always, up to you, the instructor.
An Instructor’s Guide to Teaching
and Learning Online
The University of Saskatchewan
Table of Contents
What is CMC? .....................................................................................2
What is Computer Conferencing? ........................................................3
Why Use Computer Conferencing?................................................................5
A Versatile Technology ........................................................................5
An Interactive Technology ...................................................................7
Open-Forum Discussions ...............................................................8
Collaborative/Co-operative Learning Groups ..................................8
Access to Instructor .......................................................................9
First Things First—You...............................................................................10
Your views on teaching and learning... ..............................................10
Another View ....................................................................................11
Online Course Instructor as Moderator .............................................11
Task-Oriented Activities ...............................................................12
Group-Building and Maintenance Activities ..................................14
Designing Your On-line Course...................................................................17
Course Design Principles...................................................................17
Who is the learner? ......................................................................18
What are your instructional goals? ...............................................19
What are your performance objectives? ........................................19
What instructional resources will you use?...................................19
How will you evaluate students’ progress? ....................................20
Designing Instructional Spaces .........................................................20
Examples of Pedagogical Spaces........................................................22
Simulations or Games ..................................................................23
Role Plays ....................................................................................23
Case Studies ................................................................................24
Discussion Groups .......................................................................25
Transcript-Based Assignments .....................................................25
Getting Started ...........................................................................................27
Welcome Students to the Conference ............................................28
Orient your Students to the Course ..............................................29
A Note About Online Etiquette ....................................................................32
How to Conduct an Instructional Analysis ..................................................33
Instructor as Moderator..............................................................................34
Task-oriented activities ................................................................34
Group-building and maintenance activities ..................................34
Be an Online “Coach” ...................................................................35
Getting the best participation ............................................................36
So, you have found yourself with the responsibility of moderating an
online course—congratulations! In all likelihood, you have not had
any such opportunities in your past teaching experience; you may
even be a little intimidated by the prospect. Not to fear! We have
prepared this manual to help you understand and deal with the
unique challenges involved in teaching a course using computer
conferencing. First, we clear up some definitions and explore some of
the literature that points to computer conferencing as being a valid
and valuable choice for teaching and learning. Next, we talk about
the "how-tos" of computer conferencing, and address some of the
obvious and not-so-obvious issues. Finally, we supply you with a
comprehensive bibliography as a resource for further reading in the
We should state that using computer-mediated communications
technology will present most of the challenges of any traditional
teaching and learning context. For example, you will still need to
structure course material in a coherent manner, choose pedagogical
techniques and instructional strategies that best suit the content,
construct valid and fair evaluation tools, etc. However, in addition to
these, a computer conferenced course will add a few other
instructional challenges. For instance, you may have to re-think your
style of teaching and be willing to adopt a new one (e.g., move from a
directive to more facilitative style). Or, given the sheer volume of text-
based communications you and your students will need to read on a
daily basis, you may reconsider the emphasis you place on outside
readings. These, and other challenges, point to the fact that one
cannot approach teaching and learning in an online environment in
exactly the same way one does a face-to-face, classroom-based
Before discussing any of these challenges in further detail, we need to
answer, "Exactly what is computer conferencing?"
What is CMC?
“CMC” is an acronym for “computer-mediated communication.” It is a
term sometimes used interchangeably with “computer-mediated
conferencing,” which just adds to the confusion. Think of CMC as an
“umbrella” term, that includes computer conferencing, but also
includes rudimentary e-mail, listservs, usergroups, and World Wide
Web-based information. CMC would also include connecting with
remote computer systems to carry out some particular task (e.g., via
Telnet) such as accessing remote electronic databases (e.g.,
University of Saskatchewan library holdings). For the purposes of this
manual, we shall restrict ourselves to a discussion of computer
What is Computer Conferencing?
Most of you are likely familiar with some sort of e-mail system.
Computer conferencing (CC) is similar to standard e-mail in the
sense that it uses an electronic messaging system to facilitate
primarily text-based communication between parties separated by
time and/or distance; these communications can be synchronous
(during the same time) or asynchronous (at different times). CC
allows you to communicate to individuals on a one-to-one basis (e.g.,
instructor-to-student) or to communicate to groups of people
simultaneously (e.g., instructor-to-class). More importantly, CC
allows course participants, whether grouped or individual, to
communicate with each other independent of time and place
While the fundamental similarities between e-mail and CC systems
are quite clear, there are more subtle differences that are worth
mentioning. In a CC system, the software allows course designers,
instructors, and participants to easily manipulate various aspects of
the messaging. For example, if you deem it necessary for two or three
people to form a group, and to have clusters of such groups
interacting, it is quite easy, in a contemporary CC system, to set up
electronic "spaces" in which students can "meet" and complete the
work assigned. If you wish to isolate discussion of a specific issue
from more general converstations, it is easy to set up a separate
conference space for that discussion. Most e-mail systems do not
easily allow such organizing and management of the incoming
messages. The CC system may also have other features which may be
useful to the management and general "useability" of the electronic
learning environment (e.g., First Class allows easy following of the
"threads" of a conversation, even though they may not have occuring
in exact sequence). Whatever computer conferencing system is used,
the emphasis must be on elegance and ease of use when it comes to
structuring and maintaining the electronic learning environment.
We need now to turn to the question: "Why use CC in your teaching?"
Why Use Computer Conferencing?
The field of education, especially distance education, has, historically,
been particularly willing to adopt new communications technologies
to the challenges of teaching and learning, in a wide variety of
contexts. For example, it did not take long, relatively speaking, for
television to be adopted as a medium for the delivery of educational
programs. The invention of the computer, and more specifically, the
personal or microcomputer (i.e., PC), soon had educators thinking
about ways in which one could use this powerful technology for
educational purposes. While early attempts were rather dismal (more
like electronic books), the advent of inter-networked computer
communications technology really generated a giant leap forward in
terms of now being able to use the computer to allow students to
communicate with, and learn from, one another.
Following is a brief discussion of some of the reasons why one might
want to use computer conferencing, per se, for teaching and learning.
