© Mary-Anne Andrusyszyn, RN, MScN, EdD

Developed March 1996
Revised: October 1998
Repackaged: March 2006 


  1. Introduction
  2. Goals
  1. The Delivery Medium
  2. Constructing Knowledge
  3. The Instructor / Facilitator
  4. The Learner
  5. Course Planning
  6. Course Design
    1. Conferences and sub-conferences / Virtual learning spaces
    2. Learning Activities and Reflective Thinking
    3. Assignment Options, Tests, Grading
    4. Public or Private Assignments
    5. Group Activities / Learning Circles
    6. Length of Messages
    7. Organizing Thoughts as They Evolve
    8. Approaching Each Week
    9. Honesty
  7. The Environment
    1. Reinforcement
    2. Timing Responses
    3. Netiquette
    4. Dealing with lookers
    5. Climate
    6. Closure
  8. Course Evaluation
  9. III. Closing Thoughts

    IV. References



This resource is designed to offer novice and experienced instructors who are teaching courses electronically, through computer-conferencing (CC), constructive ideas about planning,developing, implementing, and evaluating their online courses. Many of the principles in this guide also apply to traditional teaching/learning situations and other technological media.

This resource is not meant to be a cookbook approach to online offerings. Its purpose is simply to stimulate reflection upon issues that are particularly important to teaching and learning in this educational medium. As you browse through the guide, think about your knowledge and experiences as an instructor and learner and consider ways that your course may provide the most meaningful experiences for everyone involved.

This guide was originally developed in March 1996 in collaboration with Mary Pritchard, PhD,who was the Coordinator of Mediated Learning in the Faculty of Part-Time and Continuing Education, University of Western Ontario.

Thanks are extended to the following individuals who took the time to provide constructive feedback as the guide was being developed: Dr. Carole Farber, Janet Stevenson, Dr. Peggy Watts, Alina Freedman, Dr. Mary van Soeren, Elaine Clark, and Zenon Andrusyszyn.

Thanks are also extended to all of you in Internet-land who have taken the time to send me a message about the guide. Your continued feedback on its usefulness and readability would be appreciated. Also, suggestions on how this guide can be strengthened are always welcome.

Please take a few minutes to forward your thoughts to:

Mary Anne Andrusyszyn, RN, MScN, EdD
Faculty of Health Sciences, School of Nursing
The University of Western Ontario
London, Canada, N6A 5C1
Tel.: 679-2111 ext 86577

Remember, if you like this guide, tell your colleagues . . .
If you don't . . . give me a chance to change it.

© COPYRIGHT of this guide is with Dr. Mary-Anne Andrusyszyn. The guide may be printed for individual/personal use only. Multiple copies for reproduction may not be made unless permission is obtained from the author. Hard copies of the guide may be purchased on request.


General goals or ends-in-view frame the direction in which the course or program will go. They are open and non-prescriptive, and they provide the topics under which a wide range of content, based on the instructors' expertise and students' learning needs, may fit (Bevis & Watson, 1989). A more general, less objective-driven approach is suitable for online learning as it favors the more seamless or fluid characteristics of the medium.

The overall goal of this guide is to help you reflect upon your teaching and learning experiences intraditional and non-traditional educational settings. Examine your philosophy of teaching and learning as it applies to online education. As you read the guide, think about how your beliefs,values, attitudes, and experiences with facilitating learning harmonize with the issues that are of particular importance to providing successful CC courses. More specifically, you are invited to consider issues related to:

A. - The Delivery Medium
B. - Knowledge Construction
C. - The Instructor / Facilitator
D. - The Learner
E. - The Environment/Context
F. - Course Planning
G. - Course Design
H. - Course Evaluation


Electronic media to support the delivery of education have been proliferating rapidly over the last three decades. Computer-conferencing (CC) was first developed by Murray Turoff in 1970. Its first uses were for the delivery of non-credit and executive training programs in the early 1980's.The medium has now expanded to include all levels of academia (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff,1995).

Computer-conferencing is an effective electronic means of connecting learners who may or may not be separated by distance in a shared learning space using computers. The medium provides a means for greater access to learning opportunities for those at a distance. For example, in a recent study, graduate students in Canada and Norway connected through computers for a period of seven weeks to discuss issues related to health care administration (Andrusyszyn, M.A., Moen,A., Iwasiw, C., Ostbye, T., Davie, L., Stovring, T., Buckland-Foster, I., 1998). This kind of learning opportunity would have been very difficult otherwise.

Through personal computers, participants connect to a host computer that has the capacity to store all the messages that individuals construct during a discussion. The transcript of the emerging discussion is permanently stored on the host computer and can be accessed at any time by those registered in the course (Harasim et al., 1995). This record of interactions may be reviewed, reflected upon, and used to provide the context for the developing discussion. It may also provide some learners with more time to focus on and understand a particular concept. Elliott Masie refers to this as "time trickle"

There are numerous advantages of CC cited in the literature. For example, participants can connect to a host computer from the comfort of their own homes, schools, or offices at a time that is most convenient to them. In the Canada-Norway study, the six-hour time difference did not create an obstacle to ongoing communication. Messages were created at all times of the day and evening, and some were even created at night. Masie (1998) gave an example of a colleague, completing an online Masters program, who was doing much of the work in an airplane while traveling 150 days a year (Tech-Learn Trends, #59, Aug 7,1998). The ability to "time shift"learning is important and it is common to have learners choose alternative delivery methods even though physical distance is not a barrier to access (Tech-Learn Trends, #68).

This many-to-many approach to learning, integral to CC, promotes the development of multiple perspectives and shared understandings among learners (Harasim et al.). This offers a huge advantage over one-to-one or one-to-many communication. The expectation is that everyone will participate and will have something of value to offer to the developing discussion.

CC offers learners and educators a sense of flexibility, an important consideration for those learners, many of whom are adults who have multiple roles and responsibilities. Social connections also take place in this medium. Often, a social space is created in the medium to provide opportunities for learners to reduce, and in many cases, dissolve feelings of social isolation. These were issues that were frequently associated with other forms of distance delivery such as traditional print-based (correspondence) courses where the dialogue was mostly limited to the instructor and student.

Burge & Roberts (1993) suggest that the CC environment also promotes a sense of equality among participants. Each participant has an equal voice. This may not happen in a traditional classroom where there may be competition for "air time". In addition, the subtle and sometimes not so subtle influences of nonverbal cues are missing in this environment. Responses have a greater likelihood of being judged for their substance and merit as opposed to whom they are coming from. The CC environment is democratic, and can be highly motivating as well as freeing(Harasim et al., 1995).

Sharing information through active and ongoing dialogue and constructing knowledge through mutually shared understandings all contribute to the development of a sense of community and intimacy among online participants (Andrusyszyn & Davie, 1995; Burge, 1993; Davie, 1987;Harasim et al., 1995; Sleightholm-Cairns, 1993). The sense of community comes from the respect that is generated among participants, the freedom to take risks, and the freedom to share thoughts and feelings to the degree one desires. It is an emancipatory learning medium. The social connectivity inherent in CC, coupled with geographic flexibility, are elements that make this medium more appealing than other forms of delivery.

It is common, however, for those new to the medium to feel vulnerable and/or inadequate or even skeptical that learning in this medium can be substantive and high-powered. Many facilitators with whom I'm had contact have been pleasantly surprised about the quality of the dialogue that can develop online. There is also literature to support that the quality of student outcomes in online environments is at least as good as if not better than those in traditional learning environments (Andrusyszyn, Iwasiw, & Goldenberg, 1998).

Educators and learners alike may not be skilled at keyboarding and get frustrated with having to type out their thoughts. For most participants, thinking and speaking is generally faster than keyboarding. Thoughts may also become transformed as they are written, and once recorded and forwarded to others online, may reflect ideas that have since changed (Andrusyszyn, 1996). These may be other sources of frustration.

Communication in an online environment may be synchronous or asynchronous. With synchronous communication, all participants are connected at the same time. This promotes a feeling of coming together and simulates being part of a more traditional concept of a class. It also means that everyone has to be at a computer at the same time. Although possible, this approach reduces participants' flexibility and requires coordination and planning.

Issues to consider when planning to integrate synchronous CC include such things as: time zones and schedules, long-distance phone charges, simultaneous access for everyone through the university's modem pool (if that is the means), and how to keep track and make sense of the multiple messages arriving almost simultaneously.

