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Editor’s Note: This paper studies group dynamics in synchronous online discussions. In particular, it is seeking data to inform instructors how best to guide the online dialog. Data provided in this study will stimulate research to better understand how to optimize the results of online dialog in different disciplines, in different contexts, and for different levels of learners.


Getting in Sync with Synchronous: The Dynamics of Synchronous Facilitation in Online Discussions

Shufang Shi, Curtis Bonk, Sophia Tan, Punya Mishra


The goal of the study was to develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between teacher moderating and student engagement. The primary data source for the study was 44 transcripts collected from 4 groups of college students over 11 weeks of conferences in a moderated synchronous online course taught in a Canadian university. The study applied mixed method approach and this paper reports the results of the qualitative analysis. Through a descriptive discourse analysis of synchronous computer mediated discussions, the study provides a picture of the interaction processes of synchronous online discussion. The themes emerging from the qualitative analysis, together with the supporting theories and practices, uncover the underlying processes of synchronous computer conferencing in relation to online moderating. This research also informs both research and practice related to the larger goal of improving the quality of online teaching and learning.

Keywords: synchronous online discussion; moderating skills; student engagement; qualitative analysis; transcript analysis.


Current theories of learning emphasize the value of dialogue for student engagement and achievement (Bruffee, 1993, 1999; Cazden, 2001). Researchers argue that learning and working with a small group, as opposed to individual activity, may facilitate learning (Anderson, 2006; Bruffee, 1999; Zhang, 2004). Research has also shown that the nature of classroom discourse depends greatly on the teacher (Anderson & Christiansen, 2007; Anderson, Rourke, Garrison & Archer, 2001).

In face-to-face classrooms, these issues are relatively well understood. However, perceptions of group learning dynamics and online teachers’ roles in distance education environments remain quite varied and controversial (Lobel, Neubauer, & Swedburg, 2002a; Park & Bonk, in press; Pfiser & Muhlpfordt, 2002). For instance, although online instruction literature increasingly emphasizes the importance of moderation and leadership (Anderson, 2006; Anderson et al., 2001), the relationship between moderation and student engagement is often unclear.

Computer conferencing is an important part of online learning. Current instructional applications of technology provide two distinct formats of computer conferencing: (1) asynchronous and (2) synchronous (Hines & Pearl, 2004). Asynchronous computer conferencing refers to electronic bulletin boards, discussion boards, or electronic mail that participants can access at any time. “Synchronous computer conferencing” in this study refers to “real time” interaction programs through which participants communicate or “chat” at the same time.

The adoption of computer conferencing in higher education has far outpaced our understanding and knowledge of it (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001; Park & Bonk, 2007). Despite the promise of computer conferencing for creating powerful learning spaces and the fact that this technology has been widely adopted, many questions and issues remain (Herring, 2003; Johnson, 2006; 2006; Park & Bonk, 2007.).

This lack of knowledge is even more pronounced in the case of synchronous computer conferencing learning environments since most research on distance education has focused on asynchronous systems (Park & Bonk, in press; Shi, Mishra, Bonk, Tan, & Zhao, 2006). Nevertheless, the contextual aspects of learning - real-time social interaction and negotiation with peers, experts, moderators, and instructors - are vital to a student’s movement from novice or legitimate peripheral participant to eventual contributor or expert (Bonk, Wisher & Nigrelli, 2006; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Orvis, Wisher, Bonk, & Olson, 2002). There are many recent research results from the social presence and online learning community literature that indicate that online students in higher education want and expect more direct and timely interactions with instructors and other students (Bonk, Wisher, & Nigrelli, 2006; Melrose & Bergeron, 2006). As learners begin to demand more synchronous opportunities, research on synchronous conferencing is needed to inform how, when, and where to embed real-time virtual learning experiences. Of great interest is better understanding of how instructors manage the ebb and flow of classroom discussion.

Purpose of the Study

Given the above context and definitions, this project addressed three key issues:

  • The need to better understand the nature and dynamics of moderated synchronous group discussion;

  • The need to understand and identify the role of teacher moderators through engaged collaborative discourse in enhancing student engagement and learning; and,

  • The need to identify good practices in facilitating synchronous group discussion.

Scholars have identified ways in which computer conferencing can support collaborative discourse and student learning. However, there is minimal theory-based and data-driven research in the area of synchronous online instruction and facilitation. Researchers have put forward myriad lists of moderating skills and techniques, but most of these are highly experiential and anecdotal, instead of empirically driven and validated. Moreover, most of the skills mentioned in these reports are drawn from experiences related to asynchronous learning environments; few are relevant to synchronous learning environments. Even fewer discuss effective synchronous moderation practices based on systematic observation (and comparison between good and not so good moderating practices). Understanding the nature and dynamics of moderated synchronous group discussion is vital for better understanding of the respective roles that teachers and group dynamics play in student engagement in learning.

The third goal of this study was to identify effective practices in facilitating synchronous group discussion. Hopefully, efforts in this area will lead to the formation a model of teaching and learning through engaged collaborative discourse in synchronous computer conferencing. By building such a model, relationships between teacher moderating behaviors and student engagement as well as relationships among student engagement aspects may be disentangled, potentially revealing major factors critical to student learning.

This research project was designed to address the above issues within the context of an online college level course that was based completely on text-based synchronous computer conferencing. This course used a custom-built software system to develop structured discussions around topics under the guidance of teacher moderators. The major purpose of the study was to investigate what role teacher moderators play in enhancing student engagement through collaborative discourse, and, specifically, how moderating functions worked in terms of the collaborative meaning construction processes in synchronous computer mediated discussion.

Project Significance

As indicated earlier, researchers have put forward numerous lists related to moderating skills and techniques, but those generally lack validation. In addition, most of their work entails asynchronous learning not synchronous. Simply put, there are many significant gaps in the literature on synchronous instruction. As online learning continues to grow across educational sectors, such gaps are increasingly salient.

One of the most significant gaps in prevailing knowledge about the use of computer conferencing for learning concerns the relationships between individual thinking processes and group interactions. For instance, while discussing discourse in classrooms, Cazden (2001) writes, “it is never easy to talk about relationships between individual (silent) thinking process and the dyadic or group (often noisy) interactions in the classroom.” However, this relationship between individual cognition and group interaction lies at the heart of student learning (Cazden, 2001) and is particularly important if the potential of computer-mediated communication is to be achieved.

