Teaching Online—Now We’re Talking

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Just when it looked like the "shrink-wrapped" mind-set ("if you post it on the World Wide Web they will learn") was suffocating further discussions about online learning (Brown, 2000), conversations about what it means to facilitate interaction have begun permeating these discussions. Like a spring breeze, the voices of teachers and researchers who value student input and faculty sanity are emerging to bring new inspiration to the direction of online educational environments. Still under question, though, are what instructional strategies best compliment the cyber-medium and the future of education.

This issue, we explore what a number of experts suggest is important teaching online. We begin by perusing a trio of publications about online learning from the online Chronicle of Higher Education. We also examine a recent study of asynchronous discussion in the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks on the principles for online education developed by a faculty initiative at three universities, and conclude with some speculations on the communal implications of online spaces.

These articles represent a spectrum of online pedagogical philosophies, ranging from arguments for keeping students on-task with detailed online protocols and "cyber-corrals" to assertions that the potential relationships between online learners are at least as important as the subject matter of the course.

Our colleagues at the Chronicle brought out an interesting group of articles recently, demonstrating the range of opinions on student agency in online pedagogy, beginning with Carr’s (1999) report, "On-Line Instructors Can Corral ‘Long Mouth’ Students." Carr reports on the work of Jennifer Lieberman, who educates faculty about teaching online. Lieberman, framing her advice on managing student contributions, remarks, "Domineering students who monopolize class conversation can be as difficult in on-line courses as they are in traditional classrooms." Lieberman proposes a few strategies for equalizing student contributions, such as thanking quieter students in class-wide e-mail and imposing guidelines on length and numbers of student messages. Such structure provides an overt framework within which students can function equitably. Lieberman’s focus, according to Carr, is on the importance of establishing "ground rules" that provide an opportunity to balance the contributions of members of the learning community, mitigating the influence of prolific posters, whom she calls "long mouths." In her framework, Lieberman says, "Everyone gets their whole response out without being interrupted, and having those responses written down makes the louder, more vocal student see and acknowledge the response of the quieter student."

Lieberman’s advocacy for student voices, however, is confused by some of the language she uses to discuss student learning. Her explanations of ground rules and balancing acts indicate a respect for student voice and agency--clearly creating a situation where quiet students can express themselves without interruption reflects the value she places on fairness. However, whether or not the reality of uninterrupted opportunities for expression actually does make the more vocal student acknowledge the response of the quieter one remains questionable. There is also something we find unsettling in her intentions to "make" students "see and acknowledge" and that she intends to "corral" those who would "monopolize" and those who are "domineering." This irony reminds us of the conundrum of using our authority as instructors to promote egalitarian learning environments.

In a second article on the challenges of teaching in cyber-land, Sarah Carr (2000), reports on the work of Donald Winiecki, another experienced online instructor who also speaks to the challenge of achieving equilibrium in an online classroom. Winiecki, however, places more concern on striking a balance between course content, mastery of technology, and facilitated student interaction than on balancing student contributions. Students "gradually learn about the subject," he notes, but they "also learn how to apply effective conversational practices to discussions carried out by e-mail and computer conferencing." After about three months, Winiecki observes that his students are working "smarter… [if] not necessarily working harder." Learning "to work in the medium," says one of Winiecki’s students, takes the same effort as "dealing with the content," and "working smarter," it appears, means letting the impromptu relationships that develop between the student-learners take up as much if not more space than the machinery and even the scripted content of the course.

This question concerning what aspects of the course should take priority is recast in Bart Beaudin’s (2000) study "Keeping Online Asynchronous Discussions on Topic." The literature Beaudin consults for his study states that when learners retain ownership of their learning "without being manipulated and controlled," increased learning occurs. However, in his discussion of keeping online discussions on topic, Beaudin acknowledges the paradoxical challenge that the cost of encouraging learners to make learning their own is their tendency "to lose focus on the original intent of the instructor or the course objectives."