Synchronous communication simulates a traditional classroom environment. It is important for you to consider whether this is a feature from which the class can benefit. Although learners generally enjoy the feeling of "being together apart", sitting at a computer for 2-3 hours at a time and attending to the multiple strands of messages being sent and received can be very tiring. This strategy can work well with a small group of 5-10 participants and can be both personally exhilarating and exhausting.

You may wish to experiment and think about scheduling one or two synchronous interactive opportunities into your course design to assess whether this is a strategy that will work for you. You may also wish to read the article by Davie and Inskip (1992) who describe a synchronous exercise that took place over a weekend in real-time. This exercise provided a synchronous experience within an asynchronous course.

Asynchronous communication means that participants contribute to class conferences at times that are convenient to them. This is also referred to as delayed-time messaging (in comparison to real-time messaging). They can log into the conferencing system, download the messages, log off,read and reflect upon the messages, construct their responses, and finally log in and upload their contributions to the conference from their personal computer.

Although messages can be constructed online, it is important to consider issues like long-distance phone charges as well as tying up lines to the modem pool for others to use. The asynchronicity of CC is a feature which is appreciated by participants due to the flexibility it affords.


Think about learning as a collaborative process where you are all learners involved in a joint shared experience where collective understandings are developed. Constructing knowledge is not the one-way transmission of information from the instructor to the learner. It is not the 'jug-mug' approach to learning where the learner's brain is perceived to be an empty vessel, ready to be filled or some version of this belief. As D. Benton stated on the OCC- L listserv (Feb.96), learning is not teaching and teaching is not preaching.

Constructing knowledge involves the opportunity to critically analyze information, dialogue with others about its meaning, reflect upon how the information fits within our personal belief and value systems, and arrive at a meaningful understanding of that information. In this process, information becomes transformed into knowledge (Jonassen et al., 1995; Crotty, 1994;Andrusyszyn & Davie, 1995).

Constructing knowledge involves active learning through participation and dialogue. It shifts away from a prescriptive to an engaging approach to learning. This approach is particularly important and one that lends it well to the online learning environment because CC supports collaboration through dialogue and the development of shared understandings.

In this environment learners . . . "can work together to solve problems, argue about interpretations, negotiate meaning . . . While conferencing, the learner is electronically engaged in discussion and interaction with peers and experts in a process of social negotiation. Knowledge construction occurs when learners explore issues, take positions, discuss positions in an argumentative format, and reflect and evaluate their positions. As a result of contact with new or different perspectives, these activities may contribute to higher level learning . . . " (Jonassen et al,p.16). This liberating, as opposed to oppressive approach to learning, serves to move learners to higher and deeper levels of understanding that stimulate cognitive processes such as critical thinking and inquiry learning (Bevis and Watson, 1989).

Think about how rich the discussion in your online course can be if everyone is involved in shaping the experience. Everyone has something to offer.


Teaching and learning processes in a CC environment are somewhat different from a traditional face-to-face (f2f) one. The electronic medium lends itself very well to discussion, brainstorming, sharing understandings, clarifying misconceptions, and developing knowledge in a collaborative way. CC is a wonderful medium in which to promote critical thinking.

This approach may take some getting used to, and may require an evaluation of your role, especially if you are used to a more teacher-centered, traditional approach to teaching and learning. It is not unusual to hold a healthy skepticism about the medium. Try to think of your role as one that embraces the characteristics of effective facilitation. Remember, although you may be the content expert (not to mention an advanced/expert learner), participants benefit from an approach which involves them in the learning process . . . in other words, active learning. It is important to recognize and draw upon the content expertise of the class participants. Respect them as informed participants and yourself as the individual who will help them explore the information that they bring to and gain from the experience.

Think of yourself as what Bevis (1989) refers to as a "meta-strategist", a strategist of strategies (1989, p. 125). In other words, as meta-strategist, you may not always provide answers but develop strategies with your co-learners to find the answers. As Bevis suggests, your job as teacher is not to let students flounder and become frustrated but to offer guidance, support, and direction so that curiosity and the spirit of inquiry get nurtured. In this way, learners develop multiple strategies as well as self-esteem and confidence. By engaging learners in dialogue and critical inquiry, learners see that their knowledge and experience are respected and that their contributions are valued (Andrusyszyn & Davie, 1995).

It is common initially to feel that you should be jumping into the discussion and answering questions and responding immediately to messages submitted to the conference. Sometimes this is even necessary. However, one of the strong features of online learning is that as the faculty / instructor / educator / facilitator (whatever term you prefer), you should really try to see yourself as an expert learner (Stenhouse, 1975, p.91) and co-learner and in the experience: someone with expert knowledge in the subject matter who can serve as a guide to others but also as someone who can learn from others. Give your co-learners time and space to reflect and respond . . . prompt if this doesn't happen. If you encourage dialogue among class participants, you will probably discover that someone in the group has an appropriate response or will at least begin a dialogue about the issue. In other words, you may be pleasantly surprised at how effectively learners can use each other as resources. Let it happen.

Take some time to think about who you are as a teacher, your role as co-learner, and your level of comfort with this paradigm shift. Also, examine your philosophy of teaching and learning. Reflect on the courses that you have taken as well as those you have taught. Think about the delivery medium. Ask yourself some questions . . .

What made each of the courses special and effective experiences for me and for my learners?

What are my strengths and limitations as an instructor?

What is my preferred style of teaching?

How can I include learners in the teaching/learning process?

How do I feel about teacher and learner centered approached to education?

To what degree do I enjoy dialogue and sharing of knowledge?

How comfortable am I with silence? (Silence online can be deafening! (Andrusyszyn, 1996))

To what degree do I perceive myself as a supportive individual, ready to offer reinforcement to those who may be in need or a little shy?

Do I embrace a philosophy of adult learning in my teaching?

How can I become a meta-strategist?

What skills do I have in stimulating discussion?

There is no one 'right' answer to these questions. They are meant to encourage you to think about yourself as an educator and examine your philosophy of teaching and learning. For example, if your teaching style is primarily didactic, you may be tempted to use the CC or web conference as a way of giving lectures. As a result, you may find that learners will not actively participate in dialogue with each other and only use the medium to download your notes. This will not take full advantage of the opportunities for discussion and the shared building of knowledge. If this is the case, you may find it helpful to provide learners with a course package that includes your lecture notes, a range of web sites that may be accessed as additional resources to complement or supplement the course package, and use the conferencing medium to discuss issues that arise from the notes. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the latter if the intention is clear from the outset; however, it is not the best way of taking advantage of what can be a truly interactive environment. Others have stronger feelings about this as noted in the following comment on the online college classroom (OCC- L) listserv: "successful computer communication demands a great deal of empathy between writer and reader. If you can't put yourself in your readers' shoes, and anticipate what they need, you're better off using your machine to play solitaire" (Killian, January 1996).

Facilitating learning means that you set up learning opportunities where participants feel that they are empowered to learn. As already mentioned, your role is to guide the process and help learners enhance their awareness "of the interrelated and interdependent nature of knowledge and it's relativistic and contextual nature" as they strive toward becoming self-directed (Garland, 1994). You may need to experiment with various ways to facilitate dialogue and sharing perspectives on whatever the context might be. The point is to get everyone actively involved in the learning experience. In other words, experiment with an approach that is more learner-centered, one that shifts the locus of control from you as the teacher/co-learner, to your students as your co-learners. Learners should really be at the heart of the learning process and should control the learning experience (Gunawardena, 1992). Saba and Shearer (1994) found that an increase in the level of learner control increased the rate of dialogue . . . [and] . . . an increase in the level of instructor control increased the rate of structure (p.54).

In addition to facilitating discussion, you will have to be able to use the technology yourself. You may be a novice to CC, which is OK, but make sure you have a good understanding of the glitches that learners might run into. If you have any questions, consult with someone who has experience with the medium or pose a question on one of the list-servs that deal with computer-conferencing (eg: the (OCC-L)).

Be sensitive and supportive. Direct learners to the electronic help conferences that are normally part of your conferencing system. As in any teaching / learning situation, do not hesitate to say that you don't know something. You are not expected to act as a technical advisor. Try setting up an online space where your participants can pose technical questions, and those who may be more computer-literate, can offer suggestions or solutions. There is usually someone in a class that can help. Ongoing technical support should be in place to help learners with technical problems. Frustration resulting from technical problems is a waste of precious energy that can be spent on more meaningful things. Sources of help should be clearly outlined in whatever package your students receive.

