While creating opportunities for learning, online learning environments also create demands on learners for new skills in
managing their own learning. Being successful in such learning environments requires learners to have the ability to organize, evaluate, and monitor the progress of their learning. Not all learners possess these skills, and so they have to be taught how to take advantage of the opportunities that online learning affords. A useful way of conceptualizing key skills for managing and facilitating computer mediation conferencing has been developed by Salmon (2000; 2003). These are briefly reviewed in the following.
The first task in the moderation of an online learning environment comprises the orientation of participants for computer
conferencing. At this early stage, several skills are necessary for the formation of the group. In a formal educational setting, it is very likely that most of the participants will not know each other . So it will be important to provide them with an opportunity to introduce themselves to others in the group. This will comprise explaining their academic and other interests but more importantly their specific interest in the subject.
Some students will be familiar with the conventions of computer mediated conferencing, while others will not. Some may be threatened by the technology and irritated by many of the conventions of this mode of communications. As such it may be useful to agree on some common ground rules for communicating online.At this early stage the development of respect, tolerance and trust
among the group is very important. The moderator can set the tone of the communication, and try to model those sorts of behaviors for the group to emulate. These would include things like, how much to write in each message, how frequently, and the tone of the language that might be appropriate. Some agreement at this stage on the etiquettes of communicating on the net (also known as “netiquette”) would be appropriate.
This comprises ensuring that the group is on track for completing the assigned tasks. Foremost, it will include making clear the goals and outcomes of the conference. In addition to this, providing some structure and direction for the ensuing discussions will lead to a coherent conversation on the assigned topic. Participants should be encouraged to participate responsibly, and equitably to ensure that everyone is contributing their fair share to the discussions. Participants should also be encouraged to share their ideas and opinions with group members in good faith. They ought to feel free to ask questions, and seek the opinions and support of others in the group.
By this stage in the discussion, conference participants are able to build a deeper level understanding of the subject matter . Strategies to support this will include summarizing the ideas and thread of the discussion at regular intervals, asking participants to assist and check each other’s understanding of complex ideas, linking theory with practice and elaborating current material with previously learned material.
This is starting to happen when participants are engaging more readily in debate and discussion about the central issues,
challenging each other’s ideas, meanings, reasoning and concepts. Any controversies in this regard need to be handled very carefully by the moderator , and students should be taught the skills to manage debates. Criticizing ideas without criticizing people is an important but difficult skill to develop. It is important to challenge the ideas of others but it is essential that students learn not to alienate other group members in this process.
For example, ideas can be challenged in subtle ways by asking questions, suggesting alternatives, asking for their reasoning and justification of arguments. Students could be encouraged to find out how the thinking and reasoning of group members’ differ and how the different ideas could be integrated into a smaller set of propositions on the subject. At the end of this process, the moderator must bring the discussion to some sort of a close.
Here are some further interesting resources on issues relating to e-moderation and facilitating on-line learning discussions. Have a look at it.