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Editor’s Note: This is a thoughtful study of synchronous computer conferencing and student engagement. It poses and answers questions about techniques used by moderators to stimulate participation, interactions, and learning. It provides useful analyses of approaches used by e-moderators and students.

Facilitating Educational Synchronous Online Discussions

Shufang Shi, Punya Mishra, Curt Bonk
United States


The goal of the study was to better understand the nature and dynamics of moderated synchronous group discussion as it relates to individual cognition and group interaction.  While such a goal is hard to achieve, it lies at the heart of student learning. This study provides a picture of the interactional processes of synchronous online discussion through a descriptive discourse analysis of synchronous computer mediated discussions. 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.

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


Online learning has received a great deal of attention. The bulk of research has focused on asynchronous environments. Synchronous communication, by contrast, despite its popularity, has received less research attention. There are also 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).  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.

The core issue 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 process in synchronous computer mediated discussion.

Theoretical Perspectives

To moderate is to preside or to lead (Feenberg, 1989a; Mason, 1991; 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). Collins, Brown, and Newman (1989) ideas related to effective strategies for apprenticeship, Rogoff’s (1990) model of apprenticeship in thinking as well as guided learning, and Bruner’s adaptation of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” including the supportive dialogue within that zone - or “scaffolding” (Ninio & Bruner, 1978) - are all analogies employed to illustrate an assistive role for teachers in providing instrumental support to students from their position of greater knowledge content (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998; Garrison & Archer, 2000).

According to Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001), 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 (Paulsen, 1995).

The effective use of moderating functions addresses a central problem or concern of computer conferencing: namely, online leadership. The effective use of online moderating functions supports and facilitates student engagement and ensures that a healthy context is established and maintained where learning progress is made through sustained dialogue. On the social-emotional side, the use of moderating functions attempts to sustain class dialogue while, at the same time, maintaining the social milieu needed to encourage democratic participation and interaction. On the knowledge construction side, because moderating functions encapsulate cognitive acts, the effective use of them necessarily fulfils an intellectual role. Through the exercise of moderating functions, the moderator helps learners engage with the subject matter, deepen their understanding, and work together toward idea integration and convergence (Xin, 2002).

According to Winograd (2002), 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 decide what action to take if a conference is going awry (Winograd, 2002).

Obviously, a moderator needs to know when to wear which hat and how to perform the role accordingly. There is increasing literature that discusses the role of the moderator (Berge & Collins, 1995; Rohfeld, & Hiemstra, 1995), moderating functions (Feenberg, 1989b), and online teaching presence (Anderson, et al. 2001). Based on a broad literature review, Xin (2002) compiled a list of moderating functions.

One of the most important functions a moderator plays in online discussions (and such is the case in this study as well) is that of the subject matter expert. 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.

Research Context and Data Collection

The research context of this study was an online three-credit course on interpersonal communications and relations of a Canadian University, delivered through a real-time, interactive text, image, and animation messaging system called the “Learnbydoing eClassroom.” The eClassroom consisted of a main room and four breakout rooms for small online group activities and discussions. All eClassroom activities and interactions took place in real-time. Unlike most online courses in higher education, nothing occurred asynchronously (Lobel, Neubauer, & Swedburg (2002a, b).

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, other class materials such as the course syllabus, the course readings, classroom activity agendas, and all of the course assignments. These data help to define the context of each conference.

Research Design and Data Analysis

The qualitative analysis process consisted of four phases. The first phase took place before the computer conferencing sessions started. The researcher identified the central parameters underpinning the conferences such as the background information, class objectives, and approaches to moderation (Keynes, 2003). 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 researcher was a participant observer of the synchronous online discussion sessions. Field notes were taken during the observation.

The third phase of the qualitative analysis involved reading for a general picture or impression as well as reading to locate transcripts or sections of transcripts of interest for more detailed analyses. During this phase, 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 (Keynes, 2003). 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.  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 on how these efforts may have impacted the subsequent discussion. The five themes are as follows:

  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 does not provide an exhaustive list of moderating functions, it does serve to highlight some observations of good moderating practices and how they affected the meaning construction process where scenarios of learning were seen to take place.

Providing Hooks with Both Ends

Some researchers (e.g., 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 that 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. Discussions on both positive and negative examples allow inspection of the effect of postings with or without hooks.

Example #1 Moderating by Posting Hooks on Both Ends

      678 Mon, Oct 27 9:41pm -- Amy



      we agree that there were no differences in wanting to be good and fun people

      the differences are in how we go about this


What do you see are the implications of these differences?

(Transcript #5, October 27, Group 4)

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 and that thread was fairly extensive - about ten messages. At this point, the moderator (i.e., Amy) posted a message that not only strongly weaved what was discussed in the 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 message #693.