As with any medium, there are strengths and limitations associated with the facilitator role in CC. You will likely discover that teaching in an online medium is labor intensive, especially if it's your first or second time. For that matter, the first experience with any new course, regardless of the medium, is time consumptive. However, don't get discouraged. As you know, once you have gone through the exercise of developing a course in its entirety, future revisions take a little less time and the pressures ease somewhat with experience. "There is an economy that comes with the number of times you have taught the course" (M. Gismondi, NODE Forum January 22, 1998). For example, C. Killian (OCC-L listserv April/96) indicates that he has had his handouts sitting in a spot on the Web for several years. This saves time and effort with keyboarding. Similarly, you can save your notes or handouts in a file and modify and upload them as needed to the class conference. Over time, I have found that the amount of time spent preparing for and facilitating an online course (along with all the accompanying parts like evaluation, student contact etc.), compare favorably with a traditional face-to-face course. What feels considerably different, however, is that on online course "haunts" you. It's very different from coming to a classroom once a week for three hours and leaving. The fact that it is always there can be exciting and tiring if you don't set limits for yourself.

One instructor in a graduate program in Western Canada estimated that she spent 1.5-2 hours a day 6-7 days a week online. This did not include time for reading and grading assignments. This is not too unusual if you add the amount of class preparation time, actual class time and student contact time that are part of a traditional course. However, it is important to recognize that other factors may have also contributed to the time intensity. One factor was that the program was new. Nevertheless, budgeting your time is an important consideration in any course in order that you may successfully meet your multiple obligations.


Learners in a CC course may vary in their experiences with computer technology. Some will be novices and have no idea what a modem is or what words like upload and download mean. Others will have had some experience with the technology and may have taken courses by CC. Still, others may be techno-whizzes, challenged, and excited by the latest computer chip on the market.

If possible, assess the technical expertise of your learners ahead of time. This is easier to do in a course where enrollment is restricted to a specific population. In other cases, unless there is a section on the registration form that captures information about computer literacy, you will probably not have access to this information until the course begins. In this case, it's a good idea to create an online space for learners to introduce themselves and comment on their knowledge and experience with computers. These introductions work well as icebreakers and provide a way for everyone to get to know each other. At this point you can identify the range of computer expertise in your class and use this as an opportunity to enlist the support of those with technical skills.

It is usual to spend the first week or two of an online course having participants introduce themselves, get comfortable with the medium, and organize themselves while slowly getting into the course processes. If a large proportion of the participants are novices, expect to use more up-front time on having them getting comfortable with the technology. Once the glitches are worked out, they can better attend to the course goals and activities. So, if you planned to get into the meat of the course in the first week or two, revisit that idea.

It usually takes up to two weeks for learners to gain increasing comfort with the technology. The student " . . . cannot begin to deal with the content of the instruction if he or she is unable to first interact with the interface" (Hillman, Willis & Gunawardena, 1994, p.35- 36). Hopefully, learners will have practiced using the conferencing software and maybe even worked through some exercises/examples on how to navigate successfully through the conferencing software. If not, give them a little time. Novice participants also need to be informed that sometimes systems crash and that this is out of their control. They need to try again later and not worry that the crash was their fault, that they did something wrong, that they will be penalized for not getting as message posted on time, or that the system is unreliable (T. Di Petta & S. Scadding, NODE Forum, Jan 30, 1998).

An important consideration is that learners may feel vulnerable sharing thoughts and committing them to writing for an audience they cannot see (Andrusyszyn & Davie, 1995). Some feel they are taking risks because they may be uncertain about the adequacy of their online contributions. They worry about whether what they "say" will be well received, substantive enough, and respected by the instructor and their peers (Andrusyszyn & Davie, 1995).

The development of rapport and the creation of a trusting climate conducive to sharing understandings are important in all learning environments. These are particularly important in a CC environment where written words can sometimes appear crisp and sharp. There are normally no nonverbal cues to add visual context to the words. Creating a space that is safe and conducive to exploration and wonderings is an important consideration. As you know, rapport and trust do not develop automatically. These are elements to which all facilitators need to attend regardless of the medium.

Bevis (1989) suggests that the relationship between learners and educators can be viewed on a continuum where learner maturity shifts progressively from a less mature position depicted by a need for attention and direction to one associated with self-directedness, independence, and a spirit of inquiry. She describes the immature positions as "charming/hostile"(please the teacher or show little interest); "anticipatory-compliant/passive aggressive" (psych-out the teacher and get a good grade or resist instruction); "resonating/critical" (respecting and admiring the knowledge and skill of the teacher or can't do anything right). There are two mature positions that Bevis describes: "reciprocating" (learners are free to share ideas and assume responsibility of their learning); and "generating"; (learners explore ideas that have meaning for them and are related to their goals).

Although Bevis' work does not focus on an online learning environment, the maturity positions have application to this medium. Understanding who your learners are and where they fit on the maturity continuum are sources of valuable information that can be used to guide your facilitative approach. With less mature levels, students are more dependent on the instructor and less self-directed and independent. As maturity increases, the need for instructor structure diminishes as the desire for "self-structure" (p. 88) grows. Helping learners share ideas, make sense of the multiple perspectives, attend to their goals through meaningful dialogical exploration lend themselves well to this environment. The reciprocating and generating positions are ones which one would wish to nurture in an online medium.

Other considerations that should be kept in mind are that adults who enrol in university-level courses and programs have varied motivations and interests. Some will be fulfilling academic degree requirements; others will be striving to meet professional development goals; still others will be taking courses for pure interest and enjoyment. In many cases, reasons for enrolling in a course/program will be obvious since the course is an explicit part of the curriculum. Passing the course may serve as one extrinsic motivator for meeting the online participation requirements you designed for or with them. Others may "need the credit" but the freedom of expression, democracy, and equality will serve as the drive for active participation.

Designing online courses for those who choose to take an online course for fun, curiosity, and/or personal development may need further analysis. These learning opportunities do not normally have a "credit" allocation so sustaining ongoing active participation in a group that often has individuals with multiple roles and responsibilities can be a challenge. The point is that these learners obviously hold a common interest, even though the individual motivations, perspectives, or needs may vary (Steeples, 1993). As facilitator, you need to capitalize on the common thread tying these learners together and consider how each learner can meet his/her individual goal(s). This suggests a strong need for a learner-centered and even a learner- controlled environment (Steeples, 1993). Think about what motivates adult learners to participate in lifelong learning. Plan and design learning opportunities with these thoughts in mind.

Malcolm Knowles (1970) was considered a "guru" in adult education. He wrote a great deal on the concept of andragogy (teaching adults). You may wish to explore some of the literature in this area. The following are some assumptions about adult learners that you may wish to consider when designing your courses. Remember that:

*** adult learners have life experiences to which they like to relate their learning;
*** they value the practical and like to see that what they are learning is relevant;
*** they want to understand and know the why's and how's behind what they are learning;
*** as adults with previous knowledge and experience, they value recognition and respect;
*** adults normally have multiple roles and responsibilities in their lives and the course in which they are involved may not be their first priority;
*** adults appreciate being involved in the learning process.

In other words, adapt your approach in order to meet the diverse needs of the group. Evaluate whether the goals of the course fit the learners' educational needs and expectations. Find out what additional issues or processes may be of interest to the group. Consider making adaptations which will serve these interests within the context of the course. Involve them in the decision-making process. Involvement in the process will enhance commitment; it is all part of active engagement in learning.

Remember that many adults may have been away from an academic setting for a long time. Many will never have been exposed to an online learning environment and will approach it cautiously and perhaps, with scepticism. They may feel intimidated or vulnerable and that there is a "social contradiction between the role of student and the role of adult" (Garland, 1994, p.45).

Positive, ongoing, and genuine reinforcement will go a long way in building a sense of confidence and competence. Support the development of individual personal control over their learning situations (Garland, 1994). "Being in personal control over their learning situations means that learners are in a position to assume responsibility and to be self-efficacious" (p. 55). Naturally, these points apply to all learners, regardless of the medium.


An option you may wish to consider if circumstances allow, is including an introductory letter along with your course package to those who have registered. This is a very positive and powerful way of helping participants feel welcome as well as reduce some of the anxiety they may feel about taking an online course.

In your letter, you may wish to briefly review the overall goals of the course and what technology they need to have (or have access to) in order to participate fully. It would be nice to send all necessary materials a few weeks before the course begins but that may not always be possible (depending on the administrative load this entails and on when learners actually register). This would allow enough time for some of the participants to get whatever equipment they may be missing and perhaps even practice using the technology. M. Gismondi (NODE Forum, January 22, 1998) emphasizes the importance of thorough information being provided to participants as this reduces confusion "and every confusing instruction means a phone call, or nowadays, an email. Upfront effort and review helps".