A Versatile Technology
Computer Conferencing and Distance Education
One of the persistent criticisms of distance education has been that it
often does not include any opportunity for student-to-instructor
interaction. Equally neglected is peer-to-peer interaction, an
extremely valuable part of the learning process. For students learning
at a distance, the use of computer conferencing is particularly
exciting because it creates opportunities for interaction among
students who would normally not easily be in communication with
one another. Through computer conferencing, distance education
students can become a part of an active learning community. They
can dialogue with each other at any time of the day, from the comfort
of their own home, and directly profit from the benefits that such
dialogue contributes to their learning experience. Within such a
setting, a sense of community can be fostered, promoting important
affective ties, thereby meeting learner needs beyond the cognitive
Computer Conferencing and On-Campus Education
In addition to being a powerful medium for distance education,
computer conferencing is also a valuable adjunct to traditional
classroom teaching. For example, using computer conferencing, you
can extend the discussion beyond time and place boundaries of the
regular classroom. Furthermore, Harasim (1995, 1989) and Kaye
(1989) claim that computer conferencing is a powerful and effective
tool in the support of collaborative learning and group projects, both
of which are often viable and important pedagogical methods for
Regardless of whether CC is used in a distance education context or
as an adjunct to a face-to-face class, it should be pointed out that
supplementary media will likely be used. For example, most CC
courses will have a print component, say, a collection of readings and
guidelines for participation. While it is possible to use computer
conferencing as the exclusive mode of delivery, we would agree with
Berge (1995) who claims that the strengths of CC are often not so
compelling if CC is relied upon as the sole delivery method of
Instructional Methods and Strategies
Computer conferencing is a versatile technology in the sense that
many instructional strategies and methods are available. For
instance, you might use CC in conjunction with print-based readings,
videotapes, audioconferences, and face-to-face meetings. Within the
computer conference itself, good software will allow you to construct
many unique learning "spaces." For instance, you may have
conference areas where students can “socialize,” that is, they can
send messages to each other in the context of a social space. You
could have spaces where students find answers to frequently asked
questions (FAQs), spaces where they can get help regarding the
online experience. Finally, you can have many different pedagogical
spaces, namely, conferences and sub-conferences wherein
participants actually do their online work. Within these pedagogical
spaces all sort of activities can take place. For instance, you might
have a group of students working on a collective and/or shared
document. You might have participants discuss particular topics in
an open forum or within the confines of smaller groups. Online
students can prepare reports, to be discussed and evaluated by fellow
class members. In addition to these, Henri (1988) states that many
other educational applications of CMC can be imagined, such as: a)
replying to queries and requests from students, b) providing advice
and guidance, c) helping students to solve problems with regard to
the subject matter, d) serving as a transmission medium for
homework and test papers, e) discussing projects and work with the
tutor, f) bringing students together in accordance with their interests
and their needs, and g) encouraging team projects and setting up
self-help groups. The point is that a wide variety of learning activities
can be conducted online, more than one might at first realize. In fact,
with a little bit of imagination, many of the activities in an active
learning classroom may be adapted to CC.
An Interactive Technology
The importance of the opportunity to facilitate interaction among
learners, in a context that does not impose time and/or space
contraints, cannot be overstated. Nalley (1994) claims that students
who have easy access to their instructors and to each other will also
have access to continued opportunities for intellectual growth. Nalley
goes on to state, and we would concur, that it is precisely the
opportunity to gather with other students, to discuss, and to
construct meaning from their experiences that leads to the creation of
what we would call a "community of scholars"; this interaction may
be as important as class attendance itself!
In a CC-based course discussion, there seems to be a higher level of
equity of participation. In other words, unlike the face-to-face
classroom situation, more “vocal” students do not get to dominate the
discussion; also, the more reflective, perhaps shy or quiet students
have the time needed for reflection before responding and benefit
from the relative anonymity of the CC class. This is not to say that
verbosity cannot still be a problem—certain students will still feel it
necessary to post their entire thesis on what's wrong with the world
in one, long message! The wise CC facilitator will, therefore, set out
guidelines regarding posting frequency, message length, etc. to
ensure a fair and equitable "playing field" for all involved.
An interactive learning environment such as CC can lead to a better
comprehension of content. As Riedle (1989) claims, "....the instructor
can participate with the student in the interchanges, gaining valuable
insight into the students’ comprehension of the course content and
provide further guidance, stimulations, or correction as needed. The
distance education class becomes a much richer environment for the
student as a result. The students can actually come to feel a part of a
group learning effort.”
Following are some CC-based instructional methods and
characteristics of the medium that we feel emphasize opportunities
for increased interaction.
Open-forum class discussions give students the opportunity to
exchange ideas and to discuss their own experiences, as they relate
to the content, within the context of the whole online class. With
other class members, individuals clarify their understanding of
course content as they exchange interpretations of course materials,
earlier messages, instructor postings, etc. As mentioned, class
discussions also help instructors understand how well students have
understood course material and help to identify where they are
having difficulties. Importantly, students at a distance can add
“discussion with other learners” to their repretoire of strategies for
learning course content.
Collaborative/Co-operative Learning Groups
Harasim (1995, 1989) stresses the value of computer conferencing to
support collaborative learning and group projects. The opportunity to
engage in collaborative and/or cooperative projects is greatly
enhanced for both distance learners and campus-based learners,
partially because computer conferencing is time and place
independent; learners can work on-line when it is most convenient
for them and do not need to spend precious time scheduling and
travelling to face-to-face meetings. Also, because the "space" in which
group work is to be conducted is always available, participants have
a sense of continuity and the collaborative project is not so "piece-
meal" as it might be if people were required to get together for face-to-
face meetings. Finally, certain CC tools (e.g., being able to create an
"interactive document") allow participants to conduct group work in
entirely novel ways.