Beaudin’s research attempts to identify successful strategies educators use to keep online learners on topic without forfeiting students’ motivation for taking responsibility for their own learning. A survey of 135 online instructors was used to ascertain what they recommended and what they actually used to keep online discussions on track. The top ranked items were carefully designing good questions, providing guidelines for learners to use when preparing their responses, rewording the question when discussions go off topic, and providing discussion summaries. Beaudin concludes that "this exploratory study reinforced many of the principles and practices used in face-to-face classrooms to keep discussion on topic and should serve as a reminder that good instructional design is essential whether it is online or face-to-face."

Beaudin’s study does corroborate the belief of several distance educators that learner-learner interaction is instrumental to the support of learner-content interaction. The key to this balancing act of human interactions, Beaudin reports, is a responsive moderator. And the moderator, Beaudin reminds us, does not need to be the instructor. Because the traits of the moderator or facilitator are only rudimentarily understood in traditional education, much less in an online environment, considerable work remains to describe the role and purpose of the position. Fortunately for us, this need for definition indicates a window of opportunity for further study that could breathe new life into our teaching.

The shift these changes reflect has more to do with moving from presentational to well-facilitated interactive pedagogies than it has to do with technologies, and, specifically, more to do with the growing realization that learning environments must acknowledge and address a new paradigm that identifies a course as a body of content subordinate to an authentic sequence of activities and the group of learners who will engage in those activities and that content. It is not a trivial change of focus.

Online expert Ken White (Young, 2000), seems to agree. Managing a healthy interpersonal environment, according to White, is paramount to the success of a good online course. White, co-author of a guidebook for teaching online, holds a degree in education and organizational communication and has worked as an instructor with both the University of Phoenix and Washington’s Evergreen community college. He argues that online education can and "should be an interpersonal environment." He advocates educational transformation requiring dialogue and interactions that "allow … personalities to come across [through] the medium." To do so, White provides detailed advice, and cautions teachers that students need more than just ground rules up front; they need timely personal responses to students’ questions, responses that acknowledge that student questions and comments are important. Immediate feedback from either the teacher or the other students prevents students from filling in the communication void with negative assumptions about why no one has yet responded. The explicit advice White provides, however, rests upon a critical caveat: the optimal interpersonal learning environment requires limited class size and hard work.

This advice is not new, if not always, or even frequently, heeded. White’s advice echoes an earlier report written by Lawrence C. Ragan (1998), director of a three-year study on distance education. This study, the Innovations in Distance Education (IDE) project, united Penn State and Lincoln and Cheyney universities in establishing a set of foundational principles and learning goals supportive of distance education and distance educators. Central to the mission of the study was the examination of "fundamental principles of what constitutes quality instructional interaction." In the IDE project, principles are grouped into five broad categories: Learning Goals and Content Presentation, Interactions, Assessment and Measurement, Instructional Media and Tools, and Learner Support Systems. In the development of these categories, the IDE group generated an abundance of teacherly advice: learning goals should "be publicly available and communicated clearly and explicitly"; assessment "should be congruent with the learning goals and should be consistent"; students "should be provided ample opportunities and accessible methods for providing feedback"; and media "should reflect the diversity of potential learners."

Ragan and his colleagues caution that without a "firm understanding of the fundamental principles of what constitutes quality instructional interaction … decisions are made based on the merits of the technology or methodologies without consideration of the long-term and potential benefit to the student." Certainly this point has an all-too-familiar ring.

In the final distillation of this literature, it seems that well-moderated student interactions structured by frameworks that ask good questions and allow for the establishment of ground rules create the most productive of online communities. However, despite the simplicity of such a condensation of the published advice, the complexity of fashioning such an environment defies clear articulation. In fact, perhaps the most telling aspect of all of the advice can be found in Beaudin’s (2000) conclusion, where he reports that the teachers he surveyed did not even take their own advice. Beaudin grasps at the plausible explanation "that online instructors may see what they are doing could actually be improved upon if they tried an alternative technique." Consequently, they recommend techniques that they think will work rather than what they actually employ.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the mantra "good teaching is good teaching" is the one that experienced online teachers always seem to retrieve from their excursions into the ether. The cyber-medium may offer us ways to include individuals in conversations that once would have been inaccessible to them, but the fundamental challenges of teaching, like life, are never easy.

So we keep talking.


