Facilitating Online Discussion in e-Learning


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As with in-person classes, discussion amongst instructors and students is central to most e-learning programs. This presentation looks at leading methods for facilitating online discussion. I will group them by methods that are largely synchronous or asynchronous.

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  • As with in-person classes, discussion amongst instructors and students is central to most e-learning programs. This presentation will look at some of the leading methods for facilitating online discussion. I will group them by methods that are largely synchronous or asynchronous.
  • This is a partial list of Internet media. Don’t worry about the subtleties of each one of these items. We’ll go into a few of the key terms that are related to our topics today later. But I thought this flowchart would help visualize the different types of Internet media that are often used in e-Learning. To confuse matters, the distinctions between these are blurring and a website or learning management software can be a starting point, or host, for any – or all – of these. This chart does give you a sense of that a lot of internet media are essentially a type of website – and they thus share many frontend and backend commonalities. Briefly the Internet is the network that provides the means for us to access most of electronic media we are familiar with (it’s not the only as we’re familiar with Interac via our ATMs).
  • A key distinction between the various Internet media are the ones that allow synchronous, or real-time, communication between people and those media that are asynchronous. Asynchronous Internet media include blogs, emails, forums, podcasts, webpages, wikis, and posted online videos or TV. Synchronous media include instant messaging, also known as chat, VOIP (most commonly known through Skype calls), virtual worlds (such as Second Life). Webcasts and webinars can be either. The technology and interface is the same – it really is a matter of whether one is viewing it as the event happens or afterwards. I should also point out that the delay with asynchronous can be just seconds, however. The transmission of an email or posting of a comment to a blog can be technically so fast that the delay is not that meaningful – but there are distinction in how these mediums are structured so as to display conversations. For example, instant messaging allows people conversing to see the full conversations and often to see that one’s partner is in the process of replying. So it’s not just the technology but the interface as well that helps build synchronous communication.
  • In this session, I’ll discuss leading methods to facilitate synchronous online discussion. Some methods, however, such as webinars can be live or archived and on-demand. I group them in this session as they can be used to facilitate live discussion.
  • A problem with Internet or tech terms in general is that there is always consistent definitions. The terms are too new to have reached consensus – and confounding this are usage that is incorrect. I will try to present the leading definitions of the terms but don’t be surprised if you hear others using them differently. It’s not critical to know the terms 100%, rather it is useful to know what functionality the technology enables.
  • A webcast is essentially a broadcast via the Internet. It is a one-to-many form of communication as it doesn’t allow any interaction with the audience.. So one person or organization creates the content and distributes it to many people. Webcasts can be live or on-demand. Once a webcast is posted, a person can immediately start watching. The computer can begin playing the webcast within moments of a user clicking on a webcast. They don’t have to wait to download an entire file to their computer before they can watch it. This is what is meant by the term streaming. The terms webcast and podcast are often used interchangeably. However the term podcast tends to refer to music and podcasts tend to be serial and automatically distributed. The term webcasts implies a rather basic Internet broadcast of an event rather than a polished, edited video such as those found on online video hosting services such as YouTube.
  • A webinar is essentially a web seminar. They are either live or on demand. I would say that the term webinar is predominantly used for a live event - or an archived version of former live event. Otherwise the term presentation is used for on-demand educational content, such as this. Webinars are not substantially different than an in-person class or lecture. They often use a presentation, such as this one, delivered with an audio or video of the speaker or can host a webcast. They can use screen sharing wherein a presenter allows all participants to view his or her computer screen – so whatever application or content a speaker then loads on their computer is viewable to everyone. Be warned to turn screen sharing off and lock your doors as there have been some infamous horror stories with this. Participation by the audience in webinars is not a required feature. Often though attendees can comment or ask questions via an embedded chat room or via audio or video.
  • Web conferencing on the other hand tends to refer to live interaction and collaboration amongst participants. There may be a presentation offered or it can just be a discussion, brainstorming session, or group revision of documents. Web conferencing systems may offer a virtual whiteboard to collectively generate documents and offer a means for collaborative document editing on the fly. Sessions can be one to one or one to many, as often there is one leader or facilitator. Webinars and web conferencing applications often allow participants to talk through Voice Over Internet – VoIP. This essentially is a method to allow voice to travel over the Internet and most of us are familiar with this through Skype. Or they could use a telephone line for voice and the Internet for presentations and document sharing.