S. Neubauer (personal e-mail, March/96) suggested that it might even be useful to include a brief explanation of things like "userid" and "password" as the "lingo" will be new for many. Although this information may be explained elsewhere, some learners benefit from hearing it again. Nevertheless, whether or not you decide to send an introductory welcome letter, course materials should be made available in ample time for materials to be duplicated, packaged, sent out, and received before the course start date.

If you are planning to include any copies of articles, or other resources (eg: videos) as required components of your course, you will need to provide enough lead time to obtain copyright clearances for the materials. (Check to see who is responsible for this at your institution. Often it is done through your campus bookstore as the materials may be sold through them.) Prepackaged materials " . . . can provide important elements of courses, such as explanations of the underlying structure of the content, clear explanations of the fundamental concepts, readings which advance alternative views on topics, and activities to enable learners to engage with the material" (Kember, 1994, p.156). Some materials can also be uploaded to a web-site for students to access and download if they wish to do so. This can reduce the costs associated with mail-outs but the assumption is that participants will have at least enough knowledge to obtain this information independently or with minimal assistance.

Plan what your course package will include. You may wish to consult with experts in mediated learning or even other instructors who have taught online when making these decisions. Your course package might contain the following:

A course syllabus or outline that includes:

* goals / ends in view of the course and perhaps for each unit of study;

* required and optional assignments;

* an outline of what content areas will be addressed over what time period;

* required and recommended readings/resources for each unit;

* Learning activities that outline the way(s) in which learners should prepare themselves for the upcoming content area or unit. Reading assigned materials or completing specific exercises or assignments help learners prepare themselves to engage in informed dialogue. It is a good idea to integrate discussion questions, case studies, and other activities that encourage reflective thinking into the learning activities.

* A reference list or bibliography (having these on separate sheets facilitates updating course packages);

* Copies of lecture notes (if the course depends on lecture notes). You may wish to put your lectures on disk and upload them to the conference, put them up on a web site, or make printed copies distributed with the course package. You can also videotape the lectures and include the videos in the course package (videos are best used for visual demonstrations as opposed to talking heads). Audiotapes (approx. 20-30 minutes per lecture) are also options for lecture material and can be used effectively to enhance learning from assigned readings. One hour of audio is considered to be equivalent to two hours of classroom lecture time. Although considered a basic (more primitive) form of distance delivery, don't dismiss it just because it does not have all the seductive bells and whistles other delivery media claim to have. Audio tapes might not be as exciting, but, they still work and use is relatively cheap.

Remember to consider the costs involved with the options that you choose as well as the fit between the medium you choose and the most effective and efficient way of delivering the message (eg: what is the best way to capture and hold participants' interest?) If you do decide to provide learners with lecture notes or other materials that will be print-based make sure the resources are camera-ready for scanning or on diskette and indicate the software and disk format you prefer. This is a consideration if you need to have copies made for distribution.

* Any other materials / resources that will support the learning experience that cannot be accomplished online (eg: there may be a video that you want everyone to see ahead of time);

* A description of your expectations of the responsibilities and roles of both facilitator and learners;

* Information about access to library resources; You may wish to build in an optional f2f (f2f) orientation as part of the beginning of the course. The advantage of a f2f orientation (especially if held as the course begins) is that during this time, participants not only have the opportunity to meet their colleagues, but may also have the chance to practice using the technology that will be a part of the course.

Getting together physically is something that many learners enjoy. A face-to-face (f2f) orientation is great if travel is not a hardship for participants. Find out what geographic areas your learners will be coming from. Requiring a f2f session may not be realistic if your learners are coming from all over the country or the world! Those who will not be able to attend may feel disenfranchised. If you do go ahead with a f2f orientation consider taking photographs of the group and uploading them to a website also for your participants to see. Learners can then refer to the photograph when they are participating in class discussions. This may also help build a feeling of community but . . . always remember the costs involved. In addition, consider the administrative costs associated with f2f sessions. Do you have someone who can book the classroom and the computer lab? If there are costs associated with this . . . who will pay?

In my experience, I have found that because our students have been together physically for so many courses, when we went online for some weeks at a time they really missed each other. Although they got to know each other differently and enjoyed the online experience, they appreciated the opportunity to come together periodically on campus. So, in the courses I facilitate, the majority of the units are online with periodic f2f sessions built-in to meet the needs of the group. Having said that, it's important to consider whether this is realistic or desirable for your specific learning culture and situation.


An online course is not the same as a f2f course, although there are many similarities. Consider that in a regular term, a traditional academic 3-credit-hour course normally extends over a 12-13 week period and is usually about three hours a week. If there are 20 learners in the class, and everyone has an equal opportunity to speak, in any given session, each participant, including you as facilitator, hypothetically, would have a maximum of nine minutes of air time. This does not include time for a break or other interruptions that may occur.

The reality is that not everyone will choose to speak, and some will choose to speak more than others. Other courses that may be taken for professional development and personal interest may even be of a shorter duration. In other words, the amount of time participants have to engage in dialogue is somewhat limited. In addition, the interaction between teacher and learner is often in one direction with the locus of control residing with the teacher.

In a CC medium, the time restrictions are guided by the course outline and the needs of the learners. You are not confined to a 3-hour time-slot to cover a particular content area. You may choose, depending on the nature and quality of the discussion, to extend the dialogue for a few more days. You may also choose to move onto another issue if the topic being discussed has been exhausted.

Online, everyone has an equal chance of offering opinions and making him/herself heard. Everyone has a voice. This is why the medium is so empowering to many who do not feel comfortable speaking in a f2f group. Learners can choose to respond spontaneously to the discussion or they compose their thoughts and edit their entries until their words express exactly what they want to say. They can take the time to "digest" and synthesize the discussion and contribute in an informed way. The quality of contributions, therefore, moves the discussion forward in depth and substance.

One significant advantage to CC is that because the dialogue is stored, participants have access to the class discussions at any time of the day or night. Even if circumstances preclude them from logging-in for a week, when they return, all that transpired online in that period of time is available. This is very different from a traditional classroom setting where words normally go unrecorded and you have to depend on someone's notes or interpretation of what transpired to catch up.

On the negative side, learners and facilitators can sometimes feel like they can't get away from the course. It's always there. No matter when you turn that computer on, the virtual space is ready and willing to receive your thoughts for others to read and present you with what others have added. This is exciting but I know when I first started learning and teaching using this medium, I felt like my computer was another appendage attached to my hip! Logging on to see what was happening was always in the back of my mind. Mind you, not everyone is quite as obsessive as I am, but many of the facilitators with whom I have discussed this issue have felt similar subtle temptations. Eventually a balance is reached where you become comfortable with the frequency of your checks.

The following sections may provide you with some helpful hints when designing your course:

  1. Course Conferences / Sub-conferences / Virtual learning spaces
  2. Learning Activities and Reflective Thinking
  3. Assignment Options, Tests and Grading
  4. Public or Private Assignments
  5. Group Activities or Learning Circles
  6. Length of Messages
  7. Organizing Thoughts as They Evolve
  8. Approaching Each Week
  9. Honesty

1. Course Conferences / Sub-conferences / Virtual Learning Spaces

I am going to use the word "conference" as a generic term for the online learning space for your course; remember that this may have a different name in another system. Your main online course conference needs to be given a title/name which may need to follow naming conventions consistent with the system you are using. The name of the conference should be something that participants will easily recognize and understand. Think of this conference as the trunk of a tree.

Opening sub-conferences or discussion areas to focus on specific topics or issues is a good idea. Think of these as branches on the conference tree. The main purpose of these is to help organize ideas into coherent clusters so that the discussion stays somewhat focused. Messages can then be submitted to the most relevant spaces so tracking and making sense of the multiple messages in a discussion is easier.

If you choose to have only one online space for the whole course, you will end up with multiple messages on multiple topics being sent to the same space. Some participants will be catching up on the previous topic while others will be forging ahead exploring new areas. This will drive you and your learners crazy because it will become increasingly more difficult to follow discussion threads. Also, when social conversation gets interspersed with the substantive aspects of the course, some will get frustrated because they prefer not to engage in casual conversation and do not wish to sift through the "chat" to get to the content. Others, who enjoy the social diversions, may feel there is no room or outlet for social dialogue with peers because they don't want to "clutter up" the main discussion with non-content oriented dialogue.