Example #2 Moderating by Posting with Hooks

      693 Mon, Oct 27 9:44pm -- Amy


      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

(Transcript #5, October 27, Group 4)

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

      207 Mon, Nov 3 8:11pm -- Jodi


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

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

215 Mon, Nov 3 8:12pm -- Jodi


      Renee: Can you articulate more?

219 Mon, Nov 3 8:13pm -- Jodi


Arlene: #216 Why do you think that is?

(Transcript #7, November 3, Group 1)

The topic of this discussion 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 or with hooks that were very 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

      283 Mon, Nov 3 8:27pm -- Lindsey

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''

(Transcript #7, November 3, Group 1)

Moderator Lindsey 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. This posting activated no further responses.

Finally, we could observe how moderator Amy strongly weaved and wrapped up to finish her class with a pleasant conclusion wherein she praised the participants.
Example 5:  Moderator Postings That Strongly Weaved and Wrapped up Discussion

      288 Mon, Oct 20 10:05pm -- Amy



      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

(Transcript #5, October 20, Group 4)

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 their (the group’s) present online experience “what do we each need 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.

2.  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 (Brandon & Hollingshead, 1999; Brown & Palinscar, 1989; 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). Vygotsky defined ZPD as the distance between a person’s independent competency and that obtained with assistance from an expert or in collaboration with more capable peers (Wertsch, 1985). Such a distance can be bridged and extended through scaffolding efforts, as external assistance is gradually reduced and the learner finally achieves 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) 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, perhaps within the zones of proximal development of some of the individuals 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

      132 Mon, Sep 29 9:30pm -- Amy


      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?

(Transcript # 4, September 29, Group 4)

In message #132, 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

      187 Mon, Sep 29 9:50pm -- Philippe


             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.

            193 Mon, Sep 29 9:54pm -- Amy


            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?

                  (Transcript # 4, September 29, Group 4)

Students were asked to put forward a formation based on the formula given. 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

      349 Mon, Sep 22 8:44pm -- Philippe


      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

      363 Mon, Sep 22 8:48pm -- Amy


      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...

            (Transcript # 4, September 29, Group 4)

Message #363 posted by moderator Amy was intended to answer the above message - 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.

3. 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, interviewed 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 disturb their initial impressions of the content and prompt learners to process it more thoroughly. This latter process, however, can only be precipitated by challenging and critical interactions. As Brown (1989) notes: “change does not occur when pseudo-consensus, conciliation, or juxtaposed centrations are tolerated” (p. 409). 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

      170 Mon, Nov 3 7:59pm -- Olga

      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...

      176 Mon, Nov 3 8:00pm -- Amy



      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?

     190 Mon, Nov 3 8:02pm -- Amy


      i would love to explain

i dont know which part you are not understanding though.

(Transcript #7, 8, 3rd, Group 4)

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 was that students reached 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, resulting in stifled or digressive discussions.

Example 10:  Moderator Postings that Lead to Stifled Discussion

      148 Mon, Oct 20 9:33pm -- Philippe

      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

      158 Mon, Oct 20 9:34pm -- Amy


      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.

(Transcript #5, October 20, Group 4)

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

      501 Mon, Sep 22 9:51pm -- Gabriel

      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.

      507 Mon, Sep 22 9:52pm -- Gabriel

      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?

      512 Mon, Sep 22 9:53pm -- Samantha

      Tracy: I voice my opinion a lot too, but you have to know when to keep it

      closed sometimes.......it CAN get you in trouble....

      526 Mon, Sep 22 9:56pm -- Gabriel

      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?

      529 Mon, Sep 22 9:56pm -- Evangelos

      Brandie makes a good point. If you agree with the 2 people (in a cheating

      situation) it probably wouldn't bother most people as much. I, personally,

      feel that no one should be belittled even when they do something like


      545 Mon, Sep 22 10:00pm -- Gabriel

      Myrna: Yes. I'm sure it doesn't ALWAYS work that way, but the world is a

      competitive Arena first, a democratic society second.

      553 Mon, Sep 22 10:02pm -- Brandie


      Myrna: No i don’t think it sounds selfish to respect yourself...hmmmm...but

      to put priorities in me before others does sound selfish..

      555 Mon, Sep 22 10:03pm -- Gabriel

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


                        (Transcript #3, September 22, Group 2)

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.

4.  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 (Bosworth & Hamilton, 1994). 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 (Flannery, 1994; Zhang, 2004). What did expert moderators do to activate participation of all group members? Here is one example.

Example #12 Moderator Postings that Set up Norms

      467 Mon, Sep 22 9:37pm -- Amy

      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?

            (Transcript #3, September 22, Group 4)

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 in message #492. After Amy set up the norms and gave clear direction and guidance, the discussion did not apparently need as much prodding but, nevertheless, continued in an active and lively manner.