Research related to the underlying processes of synchronous computer conferencing vis-à-vis online moderating contributes to a better understanding of how teachers can provide effective online mentoring and scaffolding to facilitate collaborative student engagement, both in a social sense and with subject matter (Park & Bonk, 2007, in press). While the work of Park and Bonk (2007) focuses on guidelines for instructors in synchronous environments for student critical inquiry, research in online moderating in this area might also contribute to a better understanding of whether and how a community of inquiry develops by means of synchronous computer conferencing where students are most likely to become invested behaviorally, social-emotionally, and intellectually. Findings from such research should inform research and practice related to improving the quality of online teaching and learning.

Theoretical Perspectives

This research draws upon multiple research perspectives. The pertinent literature related to socio-cultural learning theory, characteristics of synchronous computer conferencing, online moderating, student engagement, and their relationships.

Socio-cultural Learning Theory

This project, situated within a Vygotskian, or socio-cultural framework (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986; Wertsch, 1985), studied computer conferencing as a medium for providing scaffolded feedback from multiple sources and perspectives (Bonk & Dennen, 2003). It also draws upon the cognitive apprenticeship model espoused by Collins, Brown, and Newman (1989).

An important concept in Vygotsky’s theory is his idea that intellectual development takes place between people before being internalized. From this point of view, instruction is more effective when it takes form in discussions or dialogues in small groups wherein learners interact with peers and adults or mentors who challenge, support, and scaffold their learning (Veerman, Andriessen, & Kanselaar, 2000).

Cognitive apprenticeship (Collins et al., 1989) emphasizes the solution of real world problem-solving under expert guidance that fosters cognitive and metacognitive skills and processes. The notion of guided experience in cognitive apprenticeship corresponds to the concept of guidance and collaboration in the zone of proximal development (ZPD) introduced by Vygotsky (1978).

Exposure to the strategies, skills, and ideas of others on a social plane can be individually appropriated and internalized as independent problem solving skills. The implication for online instructors and instructional designers is that, to learn better, learners have to be situated in the social and functional context embedded with the learning skills and knowledge (Bonk & Reynolds, 1997; Shi, 2005). Synchronous computer conferencing can provide such a context - as this discussion will clarify. The nature of collaborative discourse in synchronous computer conferencing is framed within the basic characteristics of the medium, including its affordances and constraints (Tu, 2003).

Characteristics of Synchronous Computer Conferencing

As noted, there are two modes of computer-mediated communication: asynchronous and synchronous. Some research has focused on the use of synchronous computer conferencing as a Web-based communication system that supports real-time, many-to-many textual interactions. The interactions made possible through synchronous communication technologies allow participants to experience “same-time, same place” or “same-time, any place” collaboration. Such types of collaboration demonstrate the important traits of immediacy, fast planning, problem-solving, scheduling, and decision-making, which can be difficult to replicate in an asynchronous environment (Knolle, 2002; Marjanovic, 1999).

The ways in which we communicate face-to-face are reconstituted when we move online. The pure textual nature of computer-mediated conferencing constrains interaction in some ways. Not all aspects of meaning that are communicated via speech in face-to-face conversations can be represented in online environments, whether it be videoconferencing, video streaming, synchronous chats, or audio conferences; each has respective limitations. As a result, attempts to represent meaning in writing as in a text chat may not fully represent what one has intended to say. Much paralinguistic information is conveyed in speech and face-to-face situations that are difficult to display with writing alone - e.g., leadership, reluctance, disagreement, and so forth.

Although scholars have researched the means by which groups accomplish this orally (and in the writing accompanying oral communication, e.g. Florio-Ruane & deTar, 2001; John-Steiner, 2000), numerous questions remain related to how this is accomplished and interpreted by people working exclusively on written communication via the computer, and especially within synchronous written communication (diSessa , 2001; Wang & Chen, 2007). The sound, tone, and tempo of a speech and the non-verbal expression of a face-to-face conversation is often lost, or at the very least, extremely difficult to interpret, in computer conferencing. This narrowed communication channel challenges participants; as a result, successful communication in such an environment requires conscious effort and skilled coordination and collaboration. Such challenges lead to the issue of online moderation and its role in online discussions.

Online Moderating

To moderate is to preside or to lead (Feenberg, 1989; Paulsen, 1995). Drawn on the idea of discussion as language games (Wiittgensein, 1958), moderating functions play an important role in keeping participants absorbed in the ongoing dialogue “game.” Playing at computer conferencing consists of making moves that keep others playing (Xin, 2002). In this way, computer conferencing favors open-ended comments, and this calls for a moderator who provokes and instigates in order to keep the game alive. When a message fails to function as a link, at one end or the other, moderating functions (e.g., recognition, prompting, weaving, etc.) are needed to tie up the loose ends and strengthen the link in order to keep the chain of conversation going (Xin, 2002). While individual learning can occur through independent or self-directed study, it is only through active intervention of a teacher or moderator that a powerful communication tool, such as collaborative computer conferencing, becomes a useful instructional and learning resource (Anderson, 2006; Garrison, Anderson, & Anderson, 2001; Paulsen, 1995).

According to Winograd (2006), an online moderator wears many hats, including lecturer, tutor, facilitator, mentor, assistant, provocateur, observer, host, and participant. A moderator is a generalist who is sensitive to the individual needs as well as the dynamics that make up the conference. Through this sensitivity, a moderator can grasp when a conference is doing well or poorly and deciding on action to take if a conference is going awry (Winograd, 2006). Obviously, a moderator needs to know when to wear which hat and how to perform the role accordingly. Fortunately, there is increasing literature discussing the role of the online moderator (Bonk & Dennen, 2003; Pfister & Muhlpfort, 2002; Wang & Chen, 2007), moderating functions (Winograd, 2006), and online teaching presence (Anderson et al. 2001).