So, a good idea is to have a main conference space where the bulk of the class discussion takes place. You can also divide your course into several topic areas and open a specific space for each of these. This will help with organization. Open a space that simulates a relaxed atmosphere, where participants can get to know each other and you on a more social level and even share a virtual cup of tea (or something :). Be creative! Having a space for socialization is an important feature that should not be overlooked in a highly technological medium. This is an element that was missing in more traditional distance designs and contributed to feelings of isolation. Many learners really enjoy having a place where they can focus on building a spirit of community by sharing more personal interests. However, respect that others will find this "an extra frill" that they would rather do without.

Consider building in a space for participants to introduce themselves, one for asking questions related to the technology, another for assignment discussions, and even one for sharing relevant readings that participants may have found. Separate online spaces for each of these really does help keep the course more focused.

Too much of a good thing is not good either. Too many spaces to search for messages can be confusing, especially if they are not clearly labeled. It also becomes more difficult to remember which message should go where. So name spaces clearly and make sure that learners know what the focus of the contributions to that space is to be. Depending on the conferencing system you are using, your organizational approach may vary but the principles should apply.

2. Learning Activities and Reflective Thinking

Developing an online course involves more than simply converting an existing face-to-face course into one for CC. You really need to think about the goals or ends in view and the best way in which to address them in order to meet the learners' needs. Many things will work the same way in both media. Some will be different.

Computer-conferencing is usually asynchronous and as a result it often takes longer to do things online. A class exercise that may take 15-20 minutes of small group time in a regular classroom, will take longer in an online environment since not everyone will be connected simultaneously. It also takes time to synthesize conversations and longer to write responses than it does to speak. If you plan multiple assignments that require small group discussion within a rigid time frame, you and your learners will probably get frustrated.

So if you are shifting from topic to topic or activity to activity quickly, without allowing adequate time and space for conceptualization, reflection, and integration, your participants may have trouble keeping up. The sheer volume of contributions generated through discussion and frequent shifts to multiple issues, especially if everyone is actively participating (as they should), often make it hard for learners to keep up, make sense of the messages, and draw meaningful personal connections to what they are learning. Allow for and make time and space for them to think about, synthesize and integrate the information (Thorpe, 1995; Andrusyszyn, 1996).

"The difference between an expert and a novice is not just the amount of information they possess but also, and perhaps more even importantly, the way that knowledge is organized. It is the difference between storing one thousand folders by throwing then in the middle of a room versus storing them by some meaningful organization in filing cabinets" (Weinstein, as cited in Bevis, 1989, p.203).

Help learners make connections between what they are learning in class and their personal experiences and knowledge. Integrate learning activities that will stimulate reflective thinking. "...Reflection in the context of learning is a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciations" (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985, p. 19). Consider assignments that stimulate the processes of analysis, synthesis and evaluation, such as analyzing case studies, designing a project or critiquing a piece of literature (Andrusyszyn, 1996). These can be done independently or in groups. Of course, group work may be more time consuming, but the dialogue will stimulate cooperative learning that focuses on knowledge building. More than likely you will discover that concepts will be covered in greater depth than in a f2f course because of the multiple contributions generated from the collective group knowledge and experience. This has been well documented in the literature (Andrusyszyn, 1998; Davie, 1988; Seagren & Watwood, 1996; Weisenberg & Hutton, 1995).

However, having said all this, it is important to keep moving the discussion forward. If you feel that the main points have been addressed, move onto the next topic. You might even want to open a space for issues on a particular topic to which participants still wish to contribute. In this way, the main discussion can still move ahead and those with brain-waves on the previous issues can still add their thoughts. In most systems you also have the ability to "close" a discussion. This means that participants can still read all the contributions but they may not add any more to the conference.

You might want to try simulating a synchronous environment by having participants all come online at the same time for a few hours or days in the course. Although the flexibility associated with 24 hour access is diminished, the enthusiasm generated from multiple messages being sent and received continuously can be exhilarating and exhausting at the same time. However, it's worth trying, depending what your intended goal is, but it might be a nightmare to coordinate if your participants are from different time zones.

The idea is to plan, be selective, and flexible. Take the time to think through how a f2f activity might best be adapted to an online environment and whether there are alternative strategies that might lead to the same or similar outcomes. With time, experimentation, and consultation with others who have online expertise, you will develop a good understanding of what works well and suits your style, and what does not. Take the class pulse or temperature at several points throughout the course. Encourage them to tell you how they think the course is going and what they think of the learning activities and design. Involving learners in this process of formative evaluation by requesting their feedback on how the course is progressing, regardless of the medium, will enhance their commitment to the course (Burge, 1993). It will also provide you with valuable information upon which to base any necessary modifications.

3. Assignment Options, Tests and Grading

Assignments in a CC course can be designed in a similar way to those in other educational media. You need to think about whether you would like the assignments sent to you online or in hard copy. In either case, turnaround time is important. This can be much faster if assignments and feedback are provided online. You may want to think about the number of assignments you are planning to integrate into the course design, especially if they require group work. As you already know from the previous discussion, a group exercise that normally takes 15 minutes in a traditional classroom, will take longer to implement in an online conference due to the nature of the medium. The strategies that help learners integrate course content will need to be selected carefully. D. Benson (NODE Forum, April 22, 1998) suggests more frequent assessments to allow instructors "to make 'many-fine-corrections' as opposed to 'bang-bang corrections'. He further explains that he would not fly with a pilot who's certification was based solely on a summative online assessment as this data may be unreliable.

An option suggested by L. Hyslop (OCC- L listserv Feb/96) with respect to assignments or exams is to send a private e-mail message to each student that includes the assignment, quiz or exam. This may easily be done if you set up a distribution or mailing list in advance. Tell learners not to read the message until they are ready. If you set your e-mail function to confirm the receipt of your message, when the message is read, you will get a message telling you that the message was opened and the timing for the quiz can begin. You can then expect to receive the quiz or assignment in the time allotted. Another option for administering examinations may include having specific sites designated as testing sites where rooms would be arranged and proctors available to invigilate. This strategy does reduce flexibility, however.

A strategy that has been used when offering feedback online is to [place instructor comments between brackets] or to use some other symbol *like an asterisk* that would not necessarily be part of the paper. Another strategy is to [use brackets and UPPERCASE LETTERS]. This is not the best approach from an etiquette perspective because uppercase letters are more difficult to read and can give the impression that YOU ARE SHOUTING!

A third strategy that has been used often and successfully by Dr. Robin Enns, an experienced facilitator of graduate courses which use electronic mail as the primary mode of delivery, is to have learners use line numbering for their messages (in this case journal entries). Robin then uses the line numbers as reference points to the text to organize his responses (personal observation, 1995).

The following suggestions have applicability in CC as well as other educational media. They have been included here as food for thought because they lend themselves so well to the democracy inherent to an online learning environment. They are particularly well suited for work with adult learners.

Consider providing learners with multiple assignment options from which to choose. Everyone has a different way of learning; options will offer learners a sense of freedom and choice. This is an effective way of shifting the locus of control away from you to the learners and promoting a more learner-centered approach. You may even wish to provide an option whereby learners design their own assignment. You may be surprised by the creativity and the ideas generated.

Another option that works well and enhances student control is for them to choose the weighting of their assignments. In other words, you provide the acceptable range of grades for the assignments (learners can also provide suggestions) and the learners combine the options and the weightings to fit their learning needs and interests. (P. Paolucci OCC- L listserv, Jan/96) suggests that shifting 5% of a course grade to an assignment of the students choice has a great impact on learners . . . the positive psychological benefits of this little freedom are astronomical.

Grading Participation

Participation in online discussion is the one of the most critical elements in an online learning environment. The construction of knowledge depends heavily on the active, intelligent, collaborative sharing of information, experience, and understandings among all participants. That is where the richness of the experience comes from. Participation should be highly encouraged, valued, respected, and expected. Without everyone's active and ongoing involvement, an online course can dissolve into another teacher-centered, information-giving exercise that does not suit the philosophical underpinnings on which online learning is designed.

Attaching a grade to online participation is welcomed by some and not others. It is a useful way to motivate learners to contribute to the class discussions although not all students are motivated by marks. One example (from my experience is a course with Dr. Lynn Davie in 1992) is to allocated marks to the number of messages created over the duration of the course: five messages a week = A+ for participation, four = A, three = B+ etc. Another suggestion made by R. Vilmi (OCC- L listserv Feb/96) was to give learners a grade on the degree to which they kept deadlines.