The construction of complex knowledge almost always takes place
within a social mileu. Harasim (1990) argues that computer
conferencing facilitates the building of knowledge through the
generation, linking, and structuring of ideas within the context of an
online community of learners. Teles (1993) suggests that the social
learning activity can occur in the form of “coaching or help offered by
people who know the target skill (masters or experts) or are in the
process of learning (peers) .” (p. 272-73). While Teles's approach to
on-line knowledge building is a cognitive apprenticeship approach,
where content is mastered through the mentorship of an expert, peer
critique, advice, and encouragement, most applications of computer
conferencing take advantage of the asynchronicity of the
communication, giving learners time to research and reflect before
responding to issues raised by the instructor or peers. The previously
mentioned emphasis on CC as an environment which can facilitate
collaborative learning points to opportunities for collective
knowledge-building activities among a "community of learners."
Access to Instructor
While interaction between peers has been emphasized as a primary
strength of CC, equally important is learner opportunity to interact
with their instrucutor in meaningful ways. Distance education
students especially benefit from increased access to their instructor,
as often their only connection in traditional distance education
courses is by means of written correspondence or infrequent
telelphone calls. Interestingly, despite greater opportunities for access
to instructors than their distance counterparts, on-campus students
also appreciate the way in which computer conferencing facilitates
instructor contact; in our own research (Cram & Peterson, 1996), on-
campus students indicated that they were more comfortable
contacting their instructor by computer conferencing than by
telephone or in person because the on-line contact seemed less
Regardless of instructional setting, access to the instructor,
facilitated by the characteristics of computer conferencing, translates
into more opportunities for students to interact with their instructors.
This may span the range from asking basic administrative questions
to in-depth dialogue around a pertinent, perhaps controversial, piece
of content. You should be prepared for more, rather than less,
interaction with your students; if this is disconcerting, the upside is
you can respond at a time that is convenient to your time schedule.
Be aware, however, that student expectations for timely responses to
queries is increased; as in your personal work, you cannot claim "I
didn't get your message." You are always "in” your office.
First Things First—You
Before we move on to a discussion focussed on how to design an
online course, it is important to spend a bit of time looking at the
roles and responsibilities of the online instructor. As in the face-to-
face setting, the quality of learning will be strongly influenced by the
goals and values of the instructor, even when great pains have been
taken to optimize the overall course design.
Your views on teaching and learning...
No matter how hard we try, we cannot separate our philosophical
views concerning teaching and learning from our tendencies of
practice. As an instructor, you will invariably harbour certain beliefs,
values, and goals as central to what you think teaching and learning
is all about. For example, your beliefs about what the purposes of
education are, will, in all likelihood, influence your propensity to
choose certain instructional strategies over others (e.g., using formal
essays rather than reflective narrative to evaluate student learning).
Personal biases regarding teaching and learning are inevitable, are
part of being human and, therefore, cannot be avoided; your beliefs,
values and biases must, however, be made conscious and, ideally,
articulated if you are to understand why you make the pedagogical
decisions you do. It is important that you understand, and make
clear to your students, your views on what you think is important,
who is responsible for what, standards of performance, etc.
If you haven't done so already, take some time now to articulate your
views on teaching and learning. Be as honest as possible, being
careful not to respond as you think you ought to but rather as you
really feel. The following questions may provide some guidance.
What do you believe the role of education is today? How do you
think it has changed in the last ten years? How do you think
it will change in the next ten years?
What is the role of the educator, teacher, trainer, facilitator,
moderator, etc. in the teaching and learning context? What
role description would you give yourself for this course?
Where does your particular course fit in, overall, in the
education of your participants? Why do students need to take
your course? What is the value of your course?
What responsiblities do you have to your students? What
responsibilities do they have toward each other and toward
How should students be tested regarding their learning? What
methods do you think work best, especially given particular
Do you think teaching online will be qualitatively different from
teaching in the face-to-face classroom? If so, how?
It would be unfair to ask you, the instructor, to articulate your views
on teaching and learning without at least some input from we, the
authors. What follows is a discussion of only one topic, namely the
role of the instructor as moderator, that identifies not only what we
believe that role is all about but also operationalizes, in part, what we
think of as "best practices" using CC technology for teaching and
Note: some of the discussion that follows has been adapted, with
permission, from a handbook for online instructors published by
Massey University, 1995.
Online Course Instructor as Moderator
For some, the very idea of the course instructor being charged with
the role of “moderator” is antithetical to what they believe teaching at
a university is all about; they would see the univeristy instructor as a
figure of knowledge-authority and teaching would be operationalized,
exclusively, by the lecture method. Teaching a course online is,
indeed, qualitatively quite different from most face-to-face,
classroom-based experiences. For example, in CC courses, the focus
is on discussion and group work, not on the instructor. In fact, to be
most helpful as a facilitator of learning, within a context of dialogue,
the CC instuctor needs to develop the skills of an effective moderator.
The role, then, is to maintain content focus, encourage lively
discussion, and maintain group cohesiveness. In other words, the
moderator’s role is crucial to the smooth-running of the conference
and will directly effect the quality of learning experienced by the
Romiszowski and de Haas, (1989, p.?) describe the various
responsibilities a conference moderator might have:
“To assure input of the participants, an active group leadership is
necessary. This leader or moderator must be the host, setting a
congenial, non-threatening climate, thanking people for their
contributions, and stimulating them to react (again). But next to this
he or she has to be a “chairperson”: summarize the discussion, ask
for clarifications, create unity, and watch the theme from drifting off
track. And last but not least, the leader has to maintain the bunch of
participants as a group. Group maintenance includes such duties as
mediating differences that become obstructive and making comments
pertaining to the group’s progress.”
Davie (1989) describes the moderator’s role in terms of task-oriented
activities, and group-building and maintenance activities. We would
add a third, namely, a “coaching” role. Following is a brief description
of these activities. Please remember that each course will have its
own mix and relative emphases of these activities.
These tasks act to facilitate and coordinate group effort—helping the
group to select and define common problems, then find a solution to
those problems. Specific strategies include:
Setting direction and pace of discussion.
The moderator works to ensure the discussion topics coincide
with course topics. You might take on the role of a “chairperson,”
formally opening and closing items of discussion. You might also
use leading questions as a means for setting and maintaining
Keeping to the theme and focussing efforts.