One of the most important functions moderators play in online discussions (and such is the case in this study as well) is that of the subject matter expert (Anderson, 2006). Thus, the moderator is expected to provide both direct and indirect instruction by interjecting comments, referring students to information resources, and organizing activities that allow the students to construct the content in their own minds and personal contexts. For instance, in this study, although the conferences were all structured - with pre-specified syllabi and agenda - the moderator played a critical role in ensuring that students were learning the material. This is clearly a difficult task, requiring the balancing of time pressure in monitoring and responding to a plethora of ideas and comments, while capturing one’s thoughts about subject matter and ideas in fairly pithy and understandable postings. Clearly it is important for research to provide guidance to moderators through analysis of effective moderating behaviors in order to catalog, capture, and describe best practices that can inform future practice.

Student Engagement

All learning requires engagement to attain mastery (Bloom, 1956; Carroll, 1963). Based on Bloom’s well-cited taxonomy of educational objectives, student engagement in a learning process entails three key factors: (1) cognitive, (2) affective, and (3) psychomotor (Bloom, 1956). Such a threefold division is as ancient as Greek philosophy: philosophers. In fact, psychologists have repeatedly used similar tripartite organizations such as cognition, conation, and feeling as well as thinking, willing, and acting (Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1964). In his seminal article “learning community,” Schwab (1975) argued that fruitful conversation requires three kinds of community: (1) community of confidence and trust, (2) affective community, and (3) cognitive community.

There must be community of confidence and (cautious) trust, which arises from the past collaboration in which the usefulness of each to other, and a degree of dependability, have been discovered. There must be affective community, which arises from shared vicissitudes and satisfactions. There must be a cognitive community (p. 39).

Online conferencing similarly requires engagement to reach ideal educational objectives; synchronous online communication has the potential to engage students in knowledge sharing, mutual inspiration, interdependence, and active learning through conversation, argument, debate, and discussion among peers, experts, and teachers or moderators (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998; Kaye, 1992; Park & Bonk, 2007). As Kaye (1992) has stated, the practical reality of collaboration is that it requires a higher order of involvement or engagement (Schrage, 1990). However, there is a need for more research into the nature of engagement online as well as the activities and contextual features of an engaging online curriculum. Engagement in this particular study is synonymous with investment, involvement, or commitment.


The relationship between online moderating and student engagement in a synchronous computer conferencing learning environment is complicated. It may be easy to assume that there is a direct causal relationship between moderator behavior and student engagement (i.e., the nature of moderator behavior determines the level of student engagement). Nevertheless, while some theorists in this area argue for strong moderating intervention (Bonk, Wisher, & Lee, 2003; Salmon, 2000), many others believe that self-direction on the part of students is more important.

Approaches at the extremes of either position overlook the dynamic nature of student-instructor interaction in synchronous computer conferences. In an educational context, the development of shared understanding is a complex process mediated by the prior knowledge of the students, their interaction and engagement with each other, the subject matter, and the moves made by the instructor. The development of dialogue, where newer messages build on earlier messages, can be one indicator of the manner in which shared understandings are constructed by the instructor and the students. Given this fact, the instructor has a relatively privileged position in the classroom, and this holds true in virtual classrooms as it does in more conventional face-to-face classrooms. Thus, the shared construction of knowledge in a virtual classroom can be strongly influenced by the role taken by the instructor. As a result, the relationship between teacher moderating levels and student engagement variables in synchronous computer conferencing is complex and dynamic where changes in one variable may influence most or all of the others.

The complexity of the phenomena has significant implications for the design of any research related to them. It is for this reason that the researchers developed a mixed-methods research design, including both quantitative and qualitative components. With the guidance of quantitative results (Shi, 2005), we choose cases of interest and applied fine-grained qualitative analyses. The qualitative approach is aimed at understanding and clarifying the dynamics of interaction between the students and the instructor. This approach pays close attention to the content of what is discussed and the intricate give-and-take that characterizes the relationship between moderating behavior and student engagement in a synchronous computer conferencing learning environment.

Research Context and Data Collection

The research was conducted within a synchronously-taught, three-credit university level undergraduate course entitled “Interpersonal Communications and Relationships.” This online course was designed to enhance students’ understanding of effective communication behavior and to improve their abilities to attend to verbal and non-verbal communication with others, exchange constructive feedback, engage in effective problem-solving, address and deal constructively with conflict, and communicate across such differences as gender, class, and race (Lobel, et al., 2002a). In each class session, small “breakout rooms” were used for group discussion that followed a highly detailed agenda.

This course was delivered online, in real time, to 32 students during a regular semester. The course consisted of eleven consecutive three-hour weekly sessions. The medium - a synchronous, online eClassroom available over the Internet and designed specifically for experiential “learning-by-doing” pedagogy - used a real-time, interactive HTML-formatted text, image, and animated messaging system. The eClassroom, consisting of a main “room” and four “breakout rooms” for small eGroup experiential eActivities and eDiscussions, was password-protected, monitored, and archived. Most students logged into the eClassroom from their homes. Text- and image-based lecture materials were posted to the eClassroom in real time. The “LearningByDoing” eGroup activities offered in this medium facilitated learning through practice and discussions (Lobel et al., 2002b).

One principal instructor and three eGroup co-facilitators/moderators staffed the eClassroom. The virtual classroom consisted of a public main “room” where the whole class met to receive the course content for the first part of the session. When each content delivery session ended, students broke up into groups and attended one of the four “breakout rooms” for small online group activities and discussions for the second-class session, which usually lasted for about an hour. The 32 student participants in the course were randomly divided into four discussion groups at the beginning of the semester. Each small group had a discussion moderator. Importantly, this arrangement remained unchanged for the entire semester (11 weeks).

Students wrote weekly eJournals, which served as an asynchronous component of the eCourse, and these were e-mailed weekly to their eGroup co-facilitator and principal instructor for comments on learning progress. All eClassroom activities and interactions took place online, in real-time. There were no face-to-face interactions between the students and the instructors during the 11 weeks of the eCourse (Lobel et al., 2002a).

The prime data source for this study consisted of 44 automatically archived conference transcripts from an online course, each with an average of 350 postings. In order to better understand the context within which these discussions worked and to help triangulate research results (Patton, 2002), additional sources of data were collected, including field notes taken by the researcher through participant observation as well as other class materials such as the course syllabus, the course readings, classroom activity agendas, and all of the course assignments. Such data help to define the context of each synchronous conference.