P. Cravener (OCC-L listserv Mar/96) suggests that instructors focus on the outcomes of online time instead of the number of inputs. She suggests four messages every seven days that address four different topics from the readings. She also expects four responses to other participants' work in seven days and two responses to the commentary received on each student's individual messages. This approach would encourage learners to exchange opinions on each other's work.
Students can also complete a self critique on the quality of their online contributions and assign themselves a grade. They can decide on the criteria to use for their own assessment individually or as a group. The control for learning shifts over to them.

Needless to say, there are many approaches you can try. Regardless of your approach, the important point is to clearly outline your expectations for participation at the outset. The expectations may differ according to whether the CC medium is being used as a complement/supplement to a course or as the main delivery medium.

4. Public or Private Assignments

Think about whether student assignments should be shared online in a public conference so that others in the class may read them, or, if they should be sent to you in a private message. This could be negotiated with the group and may be done for some assignments and not others. The decision may be formalized once participants are comfortable with the medium and each other. Consider issues such as the climate of the class community and the nature of the dialogue taking place. You may wish to have this as an option for learners, free of any penalty should they choose not to enter their assignments into the public forum.

This is an activity that may take some getting used to due to the high degree of ego invested in one's work. Learners can feel intimidated knowing the whole class will be able to read their assignment. On the other hand, sharing provides the class with a sense of how others approached the assignment. It is one way of sharing the knowledge that has been constructed individually or collaboratively.

Another approach is to consider uploading an assignment which you consider to have been well done for the whole class to see. Naturally, you would need to obtain the student's permission. Students should also be offered a choice as to whether their wish to have their names on the best example.

If you do decide to make assignments readable by the whole class, you should consider building in the time and space during the course to encourage dialogue on the submissions. Learners often enjoy providing feedback to each other. It is an effective way to begin encouraging sharing of feedback in a constructive way. This feedback can be reinforcing, stimulate critical thinking, and serve as a form of formative feedback.

5. Group Learning Activities and Learning Circles

Consider integrating activities that promote group interaction into your course, especially if your group is large (12-20 or more). Groups can be used to work on specific assignments or activities, prepare for online seminars, or simply to discuss the weekly content issues relevant to the course. They can also be viewed as circles within which learning takes place through collaboration and cooperation, namely, "learning circles" (personal communication with L. Davie, 1995).

Group activities require planning and organizing on your part but they can work quite well whether the courses are oriented to degree credit or professional development. Group interaction can enhance commitment to a project since participants have to rely on each other for the different components of the assignment or project. Johnson and Johnson (1987) suggest that this positive interdependence enhances higher-order thinking.

Group work can stimulate the development of a cooperative learning environment where the collective learning of the group can be very enriching and rewarding on personal and professional levels. The process can promote a "team" approach to learning where a greater number of ideas can be generated than when working independently (Slavin, 1987). A team effort can be effective in distributing workload more evenly between participants and take advantage of the multiple sources of expertise within the group to solve complex problems (Stodolsky, 1984; Cohen, 1984). It is a means of engaging learners in active learning (Slavin, 1990).

Once learners have introduced themselves and some online rapport established, there are several planned or random approaches to forming groups that you might consider. You can ask them to send you a personal message indicating a course-related topic in which they would be interested. Or, you can ask them if there is anyone in the class with whom they would like to form a team. For example, learners may want to pair up with a colleague that lives in the same community, or with someone who has the same interests etc. Remember however, that you should to set deadlines in terms of when the groups should be established and learners should notify you as soon as partnerships are formed.

If you are working with more experienced users who are comfortable with the technology, you can have the class figure out how they would like to be divided up and let you know when the groups are formed. Although group formation is a bit more complex than in a traditional f2f classroom where you can have learners "count off", or swing their chairs around, the strategy can work well in this environment with both large and small numbers of participants.

Paired learning and groups of 3-5 can work well also. Try different combinations and decide what works best for you and your learners. Another suggestion is to have learners use a buddy system. Learners could be encouraged to work in pairs to respond to online assignments. This would be useful in promoting cooperative learning as well as reducing the initial insecurity of entering responses online independently. For example, learners can start off in pairs as they ease into a discussion and then two pairs can join together to form a larger team, and so on and so on . . . :)

Working in smaller groups and reporting back collective views or learning outcomes to the larger class has another great advantage. It reduces the degree of potential overload with respect to the number of messages that need to be read by everyone. In other words, the volume of messages each person needs to read as the discussion moves along is reduced with the use of groups or learning circles. In addition, a smaller group can offer a greater sense of intimacy and allow learners to get to know a smaller group of their peers more quickly. It may help them feel more "key-nected".

Group assignments are possible in an online environment. As in a f2f course, learners need to think about how they wish to approach the assignment, delegate responsibilities, set deadlines for submitting the relevant sections, and reach consensus on the final content. The process may be more time consuming since groups have to set parameters on how they will work together. It can also be frustrating when a group member decides not to log in frequently and holds the rest of the group back. It can also be very exhilarating if the group works well as a team. These elements are common in f2f courses too.

Working in small groups is also something that is very useful when language is a challenge among participants. In the International Canada-Norway study in which I was involved in 1997-1998 (funded by the NODE), the 16 Norwegian graduate students formed learning circles (four groups of four) to discuss the three case studies on nursing leadership (Andrusyszyn, Moen, Iwasiw, Ostbye, Davie, Stovring & Buckland-Foster, 1998). They discussed the cases between themselves and submitted responses to the conference that represented their collective wisdom on the issues. They chose this approach because they did not have the same degree of access to technology as did the Canadian students (who had personal computers) and working together in small groups moderated the stress of learning new technology and communicating in a second language. Another option that we try in future international studies, if access is not an issue, is to create circles that include students from both countries.

On another note, consider sharing some of the moderating functions with participants as a learning activity. Someone can be delegated the responsibility of introducing the topic and leading the discussion for the week, and someone can be responsible for summarizing the discussion within the small group and then sharing it with the larger group. Tagg (1994) found that discussions moderated by learners began quickly, were well organized, and generated significant interactions among learners. This is an effective way of sharing leadership responsibilities where the role of the educator shifts to providing feedback and guiding the class as a whole.

You may also consider giving a grade for the way in which learners participate and perform their roles as class moderators. You and/or your teaching assistant (should you be lucky enough to have one), will need to consider being a part of each of the small groups or circles. Although not absolutely necessary, learners do appreciate and enjoy the facilitator's presence, support, direction, and participation in the collective learning experience.

6. Length of Messages

For regular class discussions, you may wish to keep your messages and encourage learners to keep their messages to one or, at most, two screens. A convention that works well and is advocated by Dr.Lynn Davie (, an experienced CC facilitator at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto is to keep one thought per message per screen. This helps learners learn to organize and write their thoughts succinctly. It also helps those who read the message to get to the point quickly.

Depending on the course, thousands of messages can be created. In one graduate course with 21 students, 1629 messages were created in 13 weeks while in another with 23 students, 1797 were created (Burge, 1994). Harasim (1986) also documented that 3177 messages were created in 12 weeks by 29 graduate students in one course and in another with nine students, 542 messages were posted in 12 weeks. So, the moral of the story is to keep messages succinct. However, keeping messages to one or two screens will not be reasonable if you are writing weekly introductions and summaries or sharing assignments online. In these situations messages will be longer.

Help learners follow the thread of a discussion more easily by clearly identifying at the beginning of the message, to whom and to which message you are responding. Depending on the conferencing system you are using, it may be important to make sure that the subject line of each message is clear (L. McDonald, OCC- L listserv Feb/96). It is a good idea to keep the same subject line if your message is following up on or expanding on a particular issue. This is a critical point that threads the discussion and promotes clarity and focus for all participants. In other systems, subject lines are not used as discussions are clustered in other ways.

7. Organizing Thoughts as They Evolve

Once you have accessed your messages, you may want to download them to your own computer to read at your leisure. This is particularly important if you are paying long-distance charges. Creating folders or files in your word processing program to store the messages for each of your conferences and keeping notes on the messages that are of particular importance for easy reference later on is useful, especially at the beginning.

You or your learners may even consider printing hard copies of messages. These can be organized in binders and color coded for different conferences (Andrusyszyn, personal experience). I used to find it helpful to highlight the name of the sender, and make notes in the page margins on the ideas/concepts in the message that I wanted to refer to in the future. I would also make a note about whether I had anything further to contribute to the issue. This technique helped me stay "on top of" and "in touch with" the direction of the discussion (Andrusyszyn, personal experience). It was the only way I was able to stay organized and not feel like I was behind when I first started online work.