A key role for the course moderator is to provide a focus for
discussion. It is especially easy to drift away from the main theme
up for discussion if your online group is very active; new topics or
tangents may be introduced which stimulate contributions but
are of little direct relevance. There is little benefit to students for a
discussion to wander aimlessly and so they need a key person to
provide focus/refocussing whenever the discussion gets off track.
You may also focus student effort by providing timely and
pertinent feedback to students, for example, suggesting they take
a deeper look into a particular topics under discussion.
There is a bit of a dilemma here, however. As moderator, you need
to be careful and cognizant of the possibility that you may, by
your manipulations, stifle discussion that is tangential to the
main topic but may be nonetheless fruitful. The challenge is to
maintain a balance between too much and too little control over
the flow and development of discussion. A handy solution is to
move what appear to be distracting side-topics into separate (and
optional) discussion spaces; these do not, then, interfere with the
main discussion but you are not shutting down all discussion on
A useful function for the moderator is to provide frequent
summaries of the ongoing discussion. Especially in an active
discussion, many different issues and viewpoints will get raised
and students may not be able to keep track of all key ideas. Also,
the sheer volume of messages generated in an active conference
can be overwhelming to deal with. Moderators can help by
providing summaries of what has been said, outlining the main
points and drawing main discussion themes together.
Often the conferencing software will automate the capturing of
conversational “threads” but you will still have to make decisions
about what is pertinent, poignant, and powerful enough to make
it into your summary. This might lead to problems regarding the
perceived “favouring” of particularly active and/or high quality
contributors. It is important, therefore, to follow Davies’ (1989)
advice to “weave” the comments together, drawing in themes,
particular notes, and your own commentaries, notes, and
Being a “Coach”
Another way to think about the moderator’s role is to think of it
as a type of “coaching” role. You are pushing students, sometimes
explictly, to explore issues and provide their own answers to the
questions arising from the course content. Rather than doing all
the work for them and supplying all the answers, the moderator-
as-coach encourages meaningful discussion among students—
which means making them feel comfortable and relaxed enough
to participate. To do this, the moderator operates from the
sidelines—prompting students, encouraging them, and
“shepherding” them to stay on track.
The point is that the moderator-as-coach is different from a
traditional teaching role where the teacher is “centre stage.” While
having authority, the onine moderator avoids adopting the
authority figure role (McMann, 1994). This is important to make
clear to students because many may not be sufficiently confident
about their own views and interpretations to put them online for
scrutiny from a perceived authority figure—having anxieties that
their comments might not appear sufficiently scholarly or
sophisticated. This problem is avoided by the moderator acting as
a non-judgmental facilitator or “coach,” and adopting a policy
that all (non-disruptive) comments from the class are welcome.
Just as in face-to-face contexts, the “coaching” role is active, not
passive and will require a vigilant involvement with the “goings
on” of the course.
“The facilitator needs to pay careful attention to....reinforcing early
attempts to communicate. In the first few weeks I made sure that
my notes in the conference specifically reference prior student
notes. I send many individual messages to students commenting
on their contribution, suggesting links to other students, suggesting
resources, and generally reaching out to students. The coaching
function is key to easing the students’ transition to computer-
mediated communication.” (Davie, 1989)
Getting the class to work for themselves rather than for you.
Instead of simply answering every question and thereby
controlling the conference, the online moderator takes a different
tack—encourage class members to work and think for
themselves. For instance, you may choose to direct some
questions back to the class as a means to encourage others to
make comments, observations, and interpretations. Your job is to
get the class thinking, explore the course content, help each
other, and answer each others’ questions. This ultimately means
you need to let go of any desire to control the class or be
perceived as the source of all knowledge and authority regarding
course content. Rather, your role is to ensure an environment in
which students can learn for themselves, can push themselves to
their current limits, and beyond. This can only happen if you
have the appropriate attitude and you design the course to make
these things happen.
Group-Building and Maintenance Activities
One of the most imporant tasks the online moderator has is that of
developing and maintaining the group function. After all, that is one
of the main points of using this technology in the first place. Your
interventions (or lack thereof) will influence the way the online group
works. You will need to strengthen, regulate, and perpetuate the
group to function in a way conducive to a healthy and productive
online learning environment. Following are a number of things you
can do to help make this happen.
Setting the learning climate.
As the discussion “conveyor,” the conference “host,” etc., the
moderator sets the climate for group. Initially, the aim is to make
students feel at ease with using the technology and enable them
to participate effectively. Once everyone is “fairly comfortable wtih
the technology, the conference climate should be supportive and
conducive to ongoing discussion. You can help to ensure this
climate by clearly communicating the aims of the particular
discussion (e.g., a “free-for-all,” to a formal response from one
group to another). It is also critical that you make clear any
conference standards and protocols which students should know
about. For example, you may want them to specifically address
the message to which they are responding, refrain from aggressive
language, or keep their messages to a specified length.
Providing guidance and leadership.
The moderator provides a group leadership role, giving guidance
and direction where and when needed. He or she also sets an
appropriate model for other students to follow, in the tone and
outline of their messages. Following is one author’s description of
his role in modeling online behavour:
“In addition to attempts to make students welcome, I make sure
that I model expected behaviour in the main conference. I make my
contributions short (one or two screens), I try to avoid fancy
formatting of my responses....I try to ease the publishing anxiety by
providing direct feedback to other contributors, ignoring questions
of grammar, spelling, or format.” (Davie, 1989)
Sometimes students need to be provided assistance to make sure
they are on track and have a good grasp of course concepts. Also,
especially with group work, there may be occasional need to
coordinate students’ activities (e.g., suggest timelines/schedules
for group task completion).
Getting the appropriate level of participation.
Getting students to participate is a big part of the moderator’s
role because without participation there is no discussion; without
discussion, there is no conference. Moderators may prompt and
encourage students to participate by posting leading questions
into the discussion group, or by working behind the scenes to get
students to air their thoughts (i.e., send private email messages
to individuals, prompting them to respond or pose a question to
the group). Nalley, 1989 states, “In a CMC discussion it is
possible to prompt a student to comment without the larger
group being aware of the personal exchange. After a prompt or
two, most students will respond. Having done so, the student can
be easily drawn into the discussion.” Finally, once students are
participating, it is important that you provide them with positive
feedback and encouragement, stimulating them to respond again.