  • Web conferencing and webinar systems use uses a fair amount of one’s Internet bandwidth, computer processing power and memory. As Internet bandwidth and an individual computer processing power can be limited, adding additional, demanding services such as audio, videos, or webcams can cause problems. I recently attended a conference that used Adobe Connect and there was only one speaker. They used the audio feature embedded in Connect and it was fine for the most part – but I would say that for there was problems about 10% of the time – for example delays, bleeps, or passages cutting out – but this could be attributed to a particularly congested time of day for Internet usage and may have happened to any such system. Presenting a video during an online session may be a great way to engage the audience but it also can be problematic in its bandwidth and computer processing demands. It is also important to note that not all digital video cameras will automatically offer a format of your video file that is suitable to share over the Internet. In some cases, the video must be converted by special software to a different format.
  • I’ll briefly go over some of the leading companies that offer web conferencing, webinar or webcasting functionality. A lot of companies offer similar core functionality, but there are some key differences that can affect how you want to support or promote your e-learning initiatives. Skype is undoubtedly the company that most people are familiar with in this area.
  • Adobe Connect uses Flash . Flash is free software provided by Adobe that integrates with your browser (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc.) to display multimedia and interactive online content. Most of the world's Internet users already have a version of Flash installed – but I have experienced extensive problems with it. This could be due to old versions of the plug-ins installed.
  • Vyew Others There are lots of companies offering for-fee web conferencing or webinar services. The main ones being: WebEx, GoToMeeting, and DimDim. They all have similar functionality and appear to start at approx. $50 per month. A couple of companies that offer just hosted webcasting services are PanOpto and ePresence. The University of Toronto invented and owns ePresence, but surprisingly my own faculty uses PanOpto.
  • At this point, I’d like to draw upon your experiences with web conferencing, webinars, or webcasting. If you have any examples from either your personal or professional usage, please share them.
  • Instant messaging, also known as chat, lives up to the claim of being instant. Posters are identified by their user name and in some cases by a specific font colour or style. Although specific chat rooms can be set up for a specific topic once in a chat room there are no visual ways to distinguish between topics. As a discussion amongst multiple students can frequently encompasses multiple topics or points, it can make following a line of thought and responding difficult. Furthermore, chats tend to not be archived and many versions don’t even have an option for this. So once they are over they cannot be accessed again. From an educational perspective, chats are good for short exchange of information and follow-up. They are good for coordinating projects. As they are relatively instantaneous they don’t facilitate the reflection or revision of a blog or forum post – but this is true of verbal exchanges as well. Some researchers have found that the lack of personally identifying details allows some people to be more open in their discussions that real-life allows. Free instant messaging services are now provided by many companies such as Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, AOL, and Blackberry.
  • We’ve already covered how instructor can communicate with students through webcasts and webinars. Webinars particularly can be used to facilitate a class discussion on the topic. The term online discussion, particularly in e-Learning, can often tend to not refer to Internet telephony such as offered by Skype, but rather more text-based methods of instructor and student communication. There are lots of different methods on the Internet for people to communicate or casually discuss topics. Email is the most popular, but social network sites such as Facebook allow people to post content and discuss it amongst their friends. Wikis allow people to collaborative edit and comment on various iterations and changes of a document. However, I feel that the best way to stage an in-depth online discussion suitable for educational contexts are forums. Forums are structured with discussion as the main, and pretty much only, goal so they are optimized to facilitate this experience.
  • I’ll briefly discuss blogs as they are among the most popular ways to share information, but I don’t feel they are a great way to facilitate discussion. Blogs, started off as online diaries or web logs which is where the term came from. They tend to be first-person, topical and more informal writing style than a traditional article. Nowadays though there are many different styles and topics covered by blogs. The defining quality of a blog is that information components of a blog, the blog posts, are not organized by any sort of information architecture. Instead they are presented in reverse chronological order – the most recent first. The main ways to search a blog is by date (as seen here) – but many blogs also have a search engine and metadata (i.e. tags).
  • I don’t think that blogs are an ideal way to facilitate extensive or in-depth student interaction. Even though most blogs allow and encourage reader comments (as seen here), their structure doesn’t strongly support this. Only the world’s most successful blogs tend to get even more than a handful of comments. The structure is primarily set-up to present information. In essence, each blog post is a fully formed whole – regardless of how rough or casual that might be. As such it is a monologue and not an open issue that needs outside reflection and expansion. It then becomes hard to have something to reply, beyond “good post” or “interesting” (this is why the like feature of Facebook and forums are great as they make such monosyllabic responses ideal). Comments aren’t even a primary display mechanism of the interface and one may have to click to another page to see them. To post to a blog may require a user to log-in (to prevent spam). Some blogs may have an automated system to notify a commenter when there has been a subsequent comment to the blog (but not necessarily a reply). This is not standard and if not present the ability to encourage discussion is severely limited as the likelihood that people will continually go back to the blog to check for replies is very limited. From an e-Learning perspective I would say blogs are good for two things: Instructors to post their summaries or reflections on course material Student to write mini-pieces to encourage or demonstrate their involvement with the material Lots of different companies offer blogs services such as Blogger (owned by Google), Edublogs (which appears to be under $4 a month) and the popular open source solution Word Press. Edublogs appears to address some of these challenges mentioned by allowing administrators to embed a forum thread for replies.