Research Design and Data Analysis

To accomplish the intended goals, mentioned above, this research applied a mixed method approach to examine the transcripts generated by moderated synchronous discussions of four groups of students over 11 weeks of an online course. By means of quantitative analyses, we explored relationships between teacher moderating levels and student engagement variables and relationships among student engagement variables as they developed over time (Shi, 2005). The broad patterns resulting from the quantitative analyses allowed the selection of sections of transcripts of interest for qualitative analyses. The qualitative analyses provided a closer look at the nature of the “lived” experience of conferencing, the process of collaborative meaning construction, and the transactional nature of the relationship between teacher moderating and student engagement. Derived from the qualitative analysis is the identification of the “good moderating practices” in facilitating synchronous group discussion as well as various themes related to effective moderating strategies.

The qualitative analysis process consisted of four phases. The first phase took place before the computer conferencing sessions started. The researchers identified the central parameters underpinning the conferences such as the background information, class objectives, and approaches to moderation (Duemer, et al. 2002; Cook & Ralston, 2003; Mullen & Tallent-Runnels, 2006). These data provided a broader context for the transcripts in our analyses.

The second phase occurred during the synchronous computer sessions. During this phase of the study, the first author was a participant observer of the synchronous online discussion sessions. Field notes were taken during the observation. At the end of each class session, the first author made summary reflection notes.

The third phase of the qualitative analysis took place during the coding process for the quantitative analysis. Because the coding process involved careful scrutiny and decision-making about which category each posting would be coded and assigned, the first author utilized the process and made hundreds of memo-related pages. These memos included impressions and perceptions of each conference. From these memos, some perceptions and loosely defined themes emerged.

The fourth phase of qualitative analysis was an intensely purposeful analysis of the transcripts selected based on the quantitative analysis results using computer-mediated discourse analysis, a widely used approach for researching online interactive behavior (Herring, 2003). These qualitative analyses explored the methods of moderating used in the conference as well as the effect of the moderating on the patterns of the electronic discussions and knowledge construction (Cook & Ralston, 2003; Shi, Mishra, Bonk, Tan, & Zhao, 2006). The basic goal of such discourse analysis is to identify patterns in online discourse that are demonstrably present, but that may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer or to the discourse participants themselves. In this particular study, the discourse analysis helped identify emergent patterns and themes that were related to teacher moderating behaviors and student intellectual engagement. Phase Four of the data analysis was an iterative process of refining the loosely defined themes that emerged from phase three. During Phase Four, transcripts that illustrated similar ideas or purposes were organized and classified together, until five different themes emerged. These themes as well as the practices of the moderators are described in the following section.


During the process of the analyses, themes of effective moderating strategies emerged and these themes were labeled “good moderating practices.” The themes were organized into five major categories and each theme will be presented in a three-part format: (1) the theme - the structuring and moderating efforts that were actually provided by the instructors during the course of the online collaboration; (2) theories that underpin the theme; and (3) supporting examples followed by a brief discussion related to how these efforts may have impacted the subsequent discussion. The five themes are as follows:

  • Providing hooks with both ends;

  •  Modeling and tele-mentoring;

  • Confronting and conflicting;

  • Setting up norms; and,

  • Social-emotional elements.

While the above themes do not represent an exhaustive list of moderating functions, they do serve to highlight some observations of good moderating practices and how they affected the meaning construction process where different learning scenarios unfolded.

In the presentation of the example excerpts, the format of all the postings was preserved as originally posted - grammatical errors, inaccurate use of mechanics, punctuations, with the purpose to retain the nature of synchronous online conferencing. But some characteristics that were digital (e.g., pictures, emoticons, and flash applets) were not preserved due to space limitations as well as other technical barriers. Finally, all participant names were changed to protect the rights of human subjects.

Providing Hooks with Both Ends

Online learning researchers such as Feenberg (1989) use sports and language games as a metaphor to illustrate the satisfaction of playing an engaged dialogue game. “Play” at online discussion consists of making moves that keep others playing. Therefore, to sustain the dialogue game, every message fulfils a double goal: (1) communicating something, and (2) evoking future responses (Feenberg & Xin, 2002). In this vein, each message functions as a link that at one end connects to one or multiple previous messages, and, at the other end, provides a hook for creating future message(s) (Xin, 2002).

In the examples below, the researchers will review moderating postings with hooks, postings without hooks, or postings with hooks that had only one end - postings that either only solicited without providing context or related materials, or only summed up previous messages. Presentation of both positive and negative examples allows for inspection of the effect of postings with or without hooks.  

Example 1 Moderating by Postings with Hooks on Both Ends

Amy (Oct 27 9:41pm):

so we agree that there were no differences in wanting to be good and fun people
the differences are in how we go about thisso

What do you see are the implications of these differences?  

The topic of this class was the Myers Briggs Personality Type preference (MBTI), and how one's own MBTI personality type preference can affect interpersonal relationships. In the postings prior to this excerpt, students talked about the differences of the personality types. It is important to note that this particular thread was fairly extensive with about ten messages. At this point, the moderator (i.e., Amy) posted a message that not only strongly weaved what was discussed in previous messages but also provided a hook for future messages.

However, providing a hook did not always activate discussion on the topic. After the message was posted, it was perhaps not processed well or interpreted properly, and the topic “implications of these differences” failed to become fully developed. One possible reason was that these students might have had difficulties processing this question. Therefore, the moderator used an example to interpret the question, shown in Example 2.

Example 2: Moderating by Posting with Hooks

Amy (Oct 27 9:44pm):

what if your parents are big time organized people
and your style is to go with the flow
what are the implications of these preferences for you

After this particular posting, the discussion was developed but not as much as might be expected because the discussion was drawing to an end, and, not surprisingly, students could not stay well focused.

It is also helpful to review moderating postings without hooks, or postings with hooks that had only one end - postings that either only solicited without providing context or related materials, or only summed up previous messages. What effects did such postings produce?

Example 3: Moderator Postings with Hooks on Only One End

Jodi (Nov 3 8:11pm) :

   Marie: #197 What would you need to get the same feeling in a f2f class?

   Renee: What is the meaning of your message-4?

Jodi (Nov 3 8:12pm) :

   Renee: Can you articulate more?

Jodi (Nov 3 8:13pm) :

Arlene: #216 Why do you think that is?