In addition to online prompts and encouragements, you can also
encourage participation by making it a requirement of the course,
or at least a factor included in course assessment. While some
may initially feel this tactic is somewhat coercive, remember that
participation, meaning actively contributing to the online
discourse, is the central activity of a computer conference; it is
therefore entirely reasonable to attach a small percentage of
grades to participation.
A handy idea is to get the group, in the initial stages of the
course, to come up with their own standards of acceptible online
behaviour; then, it may simply be a matter of reminding people of
the rules they all agreed to follow. Occasionally, however, the
moderator may need to step in and help resolve disputes or
disagreements between group members, to act as a mediator
between individuals who are just not getting along. As in the
classroom, it is often difficult to judge accurately what has
potential for damage and what is simply a healthy disagreement;
challenge and critical appraisal of one’s ideas need not be viewed
as negative (in fact, these events can be powerful learning
experiences). Also, everyone cannot be expected to “like” everyone
else, in the classroom or online. However, as a moderator, it is
your responsibility to maintain an environment of respect and
safety. It is important to ensure that any disputes do not interfere
with class activities and that disagreements, regardless of how
heated, do not degenerate into personal attacks (i.e., move from a
challenge of the idea into an attack of the character). If you think
things are getting out of hand, a personal email to the disputing
parties, firmly stating your expectations for online behaviour, is in
order. Regardless of what techniques you use, resolving disputes
is a tricky but necessary responsibility of the online moderator.
It should be clear that it is important for you to consider the specific
tasks you will require your on-line participants to complete; it should
be equally obvious that a great deal of effort is required to develop
and maintain an effectively functioning on-line group. We turn now to
how you can design your online course to make all this happen.
Designing Your On-line Course
Course Design Principles
Following the principles of good course design is crucial to any
quality learning experience and the development of your on-line
course will be no different. Even though you will likely be interacting
more with your learners, this does not mean you can ignore the
processes involved in instructional design; they will guide the
development of your computer conferencing course and its
instructional spaces. Before plunging into designing the on-line
activities, take time to consider your overall course design. For
example, make sure you have established clear goals and objectives
for your course, have chosen appropriate resources, texts, and
learning activities, and thought through all components and activities
as they relate to one another. Following are a few basic instructional
design questions you need to answer before you get started.
Who is the learner?
Who is the average student taking your course (e.g., year of study,
pre-requisites, etc.)? What are their present skills, competencies, and
attitudes toward the course content and toward learning online?
What is the context in which they will learn the skills and how will
they use the knowledge presented?
Regarding the specifics of the online learning environment, Mercer
(1994) adds the following factors that also need consideration:
• Time available per week
How much time do you expect students to set aside for the
course? For the assignments? How much time will you expect
them to spend in on-line discussion? Are your expectations
reasonable in light of their other course/work/personal
• Rate of assimilation
Can students reasonably assimilate the amount of content you
are expecting them to learn or will their learning amount to
“surface” learning because you have overwhelmed them with
the sheer volume of material to be learned? What kind of
practical exercises, discussion, and group work can you build
into your course to help students learn the content and
integrate it into their own knowledge base?
• Readiness to take to new methods and ideas.
Is your content at odds with existing understandings of many
students? If so, expect some resistance from your students.
What is your students level of comfort with computers and on-
line learning activities? You may need to move slowly at first so
your students do not become overly frustrated with their lack of
competence in using the technology.
What are your instructional goals?
The first step you will take is to determine and analyze the aim or
purpose for the course. What are the goals of instruction, and can
you define these as broad outcomes?
Once you have identified the overall purpose of the course, you will
want to analyze the instructional goal(s) by writing down what it is
that students will actally do to demonstrate that they have achieved
the goals of instruction. Don’t be tempted to rush through this
process—it involves identifying all the major steps required to reach
the goals; further analyzing these steps, to determine the sub-steps
involved, will, in turn, lead to the development of learning objectives.
As an alternative to the above sequence, consider whether there is
enough flexibility to allow the students themselves at least some
opportunity to develop, articulate, and pursue their own learning
goals. If so, you will still need to “lead” your participants in terms of
identifying a process by which they can identify and prioritize their
learning goals; you will also need to negotiate how they will satisfy
the need to evaluate their performance in the course.
What are your learning objectives?
As mentioned above, the learning objectives are based on a thorough
instructional analysis. After you have determined the goals for the
course, your next step is to construct specific learning objectives and
determine the kind of activities necessary to achieve those objectives.
The term “learning objectives” here simply refers to what the student
will be required to do to demonstrate whatever it is you have deemed
critical in your overall goals of the course. To put it another way, how
will you know that students have, in fact, achieved what you had
hoped they would? It is obvious that some objectives will be more
difficult to articulate than others (e.g., attitude change vs. content
knowledge) but it is important that you state “up front,” as clearly as
possible, the expectations you have for ideal performance in the
What instructional resources will you use?
It is critical that you identify, early on, what instructional resources
you will need for students to complete the course. Anything from
article reprints to visual media needs to be included. It is important
to emphasize that you need to take special care in determining what
can be left out, as well as what needs to be included. Remember: the
sheer volume of reading students will be expected to do for an online
course is often neglected in the “tally” of instructional resources
required. Again, decide what is absolutely necessary to include and
then evaluate each subsequent resource as to whether it is adding
anything of significance or not. If not, eliminate it now.
How will you evaluate students’ progress?
This stage in the design process is obviously tied to setting out the
instructional goals and specific performance objectives for the course.
In fact, it often preceeds these as a guarantee that the evaluation
criteria will guide the development of the course. A careful
examination of the validity of your evaluation tools to measure what
they proport to be measuring is a good starting point and may result
in entirely new methods being chosen for the online class. For
example, the standard essay, mid-term, and final examination,
perhaps useful in lecture-style classes, may not be an appropriate set
of evaluation methods for a class in which discussion forms the
entire basis for the course.