Beaudin, B. P. (2000). Keeping online asynchronous discussions on topic. JALN(13)2. Retrieved January 17, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.aln.org/alnweb/journal/Vol3_issue2/beaudin.htm

Brown, G. R. (2000). Where do we go from here. Technology Source, January/February. Retrieved February 8, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/reading/2000-01.asp

Carr, S. (1999). On-Line instructors can corral ‘Long Mouth’ Students. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, December 10, 1999. Retrieved January 17, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://chronicle.com/free/99/12/99121001u.htm

Carr, S. (2000). Learning to communicate online is a challenge for new distance-ed students. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, December 10, 1999. Retrieved January 17, 2000from the World Wide Web: http://chronicle.com/free/2000/01/2000011301u.htm

Ragan, L. C. (1998). Good teaching is good teaching: An emerging set of guiding principles and practices for the design and development of distance education. DEOSNEWS, (8)12. (Online serial: www.ed.psu.edu/ACSDE/). Retrieved January 12, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ed.psu.edu/ACSDE/deosnews8.12.htm

Rosmarin, A. (1985). Profile: The art of leading a discussion. In Morganrouth-Gullette, Margaret (Ed.), On Teaching and Learning, Cambridge, MA. Harvard-Danforth Center for Teaching and Learning.

Young, J. R. (2000). Logging in with…Ken W. White: Advice for the online instructor: Keep it interpersonal. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Thursday January 13, 2000. Retrieved January 17, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://chronicle.com/free/2000/01/2000011101u.htm

Critical Reviews

Critic W

I recommend publication, but not without some major revisions as follows.

The first paragraph severely strains the author's credibility. Apparently the author is unaware of a wealth of literature on facilitating online interaction going back 20 years. In particular, the author does not seem to be familiar with the pioneering work of Harasim, Paulsen, Hiltz and Turoff, and more recently Berge and Collins, and obviously has never been to Collins' "Moderator's Home Page" at http://www.emoderators.com/moderators.shtml. This paragraph needs a total rewrite.

A summary of current literature on facilitating online interaction -- with that context clearly stated -- would be a useful contribution to TS. From that perspective, much of the article is good. However, given the abundance of good current stuff out there in this area, I question the author's selection of publications. The Chronicle of Higher Education is a news publication, not a scholarly journal. As a result, the article comments upon the result of a news reporter's interview with a faculty member with something to say about online interactions. TS readers deserve something better. The article would be much stronger if the author reviewed reports of original research or at least original case studies on the topic; e.g., primary sources. Inclusion of the Journal of ALN report was totally appropriate, as was the Ragan study. Just ditch the Chronicle stuff and find more publications like these two.

Disagreements with the publications being reviewed should be based on the literature or other scientific evidence, not just the author's opinion. His/her assessment of the Lieberman quotes was inappropriate without a supporting citation, for example. This was one of several missed opportunities to tie the publications being reviewed to past literature on the topic.

The writing style is unprofessional in places. "Our colleagues at the Chronicle..."? "Cyber-land"?

The title is misleading. "Talking" refers to oral communications, not written. I was expecting an article about the use of conferencing tools that enable speech transmission. Also, use of "the ether" in the last paragraph was inappropriate. "The ether" relates to wireless transmissions. The term has long been used to describe radio broadcasting and in this context would be applicable only to wireless networks. Again, misuse of terms such as these strains the author's credibility.

Critic NN

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Critic R

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Critic II

I strongly recommend this commentary/review for publication in the Technology Source. This is a refreshingly insightful review of several recent articles published in the Chronicle and elsewhere. In particular, I appreciated the authors' refusal to reduce the complex notion of interactivity into the typical mantra of "it's good and desirable." I enjoyed that their response to Lieberman's strategies for corralling students highlights the problematic nature of instructor authority and double-edged nature of democracy in the classroom; and I enjoyed the way they blurred the boundaries between course content, student-student interaction, and technology mastery. I've had similar arguments about how *fun* learning some content can be when it is also intrinsically hard to master! Finally, I welcomed the authors' identification of the reality of hard work that is involved when instructors attempt to actually make online environments "highly interactive" (and that they admit this without dismissing the entire enterprise is also appreciated). A thought-provoking manuscript for publication to be sure! Let's definitely keep talking.