The topic of discussion in Example 3 was students’ feelings about the absence of moderators. In the postings prior to this excerpt, students talked about their feelings. The moderator in this group posted messages without hooks, with hooks that were extremely flat and weak, or hooks that had only one end that functioned as “soliciting without providing context and related materials.” Furthermore, using serial numbers of postings as a reference did not work well because the flow of the messages was so quick that it was not convenient or practical for students to scroll back and forth to address a moderator’s question. The effects of these postings were not obvious. Post #207 was not addressed at all nor was post #215, while post #219 was picked up but without deep reflection. Here are more examples of hooks with only one end.

Example 4: Moderator Postings with Hooks on Only One End

Lindsey (Nov 3 8:27pm):

Joyce: that is a great observation... ''So I think people have underestimated their skills. I believe this group would average a 4 in most of those questions''

Moderator Lindsey in example 4 summarized without suggesting next steps. Postings like these were “flat”- they did not weave with other postings or provoke further discussion – and, consequently, they failed to produce additional discussion. In the end, this posting activated no further responses.

Finally, we could observe in Example 5 how Moderator Amy strongly weaved with and wrapped up Discussion.

Example 5: Moderator Postings That Strongly Weaved and Wrapped up Discussion

Amy (Oct 20 10:05pm):


   i'm aware of the time
   just want to say how impressed i am again with this group
   we did a bunch of totally new and bewildering activities
   used the whiteboard, filled in questionnaires, without java and so on
   and you were all troopers

   i feel so proud for all of you
   and i want to thank you for being so open and accepting, as i remind you
   that we are all learning here, as we keep pushing that envelope

i bow to each of you

Amy (Sep 15 9:32pm)

   i have a question
   what do we each need to have to feel like we belong in this group?

In post #288, Amy strongly weaved and wrapped up the whole discuss with a pleasant conclusion wherein she praised the participants. In post #18, when the discussion went deep enough and the current thread ran out of energy, Amy added new directions for the discussion. She provided a hook with both ends, this time, putting more weight on the end that intended to elicit future responses-“I have a question …?” Amy here actually articulated the major question/objective of the whole discussion. Amy posted this question after the “inclusion” topic was discussed thoroughly, which was timely and fortuitous. What’s more, she made the question relate to the present online experience of her group by stating, “what do we each need to have to feel like we belong in this group?”

This question activated several other rounds of extremely heated and lively discussion. With Amy using different moderating strategies skillfully, students stayed well on-task and produced sharp and deep reflections, together with informal banters and elements of humor as lubricants. All of these elements are reflective of students being engaged behaviorally, social-emotionally, and intellectually.

Modeling and Tele-mentoring

As a relatively new learning method, online collaboration itself is a learning process that needs scaffolding from capable experts to smooth the process as well as to guide the content learning to achieve smooth, effective online collaborative learning (Zhang, 2004). Instructors are expected to provide supports in the collaborative learning process by motivating students, monitoring and regulating performance, and providing reflections, modeling, moderation, and scaffolding (Brown & Palinscar, 1989; Mullen & Tallent-Runnels, 2006; Zhang, 2004).

Vygotsky proposed that learning occurs in social activities (Vygotsky, 1978), and that complex, higher-order thinking gradually develops through social interactions with others in the culture (Gredler, 1997; Vygotsky, 1978). According to socio-cultural theorists, people learn from mediations and scaffoldings, which are offered within one’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) from experts or more capable peers (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998; Gredler, 1997; Wertsch, 1985). Such a distance can be bridged and extended through scaffolding efforts; for instance, as external assistance is gradually reduced, the learner can achieve independent competency in the task (Gredler, 1997).

In this particular study, there were various degrees of effectiveness in performing moderating functions such as recognition and prompting. The mere performance of recognition and prompting without involving the real substance of the subject matter did not always generate positive effects (i.e., increased participation and interaction). As Xin (2002) and Shi (2005) observed, just being a cheerleader is not enough. It sometimes worked at the beginning of a seminar; however, the effect diminished quickly if there was no real intellectual substance combined with the cheering and soliciting. When a moderator was demonstrating and modeling, hopefully within the zones of proximal development of most or all of the participants and coupled with deep engagement with real issues related to the topic, participants were drawn into the discourse.

Example 6: Moderator Postings Involving Demonstrating and Modeling

Amy (Sep 29 9:30pm):

   i like the fact that it is an 'i statement'
   it describes without evaluating or judging what i observed
   ie. you are driving at 150miles/hour

   and not
   you are driving like a maniac

   then, i get to say what i feel
   that's not negotiable
   if i say i feel scared, no one can tell me i don’t, or shouldn’t
   then i like the part where i get to elaborate on my reasons, though this
   part is not always necessary
   finally, i like the part where i can tell you what i need

   i sure did not like it at first
   criticized it, refused to use it consistently
   till my friend said
   ah, i see... you really don’t wish to be heard, right?

In message #123, Amy posted new questions in order to bring the discussion to a deeper level (note that these questions were not included in the original agenda, but Amy raised these questions according to the situation - some students felt frustrated when beginning to discuss the formula). After most group members responded to the questions, Amy posted her way of looking at the formula using personal experience and reasoning at message #132. She was demonstrating and modeling, perhaps within the zones of proximal development of some of the individuals.

Example 7: Moderator Postings Involving Demonstrating and Modeling

Philippe (Sep 29 9:50pm) :

mom, i am frustrated that we seem to miscommunicate as to what you need me
to do to help out with dad. i feel like there is more that i can do, but i
feel that you do not communicate this to me clearly. i would like to do
what i can, but i need you to help me to understand what this is.

Amy (Sep 29 9:54pm) :

Philippe: notice the 'you statement' you are making
how may you change that, i.e.
mom, when we discuss the type of help you need from me, i feel frustrated
because i am not clear as to what you think i could be doing and i need
you to be clear about what you think and say?

Students were asked to put forward a formation based on the formula given in Example 7. Group member Philippe did so in message #187. Moderator Amy gave concrete suggestions to individuals through modeling at message #193. The following is a similar example.

Example 8 Moderator Postings Involving Online Modeling

Philippe(Sep 22 8:44pm):

   Cheryl : no way, i don't think you come across as a pessimist. There’s
   soooooooooooooo much to take in, so much going on, and your picture reflects that

Amy (Sep 22 8:48pm) :

   Philippe: what seems to be missing in this environment are the eye balls
   we all imagine are out there judging us
   of course, those eyeballs rarely bother, being too busy worrying about
   their eye balls
   but face2face, we imagine people see exactly what we wish to hide

   here, there is a sense of perceived anonymity and safety
   no eyeballs
   you're at home
   have more time to think here also...