It is only fair and reasonable to inform students of the forms and
level of evaluation that you will use. For example, if you will evaluate
students on their levels of participation, they need to have a clear
articulation as to what this actually means (e.g., quantity, quality,
etc.). Clarifying and Integrating well-thought out evaluation methods
with your instructional objectives and methods, can go a long way to
ensuring a valuable learning experience for your students.
Designing Instructional Spaces
By now it should be clear that we are arguing for a learner-centred
rather than teacher-centred approach to teaching and learning in the
online environment. We have claimed that the strength of computer
conferencing lay in its ability to foster meaningful discussion among
participants who may be separated by time and/or distance. These
discussions take place, however, within electronic “spaces” that may
vary from a general open forum among many members to a simple
dyad. Harasim (1995) claims: “Computer conferences are ‘spaces’
that require shaping, structuring, and topical sequencing to form an
environmnent.” (p. 16).
Regardless of the specific configuration (i.e., large group, small group,
etc.), designing online learning spaces requires one to think carefully
about what will actually take place within these spaces. For instance,
it is important to consider how you can best design the space so as to
acomplish the goals and objectives set you have set for the
instruction. For example, if competency in the critical analysis of
another’s written work is a goal you have for the course, you had
better set up a conference space that allows students to practice that
skill. Another example might be that you want to keep discussion
focussed on particular topic areas and move students through a
variety of content rather quickly, in which case you would likely open
conference spaces for a specified time only; you would close
conferences after their alloted time was up. In other words, the way
you design your instructional space will reflect the objectives you
have for your course. Ideally, during your instructional design
process, you will have already identified the activities you believe will
assist students in accomplishing the goals for the course and the
specific learning objectives identified.
Before you get started with designing specific online learning spaces,
you need to answer the following questions:
In this course....
What is the strength of CC for the particular learning
What are the best teaching applications for CC?
How will CC be used in this course?
• Is the CC component mandatory or optional?
• Is CC the primary teaching method or an adjunct (the main
body of instruction is delivered by other media)?
• Will CC primarily be used to facilitate discussion or will it
be used more for collaborative learning?
• Will CC be used to complete and transmit assignments?
Remember, how you intend to use the technology to accomplish your
objectives is of primary importance in setting up instructional space.
Examples of Pedagogical Spaces
Paulsen (1995) reviews a number of possible approaches to using CC
for pedagogical purposes. Paulsen has done a good job of collecting,
from the literature, a wide variety of online pedagogical techniques
into three main categories, namely one-alone techniques (the online
resource paradigm), the one-to-one techniques (the e-mail paradigm),
and the many-to-many techniques (the conferencing paradigm). His
third category, “many-to-many techniques” will be our main focus
here because it is the most common application of educational CC
and it presumes all participants have the opportunity to take part in
dicussion-based interaction. (For detailed information regarding the
other two categories, see the copy of Pauslen’s paper included in the
Appendix). Following is a brief description of some techniques that
could be part of your online course.
Debates can be used in your CC course as a way of clarifying an
issue from at least two opposing perspectives. The idea is that two,
four (or more) debators argue, within the confines of a particular time
period and in a structured, somewhat formal format (Seaman and
Fellenz,1989; Knox,1987). The debate is more than a discussion in
the sense that the issue is clearly identified, sides are taken and each
side presents its case to the other for scrutiny and critique. You may
not wish to declare a “winner” of the debate but rather to use the
debate as a kick off into a deeper discussion of the issue/s raised.
See Clark (1992a, 58) in the Paulsen article for useful guidelines for
an electronic debate with regard to participation, preparation,
coordination, and evaluation.
Simulations or Games
Simulations or games are generally conceived as something developed
for stand-alone CD-ROM applications. While this is most often the
case, there is no reason to restrict ourselves to that medium only.
Knox 1987 explains, for example, that simulation can be explained as
"imitation of interpersonal or other dynamics, often using materials
and roles, to help participants feel as well as understand the
dynamics of a complex situation." (p. 89) Given the emphasis on
interpersonal communications in CC, it seems a reasonable
candidate for an educational simulation or gaming application. (See
Hiltz and Turoff’s discussion of simulation and CMC, as well as some
examples of gaming applied to a variety of educational settings in the
It is our feeling that this technique holds much promise for
interesting, exciting, and “real-world” applications of CC technology
but that it is underused. We would encourage you to think of ways
you can take advantage of the characterisitics of the CC to use
simulation and gaming in your teaching.
Similar to gaming and simulation in the sense that the above often
require players to take on “pesona” to participate effectively in the
games, role plays focus attention on the situation and the actors
playing the various roles. The situations are often dramatic or at least
illustrative of the various perspectives at play in complex, social
scenarios. Structured role play are ususally based on a case study,
where many details about the situation are explicated; spontaneous
role plays, on the other hand, are often based on “impromptu”
experiences used to illustrate a point of process."
Role playing can have a significant effect on students’ perceptions of
alternate roles, their ability to empathize, their willingness to analyze
an issue from an alternative perspective, and can help them organize
the pertinent concepts, ideas, issues, etc. as they prepare for the role
play. For a description of some applications of role plays in a CC
environment, see Paulsen’s paper.
Hiltz and Turoff (1989) claim that the role playing could probably be
done more realistically through the computer than in some of the
face-to-face acting games used, especially if the student were not able
to tell which of the other players were students, faculty, or real-life
jobholders playing at their convenience from their own terminals.
Also, students who would normally be quite reticent to participate in
a role play, where you had to get up in front of your classmates and
act it out, may enthusiastically participate in a role play conducted
Again, the debriefing opportunities offer many advantages for further
exploration of the issue, topic, content, etc. under discussion.
Case studies are increasingly being used to assist students in
practicing problem-solving and decision-making procedures in a
“real-world” context. Often presented as stories, filled with fictitious
characters acting out a script of tenable events, students are usually
required to bring some analysis to bear on determining what went
wrong (or, less often, right). An important point is that the case is a
description of a real and relevant situation that is complex enough to
warrant analysis (Seaman and Fellenz 1989, 111). Typically, the case
is presented, along with the parameters for analysis (e.g., analyse
what management decisions led to the demise of company X), and an
opportunity for discussion if afforded. The case study is a useful
technique to apply to a group learning situation; a team can be
assigned to solve a case and report to the rest of the class for
The case study approach is one which emphasizes an investigative
attitude and holds much promise for developing skills of analysis and
problem-solving. The instructor’s role is important and should be
that of an advisor, guide, and case adminstrator. Again, this in an
online technique in need of further investigation.