Depending on your conferencing system, and how your messages are organized, another hint is to read all the messages with the same subject line or in the same conference before you respond. Someone may have already expressed what you wanted to say. This avoids repeating the same ideas and moves the discussion forward. There is nothing wrong with adding that you agree with what has been said so far, however, that is not a "substantive" contribution and the idea is to develop a discussion with depth and scope. A discussion can get a bit boring :-o (yawn) ( to say the least) if everyone is reinforcing what everyone else said.

8. Approaching Each Week

Organize your course in a way that allows active, independent, and collaborative learning to take place. Think about ways in which you can stimulate online discussion. Ask questions that facilitate higher order critical thinking.

Prepare your course with a syllabus that outlines which content areas will be covered during which weeks. Provide learners with a list of the resources they will need to read in order to participate fully in the discussion. Encourage them to prepare for the discussions.

Decide on the type of learning you are trying to facilitate. You can refer to Bloom's (1956) taxonomy and the three domains of learning (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor) if you are inclined to a more behavioristic approach to learning. Another topology of learning is suggested by Bevis (1989, p. 91-94). She refers to six types of learning:

Item: pieces of information
Directive: rules and instructions
Rationale: reasons behind actions
Contextual: culture, politics, ethics, values
Syntactical:arranging information into meaningful wholes, discovering insights, interpreting and evaluating; linking theory and practice
Inquiry: generating theories; visioning and creating new realities

The latter three types of learning would certainly be expected at the graduate level as they focus on an educative versus training paradigm. Item, directive, and rationale types of learning are more common at beginning introductory levels.

You may want to introduce each week with a short lecturette to focus the topic, present a case study, or ask a critical question. In other words introduce each unit in some creative way that will "grab and hold" learners' attention.

At the end of the unit, summarize the key points of the discussion and connect it to and integrate it with the next unit. Highlighting the main points pulls the discussion together for participants. Doing this is time-consuming but learners generally really appreciate it. Naturally, you may also have class participants assume these roles if and when they are ready to do so.

9. Honesty

It is possible that you will never meet some of the learners in your online classes. There is a risk that the person behind the keyboard is not the person registered in your course. This dishonesty is not unique to the online environment. Have faith that these kinds of behaviors are the exceptions and not the rule. Most learners are honest, eager to learn, and trustworthy.

One institution's way of dealing with honesty was proposed by Dr. Hilda Carmichael in a NODE forum (April 23, 1998). She wrote that to assure honesty, all final examinations are proctored and must be worth at least 50% of the course grade. Students must pass the final to pass the course. "Trying to introduce [sic] policing mechanisms to deal with transgressions generally tend to lead to more and more severe controls which have strong restrictive implications for every citizen. It seems to me that a major effort has to go into reestablishing [sic] a much stronger adherence to the old-fashioned values of honesty and integrity at the individual and collective level (Dr. H. Carmichael, NODE forum, April 23, 1998).



Depending on how your course is designed, you may never actually "see" any of your learners. The nonverbal cues that you would normally use to gauge whether you are being understood, as in a traditional classroom setting, are missing.

Your messages need to be as clear and expressive as possible. Remember to keep the tone of your messages positive. Try to inject some humor now and again and view the discussion online as a conversation where everyone has something to contribute.

There are many elements that are integral to creating an environment that is inviting and conducive to learning. The following are some of the elements that you might wish to keep in mind.

  1. Reinforcement
  2. Timing Responses
  3. Netiquette
  4. Dealing with Lookers
  5. Climate
  6. Closure


Try to anticipate questions, areas with which learners may have difficulty, and be thorough in your explanations. Encourage learners to ask questions if they don't understand. If one person doesn't understand, it's likely that others don't as well. Model and reward this behavior to reduce the element of fear and encourage more questions. Positive reinforcement is critical to generating a safe learning environment and a climate that promotes learning.

Learners, especially in an online medium, are very concerned that what they write may appear stupid or not be substantive enough for others to read. Initially they may be tentative and reluctant to express themselves freely, knowing that all contributions will be seen, and to some degree, evaluated by everyone (Andrusyszyn & Davie, 1995). The following excerpt captures these thoughts:

"One of the things I found so hard about this course at the beginning was that there was no way for me to participate without revealing a lot about myself (mostly what I *didn't* know), and I found that very stressful . . . As a student in those situations I carry so much baggage about where will I fit in, how will I manage the work, will I understand the concepts, will I look dumb, that I realize now that I am barely coherent at the beginning of the course . . . "

In another study with f2f adult learners who had chosen to pursue graduate education, similar perspectives concerning the fear element in academia emerged. This is what Nytowl shared: "Many people are, I believe, reluctant to do that [be assertive and speak up because they're afraid. There's a fear element in university. There's the fear to contradict the professor. ... You can learn perhaps three times as much because [you] don't feel so reluctant to speak out. Those barriers are broken down. We don't feel so hesitant to question the status quo. Don't be afraid to question the status quo. Speak up for yourself" (Andrusyszyn, 1996).

What this suggests in relation to the learning environment is that your approach, your communication style, and the message that you are trying to convey are all very important in reducing the tensions that often accompany learning experiences.


Always try to respond to your learners in a short period of time; usually within 24 hours is recommended as the outside time-line. If learners do not receive a response in a reasonable time frame, they may get unnecessarily frustrated, especially those who are new to the technology and are nervous about their profound contributions being lost in cyberspace! Responding in a reasonable time reinforces that you are interested in what they have to say. According to C. Killian (OCC-L listserv Feb/96), learners tend to drop out of online courses at the front end as opposed to the back end. So, it is important to keep an eye on the activity level of each of the participants, especially at the beginning.

You may also find that you may be receiving private e-mail messages for which a reply would benefit the class as a whole. Encourage learners to post their questions to the appropriate class conference. Most questions are not of a personal nature, and explain that others may benefit from reading them and the responses to them. It is also possible that someone else in the class will have an answer. This helpful dialogue can begin building a sense of security, support, and community. Encourage learners to talk "over you" and not "through you".

If learners have not logged in for a while, you may wish to phone or fax them as opposed to sending them an e-mail message. What a novel idea! If they have dropped out, chances are they will not be checking their e-mail messages. Phoning them will show genuine interest and perhaps get to the root of whatever the reason might be for having dropped out. Don't hesitate to use the phone for other reasons also. You may find that what you need to say can be done more efficiently by phone as opposed to typing a long commentary (C.Killian, OCC-L listserv Jan/96).

It is important to let learners know in the course syllabus how often you expect to be online and when you will not be available owing to other commitments. M. van Soeren (personal communication, March 24, 1996) noted that learners quickly become accustomed to the immediacy of responses in the CC environment and need to be informed about when and how you may be reached. It is also good netiquette for participants to let you and each other know if they plan to be offline for an extended period of time. Learning depends on the collective contributions of all participants. If everyone vanishes at the same time or for long periods of time, you will end up talking to yourself!

S. Neubauer (e-mail Mar/96) suggested that it is also a good idea to let learners know your "office hours" [quotations added] in case they need to reach you by phone. "Office hours" in this context do not necessarily mean times during which you are available in a specific physical space. These might refer to times when you are free, willing, and able to receive phone calls, times during which you may consistently be found online, or in the most traditional sense ;) times you may be available in your office for consultation.

Let learners know how often you expect them to check for messages and how frequently you expect them to actively contribute to the dialogue. Some facilitators provide very detailed expectations of participation. For example, J.Shimabukuro (OCC-L listserv Mar/96) suggests that learners "log into online course conferences and resources a minimum of four days a week; actively participate in all online discussions . . . spend a minimum of 2.5 hours a week on the course . . . " D. Ursery (OCC-L listserv Mar/96) expects two log-ins per week but no minimum number of hours. He also expects two paragraphs per login based on the discussion questions. Grades are given for the discussion. S. Kincaid (OCC-L listserv Mar/96) expects two comments per student for every discussion. She also expects that learners will log in every other day.

Most conferencing systems will allow the course administrator to check when participants were last online and sometimes what messages they have opened. If you notice that someone has been "missing-in-action" for a period of time, give them a call and find out what's going on. There is nothing worse than feeling isolated or feeling alone when dealing with technical glitches.]