Message #363 posted by Moderator Amy was intended to answer message #349 - and a few other messages in which Philippe and other group members felt that people tended to use the Internet, but he failed to clearly articulate his reasoning. Amy clarified what the students wanted to say but that they were apparently unable to articulate. In this sense, students’ ZPDs were bridged. Based on this scenario, it appears that to moderate well--one needs not only effective scaffolding skills, but also sufficient knowledge of the area and ability to offer reflective comments and critical thinking or analyses.

Confronting and Conflicting

Social cognitive conflict theory (Clement & Nastasi, 1988; Piaget, 1977) provides insights on how online discussion can serve as a valuable contribution to learning. The underlying assumption of this theory is that knowledge is motivated, organized, and communicated in the context of social interaction. Doise and Mugny (1984) argued that when individuals operate on each other’s reasoning, they become aware of contradictions between their logic and that of their partner

In effect, the struggle to resolve these contradictions propels them to new and higher levels of understanding. Research by Bearison (1982) as well as Perret-Claremont, Perret, and Bell (1980) supports the assertion that the conflict embedded in a social situation may be more significant in facilitating cognitive development than the conflict of the individual focusing alone (Rourke & Anderson, 2002). In Rourke and Anderson’s (2002) study, students claimed that the additional perspectives offered by others in the form of opinions, personal experiences, and analogies added to their understanding of the content, and made it more concrete. Contradictory perspectives disturbed their initial impressions of the content and prompted learners to process it more thoroughly. This latter process, however, can only be precipitated by challenging and critical interactions. As Brown & Palincsar (1989) noted, “change does not occur when pseudo-consensus, conciliation, or juxtaposed centrations are tolerated” (p409). There is little argument that learning may be defined as the progressive modification of ideas and behaviors through interpersonal interaction.

There were times in this study when students became frustrated and they complained. Is it better for the instructor moderator to confront these reactions or to ignore or avoid them? Moderator Amy’s practices provided some insight into this question. In Example 9 below, she confronted students’ complaints:

Example 9: Moderator Postings that are Confrontational

Olga (Nov 3 7:59pm) :

   Rose: are they doing it again? This class is slow I’m starting to get
   annoyed… I’m only on 3hrs of sleep for 2 nights now...

Amy (Nov 3 8:00pm) :

   a trick?
   it was more like providing you with an experience of possible discomfort
   the main risk is that you would get pissed at us, but hey,
   we were willing to live with that
   so if there was a trick, excuse me, but it is on us?

Amy (Nov 3 8:02pm) :


   i would love to explain
i dont know which part you are not understanding though.

As an experiment, moderators did not arrive on time to see how students would react. Later, when the truth was revealed, some students complained and said it was a trick and they did not like it. Moderator Amy reacted by confronting the complaints. The effect of this approach was that students reached an understanding (or were pacified) and the discussion returned to task-oriented issues. In other groups, complaints about being tricked were not addressed by the moderators, thereby resulting in stifled or digressive discussions.

Example 10: Moderator Postings that Lead to Stifled Discussion

Philippe (Oct 20 9:33pm) :

   i think this was kind of a dumb assignment. i mean, all the questions were
   basically just different ways of re-wording the same question, and i'm
   just not convinced that the results are very meaningful

Amy (Oct 20 9:34pm):

   Philippe: i'm not a fan of questionnaires myself
   yet this one is actually a very good one, in as much as it has very high
   internal validity and is used in many selection processes both in academy
   and in corporations.

i would suggest we get past what we don’t like though and look at what is
   useful about this whole issue of learning and learning style.

Here is another example of a student complaint. One student complained about the assignment in message #148 and called it “dumb” and not meaningful. In posting #158, the moderator handled the complaint by voicing her opinion and suggesting more positive reactions: to find what was useful about the whole experience.

It is extremely interesting that some active individuals defended and debated fairly different and conflicting ideas. They noted their different viewpoints from their peers as well as from the moderator; in fact, there were also occasions where they agreed to disagree. As they assumed or appropriated roles that the moderator modeled, they began to share the role of a moderator. Here are some examples.

Example 11: Students Assumed the Roles that the Moderator Modeled: Confrontational and Fostering Debate

Gabriel (Sep 22 9:51pm) :

   Brandie, i would tend to think in the ways of ‘‘well he got what he
   deserved'' which might not be the RIGHT thing to do.

Gabriel (Sep 22 9:52pm) :

   Tracy: that doesn’t sound too healthy. Don't you think that sometimes if
   you consciously behave the way you do, people will start to think that
   you're getting annoying?

Samantha (Sep 22 9:53pm) :

   Tracy: I voice my opinion a lot too, but you have to know when to keep it
   closed CAN get you in trouble....

Gabriel (Sep 22 9:56pm) :

   But hold on, all this THEORY is nice and dandy but is this the way the
   world really works? I would think not. I would think the world works with
   'survival of the fittest in mind'. Those who can empower others and order
   others around always seem to win?

Brandie (Sep 22 10:02pm) :

   Myrna: No i don’t think it sounds selfish to respect yourself...hmmmm...but
   to put priorities in me before others does sound selfish..

Gabriel (Sep 22 10:03pm) :

   But is simply being AWARE only a way to excuse your cowardice and

Postings from Example #11 show when individuals operate on each other’s reasoning, they become aware of contradictions between their logic and that of their partners. The struggle to resolve these contradictions might very well propel them to new and higher levels of understanding.

Setting up Norms

As the focus changes from “teaching” to active “learning,” the instructor must take substantial responsibility for fostering a learner-centered peer collaborative learning environment. Group dynamics contribute to students’ performance in collaborative learning and to their satisfaction with the learning experience (Anderson, 2006; Park & Bonk, 2007). Some participants’ “free riding” and “social loafing” actions as well as their failure to contribute, however, can damage others’ enthusiasm and motivation in the course of collaborative learning. In addition, the feeling of “talking in a vacuum” with online collaboration, frustrations with technology, and other factors make online collaboration a challenge to many participants (Samlon, 2000; Zhang, 2004). What did expert moderators do to activate the participation of all group members? Below is one example.