By far the most utilized online pedagogical technique, the discussion
usually entails exchanging ideas of shared interest between
participants in a group setting. Online discussions may take place
within the large group forum (i.e., the entire class participates),
discussions may take place in the smaller sub-groups to the
exclusion of other conference participants; groups may be
implemented as buzz groups, expanding groups, and colloquies.
(Paulsen, 1996) Almost any variety of face-to-face group work can be
constructed in the online environment—it just may take a little more
Any configuration of discussion groups can be created by
establishing separate conference “spaces” in which the group is to
conduct business. In the FirstClass conferencing software, it is
possible to assign permissions to group members so participants can
establish these groups themselves. Regardless of the group
configuration used, make certain the purposes, expectations, and
requirements for group work are made explicit. Your role may quickly
shift to one of facilitator, coordinator, and administrator once the
groups get active and are working well as independent groups.
In terms of your facilitation of online groups, many of the things you
would do in a face-to-face context work equally well online. For
instance, you will need to “help people get started, give them
feedback, summarize, weave the contributions of different folks
together, get it un-stuck 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 next.... (Further, the facilitator needs
to) communicate with the group as a whole, sub-groups, and
individuals to encourage participation.”(Carlson 1989, 6.11) For a
detailed look at how one can structure group activities online, see
Any and all communictations mediated by the computer conferencing
software can be “captured” and converted into a ready-to-use
transcipt. This record of the course interactions can be used for
several pedagogical purposes. For example, Davie and Wells (1991)
suggested the following three types of transcript-based assignments
to promote student reflection:
“[First,] students might be required to retrieve all the comments they
authored during the course. The assignment could then ask the
students to reflect on their contributions and provide a statement of
the overall framework or perspective embodied in them.
A second possibility is to ask students to pull together all the
comments related to a particular topic and to write an essay
discussing which comments they agree with and why or to critique
the comments from the perspective of a particular theory.
A third possibility is concerned with improving the student's analytic
and writing skills. Too often, students write to please the teacher.
This contribution is graded and then ignored by both parties.
Instead of this dead end process, students can be asked to retrieve
an earlier note or assignment and rewrite the work either to make it
more effective, or to reflect the current state of learning. This kind of
recursive learning can help the student to build skills in a way that
is simply not feasible in the face-to-face classroom.” (p.21)
A unique strength of the medium is that course transcripts can also
be used for next cohort learning. We believe that this strategy gives
rise to a sense that the participants are “creating” their own base of
knowledge and that at least certain parts are valuable enough to be
used as “content” with subsequent learners.
Other techniques such as brainstormings, delphi techniques,
nominal group techniques, forums, and project groups are described
in Paulsen’s paper and you are encouraged to review them.
Other Important Conference Spaces
We need to mention the importance of setting up three additional
spaces that, perhaps, have less to do with pedagogy but will go a long
way to helping you run a good conference. These include
adminstrative, technical, and social spaces and are described below.
First, you need to set up a space for students to get all the
information they need to succeed in the course. Here is where you
would place instructions for accessing the various conference space,
including the rationale for these spaces; this would also be where
students could find out what the evaluation expectations were for the
course, including descriptions of the assignments, due dates,
examples, etc. Finally, students would find all information regarding
general course adminstration in this location. This space can be used
as a “bulleting board” to post changes or information pertinent to the
Second, you need to set up a separate space for dealing with
technical problems (which will inevitably come). In addition to any
“hotline” you might have set up (i.e., access to a technical help
person), you can include a “frequently asked questions” area, an
archive, if you will, of technical questions of a general nature that
have already been answered; this will greatly ease the number of
identical questions being posted your way when people are having
trouble with a basic problem. Many times, a few students are very
sophisticated in their computer and communications knowledge and
you should encourage these students to help others rather than
entirely taking on this burden yourself; this also helps in building
group cohesiveness (Hiltz, 1994).
The third space you will need to set up is a “cafe,” “lounge,” that acts
as a social space wherein students can discuss other things that
have nothing to do with the course. It is basically a space that is
theirs, a space for them to share ideas, swap stories, tell jokes, etc.,
just like they would if they had the opportunity to meet face-to-face
at a coffee shop. This space is not trivial in the sense that it is
necessary for people to get to know each other in ways that are not so
academic in nature. In addition, such spaces may assist group
forming and maintenance needs. Besides, if you set it up right, it
might act as a place in which they can talk about what a great
instructor you are!
At the beginning of any course, it always seems there is so much
content to cover and so little time (but if you have done a good job of
instructional design, this will be reduced). As an instructor, you will
be anxious to get on with the course, as will your students. It is
critical, however, that you understand the importance of group
dynamics for the computer conference. (McDonald, 1996). As
moderator, you can aid group development by allowing adequate time
and opportunity for group building and group maintenance activities.
Building a cohesive and functional group will pay dividends in
making the computer conference an effective learning environment.
That said, you will need to consciously avoid the temptation to
“plunge right in” and, instead, plan to incorporate some “low-key”
introductory exercises during the first week of your conference. These
exercises should be non-threatening and will help students become
familiar with the technology as well as help them become part of a
learning community. Keep the exercises simple so that students learn
about the technology in a relaxed atmosphere. Following are some
ideas for introductory exercises that will provide some hands-on
activity with the conferencing system and also help your students
become a group. But don’t limit yourself to these. With a little bit of
ingenuity, you will probably figure out ways to adapt a wide variety of
“ice-breaker” activities to the computer conference environment.
Welcome S tudents to the Conference
Send a welcoming message to your students.
Address an individualized welcome note to each participant and have
this waiting for them when they first sign on. In your welcome note,
ask the participant to send you a message back describing their
experience in getting on-line. This exercise gives participants some
simple practice in using the system and it also lets you know which
students are on-line and the nature of any technical problems
encountered. Be sure and contact any “no-shows” to ensure they are
not having technical difficulties. (See Appendix ??? for an example of
a welcoming letter.