  • Forums (or fora) may have got their name from the Roman tradition of meeting and discussing important affairs in the town square, but they are not often quite so grand. Essentially Internet forums allow for threaded, that is topic specific, discussion on any topic. Uses can read posts and reply a specific post or start a new topic in a new thread. They are asynchronous and are usually archived on the site for an indefinite period of time. You may be familiar with similar technology, such as newsgroups, bulletin board, discussion board, or message board. The distinctions aren’t important, particularly since some of these technologies are fading away, but you may encounter these terms and there is considerable overlap.
  • To give you a sense of how a forum looks and works I took some screenshots of WonderCafe.ca This is a detail from the website, but you can see here how there are specific topics, or threads, such as about Bev Oda and the Fall of the Pope.
  • Click on the thread for Kairos started by the user Martha, you can see the discussion by various people unfolding. There are 138 replies – organized in reverse chronological order, which is a standard way of doing it. Some forums, such as on CBC.ca, allow people to vote to approve or disapprove on a specific comment that will then raise or lower a post. You can see here that the system allows people if they want to to quote a specific part of another person’s post in their reply.
  • I wanted to mention Haiku here as it offers forums but also a wide array of functionality. It is an e-Learning system or a Learning Management System similar to Blackboard but significantly cheaper and without the hassle to install and maintain as Moodle. Others There are lots of companies that host forums for free (such as Lefora and Motigo) but these are less well-known companies.
  • By presence of instructions students, I mean, the ability for fellow students to get a sense of the person posting, beyond just their posting. Some systems do this by tying each post to a photograph of the poster (uploaded by the user). It can also be developed by the poster who injects some of their individual personality into their writing. Contrarily, however, there is value in allowing anonymity or the use of pseudonyms as this has been found to allow people to open up more, particularly around sensitive topics.
  • I’ve included links to the websites of Wikipedia, Webopedia and How Stuff Works as they offer a breadth and depth of coverage on these topics. In addition, I address some of these topics in my blog, Webslinger, at www.glenfarrelly.com Please feel free to contact me directly with any questions you may have about this or related topics.
  • Facilitating Online Discussion in e-Learning

    1. 1. Facilitating Online Discussion in e-Learning Glen Farrelly March 2011
    2. 2. Session Agenda <ul><ul><li>Introduction </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Synchronous Online Discussion </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Webcasts </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Web Conferencing </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Webinars </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Instant Messaging </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Asynchronous Online Discussion </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Blogs </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Forums </li></ul></ul></ul>
    3. 3. Learning Outcomes <ul><ul><li>Learn key terms </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Determine key technologies & leading companies </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Identify requirements & caveats </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Share best practice </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Answer questions </li></ul></ul>
    4. 4. Hierarchy of Internet Media INTERNET Email Instant Messaging Website Blog Social Networking Site VoIP Forum Mobile Website Streaming audio/video Wiki Virtual world Podcast & Online video
    5. 5. Internet Media Asynchronous Synchronous Blog Instant messaging (chat) Email Voice Over IP (VoIP) Forums Webcast (live) Podcast Webinar (live) Webcast/webinar (archived) Virtual worlds Webpage
    6. 6. Synchronous Online Discussion
    7. 7. <ul><li>Plan: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Key terms & defining features </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Leading products </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Requirements </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Best practice & caveats discussion </li></ul></ul>Synchronous Discussion
    8. 8. <ul><ul><li>Key terms </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Webcast </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Webinar </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Web conference </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Related terms: </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Streaming </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Podcast </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Digital video </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Video hosting service </li></ul></ul></ul>Synchronous Discussion
    9. 9. Webcast <ul><ul><li>One to many </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Streaming </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Live or on-demand </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Video or audio </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>No audience interaction </li></ul></ul>
    10. 10. Webinar <ul><ul><li>Web seminar </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Live or on-demand </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Often use presentations or screen sharing </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Audience interaction not required </li></ul></ul>
    11. 11. Web Conferencing <ul><ul><li>Live </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>One to many or one to one </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Interactive </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Collaborative </li></ul></ul>
    12. 12. <ul><li>ROLES: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>As participant: </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Question or comment via the chat box </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Direct messages to everyone or presenter </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Indicate your “status” via icons </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>As host or presenter: </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Invite attendees </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Lead session </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Field questions or notes openly or privately </li></ul></ul></ul>Web Conferencing & Webinars
    13. 13. Webinars & Webcasts <ul><li>Requirements for presenter & audience: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Computer no more than 4-5 years old </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>High-speed Internet connection </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Media player or plug-in (e.g. Flash, Real Player) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Speakers </li></ul></ul><ul><li>To record: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Webcam or digital video recorder </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Microphone (often built into camera) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Sufficient lighting & low ambient noise levels </li></ul></ul>