Example #12 Moderator Postings that Set up Norms

Amy (Sep 22 9:37pm):

   be fun to count all the languages between us
   another thing that would be good, for the rest of the semester, if we all
   agreed to some protocol
   like for example
   when it comes to taking turns, how about we use the room menu?
   whomever is first there, goes first and so on
   that way, the Johari window of the group would enlarge some
   we will all know that this is how we do an activity

   i need feedback
   does this make sense?

Here, in the beginning of the second part of the conference, Moderator Amy was setting up norms for the discussion. She proposed that people take turns. Apparently, students did not understand her directions. She stopped some off-task discussion in message #474. She posted the main discussion topic in message #491 and then clarified the situation in message #492. After Amy set up the norms and gave clearer directions and guidance, the discussion did not appear to need as much prodding but, nevertheless, continued in an active and lively manner.

Social-emotional Elements

In the virtual environment, as in the face-to-face environment, students naturally showed affective reactions - interest, boredom, happiness, sadness, and anxiety (Fredricks et al., 2004). The social dimension is a crucial factor in determining the “climate” of conferences; that is, the willingness of people to contribute and engage seriously with the effectiveness of the discussion (Cook & Ralston, 2003; Park & Bonk, 2007). In addition to constantly checking the task progress, the instructor also needed to provide motivational moderations by recognizing individuals engaged in active collaboration as well as simultaneously encouraging others who were absent from the discourse or less active to be more active participants.

Example #13: Mixing Moderation with Social Emotional Elements: Motivational Moderating

Amy (Sep 22 8:50pm):

   Ofelia: smile
   i earn my living with such things

   John: lol
   good job!

   are you here?

Example #14: Mixing Moderation with Social Emotional Elements: Motivational Moderating

Amy (Sep 22 9:41pm):

   Rose: oh dear
   you are tired
   we just had 10 minutes or so
   hugging you
   lets go

It is difficult to find significant effects of teacher’s moderating levels on student social emotional engagement from the quantitative measures alone due to various limitations of these measures. However, it is useful and informative to observe the efforts that moderators made to facilitate student social-emotional engagement. The above are only a few of many pertinent examples.


Using the quantitative analysis results as a guide, the researchers identified transcripts and sections of transcripts for qualitative analysis. Putting the transcripts and sections of transcripts of interest in both their broader and immediate context, the descriptive discourse analyses resulted in a general picture of the interactive process of synchronous online discussion through the analysis of sections of transcripts. Five themes of effective moderating strategies, together with the supporting theories and practices, were discussed. As noted earlier, these themes are: (1) providing hooks with both ends; (2) modeling and tele-mentoring; (3) confronting and conflicting; (4) setting up norms; and (5) social-emotional elements. While this is not an exhaustive list of moderating functions, it does serve to highlight some observations of good (and not-so-good) moderating practices and how they affected the meaning construction process where scenarios of learning were seen to take place (or not). We argue that these themes, emerging as they do from the qualitative analyses, (and consistent with existing theories and practices), show the manner in which instructors manage the ebb and flow of synchronous discussion as well as how this affects student engagement.

The methodologies and findings of this study contribute to a better understanding of how teachers can provide effective online mentoring and scaffolding to facilitate student engagement with each other and with the subject matter. Findings from this research should inform research and practice related to the larger goal of improving the quality of online teaching and learning.

The analysis of synchronous computer conferencing transcripts provides a way to decrypt interactional patterns of group discussion in order to understand the learning process of individuals who participate in such discussions. It also elicits data useful for gauging the efficacy of interaction among instructors and students. The analysis of the transcripts of computer conferences can also shed light on how the collaborative learning process can be supported, sustained, or hindered (Henri & Rigault, 1996; Fahy, 2001; Rouke, Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2001). Only when we have a better understanding of what is happening in computer conferencing can we offer specific suggestions about how to make use of this medium for learning (Henri, 1991; Young, 2004). This understanding comes only from a finer-grained analysis of the content of the conferencing as incorporated in the present study.

Study Limitations

There admittedly were many limitations related to this particular study. For instance, the study was made in a specific context: a synchronous, online, three-credit university level course structured and moderated by instructors. As such, the course had its own unique subject matter, tasks, and structure. Moreover, the study was a quasi-experimental research project wherein the assignment of group membership and moderators used some randomization. In theory, a true randomization would have involved randomly assigning individuals to controlled or pre-selected moderating conditions.

Another key limitation was that this study was based on one kind of technology - a synchronous conferencing tool that has its own unique features, options, and limitations. There are an enormous variety of conferencing tools available today that could have been selected instead; both asynchronous and synchronous. Even commonly used and debated synchronous tools such as Adobe Connect Pro (i.e., formerly Breeze), CCCConfer, Centra, Wimba (formerly HorizonLive), Interwise, LiveMeeting, NetMeeting, and WebEx may provide different learning environments with vastly different affordances and constraints. In addition, the emergence of the Web 2.0 in recent years provides many other more ubiquitous and subtle channels for synchronous interaction and episodes with previously thought to be asynchronous technologies which occur so quickly one may ponder whether the setting is, in fact, synchronous.

A third limitation is that such a technology was novel to most of these students. Not only is synchronous instruction novel in higher education, but the eClassroom within the Learnbydoing eClassroom system has many highly unique features including the capabilities to post your picture with your post in different sizes. As with any new technology, there is great need for instructor moderation and support.

In addition, we did not determine previous familiarity with synchronous technology or the Learningbydoing system. The interactions and resulting learning here were undoubtedly affected by student familiarity with the system. A follow-up study with a group of students who had familiarity with the system or other synchronous tools might explore their interactions, perceptions, and levels of cognitive processing. But this is just one system. There are dozens of other synchronous systems available today; each of which may offer different features and capabilities, and hence, different opportunities for facilitating cognitive and metacognitive thought. The extensive learning and instructional possibilities, in fact, may be reasons many educational researchers seem stymied from attempting to make an impact in this exciting field.