5. 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 (Keynes, 2003). 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

      366 Mon, Sep 22 8:50pm -- Amy


      Ofelia: smile


      i earn my living with such things

      John: lol

      good job!


      are you here?

            (Transcript # 3, September 22, Group 4)

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

      495 Mon, Sep 22 9:41pm -- Amy


      Rose: oh dear

      you are tired

      we just had 10 minutes or so

      hugging you


      lets go

            (Transcript # 3, September 22, Group 4)

It is difficult for the quantitative analyses to find significant effects of teacher’s moderating levels on student social emotional engagement because of the various limitations of the measures. However, it is useful and informative to observe the efforts that moderators made to facilitate student Social-emotional Engagement. The above are only some of the several 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 and 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 does not provide 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.

Compared to asynchronous conferencing, synchronous conferencing has received much less attention in both practices and in research. If synchronous conferencing begins to impact teaching and learning at even one-tenth the degree to which asynchronous conferencing has played a role in reshaping higher education courses during the past decade, there will be a tremendous need to understand student engagement and participation and teacher facilitation and moderation in such environments.  Already, numerous indications from corporate training suggest that synchronous forms of learning can play a significant role in adult learning.  There are also 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.  As they begin to demand more synchronous opportunities, research such as the present study can better inform how, when, and where to embed real-time virtual learning experiences.

To moderate is to preside or to lead (Feenberg, 1989a; Mason, 1991; Paulsen, 1995). Computer conferencing – especially synchronous conferencing calls for a moderator who provokes and instigates in order to keep the interactions alive. When a message fails to function as a link, at one end or the other, moderating functions are needed to tie up the loose ends and strengthen the link in order to keep the chain of conversation going (Xin, 2002). In this vein, moderators provide assistive roles in providing instrumental support to students from their position of greater knowledge content (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998; Garrison & Archer, 2000).

What is not clear is how much “scaffolding” is required or is appropriate. The literature on online discussion has tended to favor high levels of moderating. Based on the over-arching ethos of good teaching and learning (The Report of the University of Illinois, 1999) and the limitations of computer conferencing, researchers have often argued for strong online moderating. Studies have shown that when learning based on computer conferencing fails, it is usually because of the lack of teaching presence and appropriate online leadership (Garrison, et al., 2001; Gunawardena, Anderson & Lowe, 1997; Harasim, 1990; Hiltz et al., 2000). However, researchers have identified problems when the instructor exclusively assumes the role of discussion leader (Rourke & Anderson, 2002), and, as such, inhibit the free exchange of ideas. Meanwhile, many corporate training settings favor independent study and self-directed online learning. Some practitioners of online teaching prefer not to moderate online discussions since they think the teacher’s intervention may limit students’ freedom in the discussion. 

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 on the larger goal of improving the quality of online teaching and learning. 

Analysis of synchronous computer conferencing transcripts provides a way to decrypt the interactional patterns of group discussion in order to understand the learning process of individuals who participate in the discussion. 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). 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, 1992). This understanding comes only from a finer-grained analysis of the content of the conferencing as the present study does.

Limitations and Suggestions for Future Research

The study was made in a specific context: a synchronous, online, three-credit university level course structured and moderated by instructors. The course had its own unique subject matter, tasks, and structure. The study was a quasi-experimental research project. 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.

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.

As indicated, the primary data used for this study were automatically archived transcripts. Future studies can 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.  It might also be possible to have students retrospectively reflect on their chat transcripts or watch and comment on a replay of their synchronous chat sessions.  Instructors, too, might be involved in such retrospective analyses.

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 is an enormous variety of conferencing tools, 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.

Given the current emphasis on blended learning environments, yet another limitation here was that our study was based on one level of technology application. It occurred totally online, without any face-to-face meetings. Differences in any of these aspects might generate different needs for moderation (Zhang & Ge, 2003). 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 (Zhang & Ge, 2003).

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.  Eventually, research in this area can extend to online training programs and curricula. The results of the study may 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.


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About the Authors

Dr. Shufang Shi is an assistant professor in the Childhood/Early Childhood Education Department at State University of New York Cortland. She is the Chief Researcher for CCC Confer, a state-wide e-conferencing project serving 109 California colleges in the California Community College system. Shufang received her Ph.D. in instructional technology from College of Education, Michigan State University. While conducting her dissertation research, she was a recipient of Spencer Research and Training Grant. Prior to her doctoral studies, Shufang was an Associate Professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University where she received Excellent Young Teacher Award. Her homepage is at http://web.cortland.edu/shis/

Email: shis@cortland.edu.

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 http://punya.educ.msu.edu/

Email: punya@msu.edu.

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 http://mypage.iu.edu/~cjbonk/

Email: cjbonk@indiana.edu.

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