    14. 14. Leading Products <ul><li>Skype </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Cost : voice only free, video free if under 2 users (otherwise $4.99/day, $8.99/month) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Pros : easy to use; familiarity; established company; screen sharing </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Cons : cannot record; doesn’t have extensive functionality; software must be pre-downloaded </li></ul></ul>
    15. 15. <ul><li>Adobe Connect: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Cost : uncertain - expensive </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Pros : established company; extensive functionality; can record easily </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Cons : learning curve; add-in software for presenters </li></ul></ul>Leading Products
    16. 16. <ul><li>Adobe Connect: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Uses Flash </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Public or private </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Live or canned </li></ul></ul>Leading Products <ul><li>Features: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>presentations </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>screen sharing </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>text-based chats and Q&A </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>interactive polls </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>audio or video integration </li></ul></ul>
    17. 17. <ul><li>Slideshare's Zipcast </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Cost : free for unlimited number of participants </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Pros : web-based (no downloads); established company; social media integration </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Cons : cannot record; advertising present; not private (unless pay $19/month) </li></ul></ul>Leading Products
    18. 18. <ul><li>Vyew </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Cost : free up to 10 people </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Pros : can record; entirely web-based (no downloads); additional functionality </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Cons : less well-known company; advertising present </li></ul></ul>Leading Products
    19. 19. Best Practice & Caveats <ul><ul><li>How have you used web conferencing or webcasting software before? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>What technical or user hurdles have you encountered? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Can you share an instance when any of these technologies helped achieve an educational outcome? </li></ul></ul>
    20. 20. Instant Messaging <ul><ul><li>Also known as chat </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Real time </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Not archived </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>No visual threads method </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Via Web or mobile </li></ul></ul>Chat short hand BTW = by the way GMTA = great minds think alike IMHO = in my humble opinion K = okay LOL = laughing out loud TTFN = ta ta for now :) = smile :( = sad :O = surprised ;) = wink
    21. 21. Asynchronous Online Discussion
    22. 22. <ul><li>Plan: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Key terms & defining features </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Blogs </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Forums </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Overview </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Leading products </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Considerations </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Best practice & caveats </li></ul></ul>Asynchronous Discussions
    23. 23. <ul><ul><li>Key terms </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Blog </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Forum </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Related terms </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Comment </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Thread </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Seed </li></ul></ul></ul>Asynchronous Discussions
    24. 24. Blog <ul><ul><li>Informal style </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Topical </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Chronological </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Allow reader comments </li></ul></ul>
    25. 25. Blog
    26. 26. Forum <ul><li>Characteristics of forums: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Asynchronous </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Threaded </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Archived </li></ul></ul>
    27. 27. Forum
    28. 28. Forum
    29. 29. Leading Products WonderCafe Cost : free for U.C.C. churches Pros : integration & promotion of UCC tools & resources; easy to use; familiarity; no advertising; hosted in Canada (probably) Cons : minimal design customization; uncertain privacy options
    30. 30. Google Groups Cost : free Pros : familiarity; ease of use; privacy options; integration with other Google tools Cons : advertising based; little design customization Leading Products
    31. 31. Facebook or LinkedIn Group Cost : free Pros : familiarity (per user demographic); ease of use; integration with social networking features Cons : advertising based; distractions, i.e. not cloistered experience; no design customization Leading Products
    32. 32. Leading Products Haiku ( haikulearning.com ) Cost : free for one class Pros : privacy options; some design customization offered; extensive functionality Cons : overwhelming functionality; more complicated set-up; learning curve to use
    33. 33. Forum Considerations <ul><ul><li>Required or optional participation </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Moderated or open </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Automated posting notification </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Structured or free discussion </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Seeded questions </li></ul></ul>
    34. 34. Forum Considerations <ul><ul><li>Presence of instructor & students </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Anonymity </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Teams or individual </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Posting rules (e.g. number, word limit) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Code of conduct </li></ul></ul>
    35. 35. Best Practice & Caveats <ul><ul><li>What has been your experience with online discussions? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Can you share any examples of the effective use of forums, blogs, or chat? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Any offline lessons that apply online? </li></ul></ul>
    36. 36. For More… <ul><ul><li>Information </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Wikipedia & Webopedia </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>How Stuff Works </li></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Glen </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><li>Try my blog, Webslinger </li></ul></ul></ul>