Create a “Self-Introductions”conference.
Create a document within this conference giving your students step-
by-step instructions for introducing themselves to the conference,
asking them to include some personal information about themselves.
You might ask them to state their learning goals for the class.
Alternatively, you might ask students to interview another person in
the class (you pair students) and “introduce” that person to the
In your welcoming letter, instruct your students to open the “Self-
Introductions” conference and open the document for further
instructions. Obviously, you will need to introduce yourself to the
conference, as well. Include some personal information about
yourself so that students get to know you as a person, and not just
as “the instructor.” Use your intoduction as a model for your
Orient your S tudents to the Course
Get to the important stuff fast....
Soon into the conference, have students access a folder, or
conference space, in which you have placed all the course
requirements, expectations, timetables, assignment descriptions, etc.
(e.g., perhaps in the “course adminstration” folder). This will help
alleviate any anxiety about what will be expected and students can
access this “crucial” information at their leisure. Within this space, it
is also important to include a document outlining online behaviour or
“netiquette” expectations; it is useful to have a short discussion
about these necessary “rules” of online behaviour before getting too
far along in the conference.
You will need to give your students an introduction to the course,
specifically focussing on the structure and scope of the content, as
well as the overall goals you have for the course. Here, also, is a good
opportunity to talk about information management suggestions you
might have; for example, you might tell students to check the
conference daily and to post at least two notes per week but not more
than eight (excluding “cafe” notes).
This guide has presented some important topics, ideas, and
suggestions for your consideration as you begin to design your on-
line course. It cannot, however, guarantee a successful course. The
quality of the course and its content is still, as always, up to you, the
Here is an example of a welcoming letter to be posted from you to
each student personally.
Dear “student X”:
Welcome to Using CMC in Your Teaching and Learning 899.3!
I am a faculty member here at the University of Saskatchewan in the
department of XYZ. I have lived in Saskatoon for X years now with
my wife and 14 children. When I am not busy with this course, I like
to go for long hikes along the river.
I am looking forward to working with you and your classmates over
the next few months, and hope to expand my knowledge of how
computer-mediated communication can be used for teaching and
learning. My experience has been that learning online can be a
greatly rewarding experience. There may be times when you will be
frustrated with the workload (make no mistake—this course is
intense!) but the vast majority of students love learning this way.
Finally, if you are having any problems, please let me know as soon
as possible. If you delay, you risk getting falling behind. Use private
email, the telephone, or, if possible, drop by my office to discuss any
questions or concerns.
A Note About Online Etiquette
An example outlining expections for online behaviours.
Just as in face-to-face communication, certainly in the classroom,
there are “ground rules” that everyone must adhere to if this online
experience is to be rewarding and safe. They are as follows:No cursing
or swearing, and no telling off color jokes (humour is Ok, just make
sure it is appropriate).
No personal put-downs in response to statements with which you
disagree. Remember, it is quite OK to vehemently disagree with an
idea; it is not OK to attack, on a pesonal level, the individual
putting forward that idea. If there is a possibility your message
might be mis-interpreted, use “emoticons” to clarify your intent.
Do not post message longer than three screens long. If you have to go
on, send a second message; alternatively, review your message to
see if it could not be edited to be more succinct.
Follow the guidelines for the minimum and maximum number of
messages you can send per week; sending more than “your fair
share” is similar to constantly “taking the floor” in a face-to-face
Finally, it should be noted that there is no dress code, so you may
“attend” class in your jammies and slippers, if you so choose. ;-)
How to Conduct an Instructional
Involves outlining activities and exercises for course (see page 15 of
Instructor as Moderator
“A class conference is an exchange of ideas and information. As with
any group discussion, the moderator or leader needs to engage in
several kinds of behavior that will facilitate the group’s partiocipation
and productive collaboration” (Hilz, 1994, p. 101)
Mason (1991) suggests that “the role of online tutor [instructor] ...
combines elements of teacher, chairman, host, facilitator, and
Mercer (1994) defines three tasks for the moderator:
a) Task-oriented activities
b) Group-building and maintenance activities
Task-orient ed activities
1. Introduce the discussion topic. Relate the discussion topic to
readings and other course materials.
2. Clearly stating the issue or question of discussion. The instructor
should also keep the discussion in focus.
3. Use probing techniques to get students to expand or build upon
comments, whether they be their own or others’ comments.
4. If necessary, resolve contradictions or fill-in gaps in student
5. Provide summaries of the discussion. You might provide the
summary yourself or, in some instances, you might ask students
to submit a summary. The summary should highlight the themes
that emerge, link them to the course readings.
6. Conclude the discussion by stressing the crucial points of the
Group-building and maintenance activities
1. Be responsive!
2. Set a climate that is supportive and conducive to discussion. A
welcoming message and group-building exercises as explained in
the section on group formation can go along way in setting a
3. Clearly explain conference standards and protocols for
4. Provide group leadership. At the beginning, group leadership and
maintenance will likely be your sole responsibility. As the group
develops, some of the group maintenance activities may be taken
over by your students.
5. Encourage student participation!
Be an Online “Coach”
1. Move from “centre stage” to the “sidelines” (or, from the sage on the
stage to the guide on the side!)
2. Direct some of the better questions or comments back to the larger
3. Monitor group acitivity and intervene when things are getting
4. Encourage students to help each other, to explore ways in which
they themselves can answer each others’ questions
5. Remember that you still have a responsibility to clear up
misconceptions, wrong information, and to add items that will
enhance, enlighten, or illuminate the topic under discussion; you
don’t get to just sit back and observe!
Getting the best participation
To motivate students, be able to answer: “What’s in it for them?”
Following are some course components that will encourage
participation in the CC course:
Require regular participation with weekly assignments or quizzes
Make material relevant
Present conflicting opinions
articles and course information database
independence in time and location
What happens if I encounter low rates of participation?
What about “low” levels of thinking? How do I encourage higher levels
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