A fifth limitation is that this was just one class in one university. What would happen in other disciplines or levels of education? For instance, might such a tool be used in corporate training situations with just-in-time and on demand synchronous sessions? In such a situation, a moderator might be available at set times or when needed to answer specific questions of employees or trainees. And in K-12 education, mentors might be available for students studying for exams or in difficult math or science topics. The forms of moderation, however, will likely vary quite significantly from the formats we discovered in this particular study. Stated another way, there are limited generations from our results. However, when some of the synchronous studies undertaken to date are looked at, interesting guidelines and caveats for instructors can be formulated (see Park & Bonk, 2007, in press, for instance).

Future Research Suggestions

There are many directions for research on synchronous instruction. For instance, future studies might attempt to control teacher moderating levels to examine the effects of moderating on student engagement. Future studies might also observe students as they progress through a second or third course with this tool, i.e., conducting a longitudinal study.

Furthermore, much can be done with the data that the system collects. For instance, students might be asked to look at their transcripts and describe their learning. What are the types of scaffolds that they found especially beneficial? Researchers might ask them to circle or label situations or areas wherein students felt that they were learning at a surface level as well as a deeper level. After those retrospective analyses, they might engage in more synchronous sessions. Their ensuing behaviors might be compared. Instructors might also be pulled aside to discuss their synchronous interaction experiences. Perhaps different forms of online mentoring might be displayed and discussed individually as well as collectively in focus groups.

As indicated, the primary data used for this study were automatically archived transcripts. Future studies might collect robust data - such as surveys, interviews, focus groups, and course products - to help build a deeper understanding of the issues and problems underlying synchronous online learning. At the same time, researchers in these areas might ask students to retrospectively reflect on their chat transcripts or watch and comment on a replay of their synchronous chat sessions. Instructors, too, might be directly or indirectly involved in such retrospective analyses. For instance, both students and instructors might offer insights into the cognitive, behavioral, and social activities separately and then combined as instructor-student teams.

Given the current emphasis on blended learning environments, yet another limitation here was that our study was based on one level of technology application; i.e., a fully online situation without any face-to-face meetings. The types of synchronous facilitation and interaction might be drastically different in a blended situation wherein instructors have more personal information and experiences with their students, and vice versa. Differences in any delivery formats—face-to-face, fully online, blended, etc. might generate different needs for moderation and interaction (Anderson, 2006; Duemer, et al. 2002; Park & Bonk, 2007; Zhang & Ge, 2003). As the formats of instructional delivery continue to splinter, and, at the same time, blend together, the world of synchronous research will become more fascinating and vital to understand. To design effective courses, programs, and associated training experiences, instructors as well as instructional designers, and perhaps even administrators and training department heads, across educational sectors, need to know more about this unique area.

This study is only one look at online synchronous moderation. It provides a humble starting point for future empirical studies. To understand the dynamics of synchronous online conferencing, research must consider all aspects of online collaborative learning simultaneously: the individuals, the group, the team task, and the delivery media (Keefe, 2003; Liu, et al. 2005 Zhang & Ge, 2003). And the collaborative technologies for virtual teaming, tutoring, debating, and other course activities, of course, are not limited to synchronous systems. Today, there are myriad tools for learning and collaboration, including the uses of Wikis, blogging, social networking, and text-based commenting and annotation. Web 2.0 provides unique avenues for participatory learning. Now Web 2.0 researchers need to ask how experiences and expectations for such participatory systems and learning environments impact student’s facility at using synchronous systems as well as their desire to benefit from them. This might be a match made in heaven!

Final Comments

This study linked both the processes and the educational objectives of computer conferencing to student engagement. As such, it fills a significant gap in the synchronous conferencing literature. Just one gap was addressed here; there are many more. Eventually, research in this area can extend to online training programs and curricula. It might also extend to K-12 curricula and informal learning areas. As bandwidth increases and the cost of online interaction plummets, there are likely thousands of learning situations which can benefit from such research. In the near term, the results of the present study can help researchers and practitioners develop better protocols for moderating online discussions. Such knowledge is essential if online learning (particularly synchronous conferencing) is to achieve its full potential. In the long term, synchronous instruction is increasingly part of the blended and fully online teaching arsenal. Additional comfort with it, better understanding of it, and creative implementation using it, should elevate the possibilities and potential for synchronous instruction in higher education as well as other environments. Insightful next steps in this area will be crucial for student learning and interesting to monitor.


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About the Authors

Dr. Shufang Shi is an assistant professor in the Childhood/Early Childhood program of the School of Education at State University of New York at Cortland. Her research interests include synchronous online discussion and technology integration in k-12 settings. She is the designer of Thread Theory, a theoretical and analytical framework applied to content analysis of synchronous computer conferences. Shufang received her Ph.D. in instructional technology from Michigan State University. More information is available at

Contact information: State University of New York at Cortland, Childhood/Early Childhood Education Department. Van Hoesen Hall B224, P.O. Box 2000, Cortland, NY 13045
Email: Tel: 607 753 2468. Fax: 607 753 5976.

Dr. Curt Bonk is Professor of Educational Psychology as well as Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. Dr. Bonk is also a Senior Research Fellow with the DOD’s Advanced Distributed Learning Lab. Dr. Bonk is in high demand as a conference keynote speaker and workshop presenter. He is President of CourseShare and SurveyShare. More information is available at

Contact information: Indiana University, 201 N. Rose Avenue, Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology, Bloomington, IN 47401.
Email: Tel: 812 856 8353.

Dr. Punya Mishra is an associate professor of Learning, Technology and Culture
at Michigan State University. He also has research affiliations with the
Communication Technology Lab (CTL) and the Media Interface & Design (MIND) Lab, both at MSU. His research has focused on the theoretical, cognitive, and social aspects related to the design and use of computer based learning environments. Dr. Mishra is also an accomplished visual artist and poet. More information is available at

Contact information: Michigan State University, 509A Erickson Hall, East Lansing, MI 48824. Email: Tel: 517 353 7211.

Dr. Sophia Tan is an assistant professor in the Spadoni College of Education at Coastal Carolina University of New York at Cortland. Her research interests include online social interaction and technology integration in curricula. Sophia Tan received her Ph.D. in instructional technology from Michigan State University.

Contact information: Coastal Carolina University, Spadoni College of Education, Kearns Hall 211D, 1270 Atlantic Avenue, Conway, SC 29526 US.
Email: Tel: 843 347 2614.

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