"Netiquette" (online or network etiquette (Harasim et al., 1996)) is always an important consideration. Depending on the degree of experience the group has with the technology, you may want to outline some key points with respect to appropriate norms of online etiquette.

For example:

  • avoid writing in capitals since it implies YOU ARE SHOUTING;
  • do not tolerate language that is condescending, hostile, inflammatory, racist, or sexist;
  • personalize words with the use of emotions to encourage self-expression;
  • :-) is a smiley; ;- ) is a wink; 8- ) someone with glasses; etc.
  • don't assume that everyone will know what you are talking about;
  • compose your thoughts clearly;
  • be respectful of others' opinions, beliefs, and values;
  • do not dominate discussion;
  • be supportive of others by encouraging and praising contributions (Harasim et al.)

Because most of the communication with your learners will be text-based, you will need to be clear and concise in what you write. Use humor (if you are comfortable with it). Model the expected behavior yourself with courteous but friendly, respectful, and informal messages and responses. Burge (1993) suggests that, as instructor, you should model the writing style you think is appropriate. You may wish to have a more formal style when discussing substantive issues regarding course content. Boost learners' confidence and help them feel respected as contributing and valued members by referring to their responses by name and using them as a basis for further discussion.

Many learners will be slow at keyboarding and will be overly anxious about their typing skills. Try not to make a big deal of spelling mistakes. These are, more often than not, keyboarding errors. If learners become paranoid about their typing and spelling, they may become reluctant to share anything at all. This does not imply that spelling and syntax should not be correct for any assignments submitted. An effective way to deal with this is to encourage learners to compose their messages offline (especially if they are calling long-distance) and then "upload" or cut and paste their messages to the conference. In this way, they don't tie up the phone lines for others wanting to dial in, and they can take more time to read and compose responses offline.


Online communication will vary according your group and the maturity level of learners. It is not unusual for undergraduate students to contribute less actively and for messages to be more teacher-centered (McCreary & Van Duren, 1987; Haile, 1986). An interactive learner-centered approach is more prevalent in graduate education. The high dependency on interaction and collaborative learning needs to be clearly explained as participants may not come to an online class with this understanding (W.D. Graziadei, NODE Forum, Jan 19, 1998).

Some participants will want to dominate the discussion. Others will be excited to have a voice online, a new avenue for expression. There will also be those who will want to look or lurk (although the idea of snapping alligators doesn't appeal to me); just read the interactions. If CC is the primary medium for the course, "looking" will defeat the purpose of having an interactive learning environment. Imagine if everyone in the class decided to read-only? BORING!! "One cannot be passive online. If you are, you are simply not there" (W.D. Graziadei, NODE Forum, Jan 19, 1998).

If you find that learners are looking/lurking, you might want to send a general message to the class or personal messages to individuals to encourage them to speak and share their thoughts. Sometimes learners need a little encouragement. You might also want to send a message to the conference praising the individuals who did contribute. This will encourage them to contribute more as well as possibly prompt others to get on board.

Another strategy that you could try is to mention participants by name when you ask a question, something like . . . thank you for your thoughts Jenny, Karen, and Carl. We haven't heard from Paul and Elaine yet. What are your views on the issue? Let's hear from you soon. This might not be your style but the point is somehow you need to get everyone to share in the knowledge being built. One of the comments that was made frequently in a pilot study focusing on reflection and learning was that learners appreciated being mentioned by name in weekly summaries as well as when they made a good point online (Andrusyszyn & Davie, 1995). They found the recognition by the course instructor, in particular, to be reinforcing.


The climate in the course is very important. It needs to be welcoming and supportive. Many learners are not comfortable or used to putting their thoughts in writing for others to read. They may feel at risk, not knowing if what they wrote is being interpreted as they intended. They may be concerned that their thoughts will be shared outside of class.

It is important to establish guidelines at the beginning of the course that are consistent with the academic discipline in which you are engaged. For example, when discussing personal or professional experiences in the health or law disciplines, referring to patients or clients by their real name would not be acceptable. Issues of confidentiality and anonymity are critical.

Be sure to make it clear that asking questions is not only acceptable. It is highly encouraged. We can all learn from each other. Let participants know that whatever is discussed in the course should not be discussed elsewhere unless permission of the writer is obtained. The online space is supposed to be a private learning space and forwarding or sharing personal messages without permission of the sender does not constitute good practice. It is important that learners feel that they are safe. It is equally important that they not be penalized for their views.

To create a climate that is conducive to sharing try using some initial exercises that ask learners to introduce themselves by writing a short autobiography for the group. Of course, you should do the same by describing your interests, educational background, and experiences. Decide on how much you wish to share. This provides another opportunity for modeling expectations up-front. Another warm-up exercise suggested by Ostbye, White, Hoffer & Bojan (1995) is to have participants post a joke online. The idea is to try to create a comfortable learning environment in a way that will invite participation. These icebreakers help participants get to know the interests of the colleagues with whom they are sharing the learning experience. They also come in useful if and when you wish to establish groups. Some participants who discover that they share common interests may wish to work together. Nevertheless, encourage learners to share their thoughts with each other and not direct their responses only to you. Burge & Roberts (1993) recommend that you encourage people to talk across you to each other (p.54).


Closure is an important element to consider when the course draws to an end. You might wish to send a final message to the class as a whole and share your views on how the course had gone and thank them for their participation.

Let learners know how frequently you will continue to log into the conferencing system after the course is "formally" over. You may also want to let them know how long the individual conferences will be open for additional contributions.

Encourage learners to let the class know when they "sign off" for the last time. (This may not be reasonable if the class is very large). The sense of community in an online environment can be surprisingly strong and if the group has bonded well, it may be hard for some participants to say "au revoir". Sometimes learners organize physical get-togethers or other forms of celebration to mark the event. It may not be possible for everyone to attend, but for those that are able, it helps generate a sense of closure.


As mentioned earlier, consider asking learners for feedback on the way they see the course progressing at several points throughout the course (formative evaluation). This could be an informal session or it could be more formalized. For example, participants could send their comments to one class member who volunteers to collate the messages and remove any identifying information before forwarding these to the rest of the class. Through this feedback, you can get a sense of what participants think of the course and make any necessary adjustments as the course is progressing.

You might want to ask about the organization of the course, the usefulness of the learning activities, the usefulness of the reference material, the pacing of the course. Encourage learners to make suggestions about the limitations of the course and what they would like to see done differently. Ask them to comment on what they like best so far. This data will give you a sense of how the course is going and allow time for modifications if possible and reasonable.

It is also important to try to obtain feedback upon completion of the course (summative evaluation). In order to obtain objective responses, it is important that this be done in such a way as to preserve each student's anonymity. There is normally an evaluation process in place to obtain learner feedback. Make a point of encouraging them to take the evaluation process seriously and make the time to offer their thoughts.

C. Killian (OCC-L April, 96) suggests a process of evaluation he refers to as "Small Group Instructional Feedback". He recommends that students meet online using e-mail "to reach consensus on 10 items: five items that they consider 'good news' about the course and five they'd like to see you change next time . . . A rep from each group can then post its findings and you can of course respond". He found the feedback using this strategy to be very constructive.

You might want to emphasize that the evaluations in degree courses are normally anonymous (unless learners choose to sign them) and are not shared with you until the final grades have been submitted. In professional development/continuing education courses, evaluations are also anonymous (unless learners choose to sign them) but are normally shared with you when the course has ended. Knowing these things may decrease any potential feelings of vulnerability that learners may be experiencing as well as potentially enhance the response rate. However, the process may be institution specific so it is important to know the policies of your organization.

III. Closing Thoughts

This resource guide was designed to provide you with some concrete suggestions on how youmay ease into the world of computer-mediated conferencing. It was intended as a tool to helpyou get started with online facilitation. It will not answer all your questions but may point you inthe right direction for finding other resources and asking further questions.

Facilitating online learning is challenging and will not suit everyone. Go ahead and draw parallels between the online environment and other delivery media but respect its uniqueness. Capitalize on the features that strengthen learning opportunities such as the richness of participants' contributions and the collaborative environment that can be developed through the electronic circuits. Don't be afraid to be yourself and experiment. The ride is worth the price of the ticket!

In conclusion, when designing a course for a mediated learning environment, consider the following:

* who you are as educator

* who your learners are

* the characteristics of the medium (eg: the strengths and limitations)

* your plan / design for the course

* the environment you wish to create

* strategies that will promote the construction of knowledge

* strategies that will promote a meaningful learning experience.

* the supports you have in place (eg: technical / library)


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