Eight Ways to Get Students More Engaged in Online Conferences


Anybody who has everparticipated in a "mailing list" knows that many people on the listare "lurkers," people who read the postings but do not contributepostings of their own. Some of us are lurkers on some "mailing lists"while being active participants in others where we believe we havesomething important to say. And that's fine &emdash; except forstudents! Students have a job to do; namely, learn. Learning is bestaccomplished when the learner is actively engaged in theprocess.[1,2] For online conferencing, this means that weshould not allow our students to be lurkers. We should want them tobe active participants, providing input that will make everybodylearn and think.

So, if you are one ofthose teachers who have been tolerating lurking because you think youare doing students a favor, think again. But powerful psychologicaland social forces converge to make lurking the natural order ofthings. The popular conferencing software programs also contribute tothe problem.

Causes of theProblem

Psychological and SocialForces. In a given conference, the students can differ enormously inacademic background, skills and life experience. Some students lackthe confidence to assert themselves in public. Some do not like towrite. Some may not have studied the assignments. Some are afraidthey will embarrass themselves with postings that are not clever,erudite or interesting to others.

A common denominator forall students is the passive conditioning they have been exposed to byyears of television and traditional classroom teaching. Bothtelevision and the lecture method of teaching put students in apassive, "entertain me" mode. There is little directed or systematiceffort to elicit critical or creative thinking. Effort is notautomatically required with either television or the traditionallecture mode of teaching. Without intellectual effort, whateverlearning occurs will occur mostly by "osmosis."

Many students transferthis passive mode to online learning activities, functioning aslurkers and not realizing how much more they would understand andlearn if they contributed input to the group discussions.Contributing input requires the student to comprehend what is beingdiscussed by others, to create ideas in the context of the topic athand, to organize thinking coherently, and to express that thinkingwith carefully constructed language (hopefully, clearly andconcisely). It is possible that teachers, who have also been exposedto a great deal of television and traditional lecture-mode teaching,may likewise be insensitive to the problem. Indeed, teachers may evencontribute to the problem by using an excessive amount of television,videotapes and lecturing in their own classes.

Online conferences createopportunities for teachers to remedy old patterns of behavior: boththe learning behavior of students and the teaching-style behavior ofthe teachers. Teachers should try to correct the problems ofpassivity, not reinforce them by tolerating lurking. Many teachersobject to putting pressure on students by making them douncomfortable things. Converting a lurker into an active onlinelearner is uncomfortable for lurkers. Lurking is a bad learning-stylehabit. One hallmark of a good education is the ability to mobilize avariety of learning styles and not be crippled by a limitedrepertoire of learning styles and skills. Change is uncomfortable,but is worth it if it improves learning and the ability tolearn.

Limitations of MostConferencing Software. The typical software for online conferencingis either e-mail Listservs or commercial e-mail organizer systemssuch as Caucus or First Class. Even when the mail is organized by thecommercial software, it is organized in a topic/sub-topic outlineformat that students can navigate by simple mouse clicking withoutbeing intellectually driven by context within the mail messages. Toread such threaded-topic messages, no real search strategy isrequired. And when a student d'es want to stop lurking andcontribute, little real thought needs to be given on context or onwhere to put the message &emdash; just attach it as a mail message toa given topic thread. Also, these systems typically do not containtheir own databases for research and resource sharing.

In threaded-topicconferencing, the messages often get posted in chronological order,which is not necessarily the order in which they should be read. Foractive learning, point and click is not enough. Students certainlydon't have to think about how to navigate content; they just pointand click on the next message. Such systems make it difficult to keeptrack of the context in which to add a comment. The comment usuallyrefers to a few words or sentences in the referent note, not thewhole note itself. So, very often, we force the others to go read thereferent note to understand the context for our note or else cut andpaste the relevant portions into our comment. This, and the limitedway in which notes can be organized, contributes to a feeling ofinformation overload as the pile of mail messages getsbigger.

Suppose you had ahyperlink-based system that allowed notes to be attached to specificcharacter strings within a document. Then the student would have tothink about content and context in deciding what input to provide andwhere the best place is to put it. Moreover, students could createsuch in-context links between and among various notes that they didnot think to do during the initial submission.

Have you noticed how thiskind of software would resemble Web pages? But of course thedifference is that everybody gets to share and edit documents andcreate links. For these reasons, my colleague Jim Snell and I havedeveloped a hypertext-based online conferencing system calledFORUM® (copyright, Texas A&M University). Both of us havebeen using it for four years in our courses as an online adjunct tothe regular classroom. FORUM operates similarly to the World WideWeb, except that all students can contribute input to shared pages,and make links from within them, without writing any computer code ormark-up language. We use this environment to engage the students indebates and group decision, to critique each other's work, and forcase studies (see http://www.cvm.tamu.edu/vaph451/casestudy.htm).

One of the advantages ofhypertext conferencing is that it supports formal debates. There is aformal system for computer-based debates called Issue-BasedInformation System (IBIS). These early systems have been wellresearched and provide useful information for anyone serious aboutusing software to support online debates or to track and makedecisions.

Hypertext conferencing cansupport a variety of other student activities (http://www.cvm.tamu.edu/wklemm/instruct.html).We have built into FORUM the ability for a teacher to createstructured hypertext that helps keep students focused and on task.The greatest advantage of hypertext is that it allows student groupsto create things (deliverables, such as group-based decisions, plans,projects, portfolios, case studies, etc.). Those who believe thatconstructivist approaches to teaching are important should recognizethat hypertext (hypermedia) systems are much superior tothreaded-topic systems. It is time for the educational community tolook beyond the conventional threading paradigm. If you are one ofthose teachers who would like to stop lurking but don't know how,consider the eight suggestions below.

How to PreventLurking

1) Require participation.Don't let it be optional. Set aside a portion of the grade allocationfor participation in the online discussions. Tell the students thatthey must post x-number of items each week or for each topic. Criticswill say that this approach d'es nothing to ensure quality of input.But it at least gets the students engaged, and hopefully, once theyget caught up in the activity, they will strive to improve therelevance and quality of their work, because now they are on display.No longer can they hide. For many students, it is more embarrassingto make public postings that have no value. As another incentive forquality work, the teacher should grade on quality of the postings.That is highly subjective, but no more so than grading of term papersor essays.

2) Form learning teams.The advantages of so-called cooperative or collaborative learning areabundantly documented. [3-7] Collaborative learning can occurjust as well via computer conferencing. [8-10] Moreover,asynchronous conferencing overcomes the schedule-coordinationproblems that plague typical face-to-face learning teams. Theadvantage for promoting online interaction is that learning teamsshould bond and thus make each student in the group want to do his orher share. Helping students learn how to acquire team spirit isimportant in and of itself, but it also provides students withpowerful incentive to become more engaged in online conferenceactivity.

3) Make the activityinteresting. If it is a discussion topic, make it one that studentshave a reason to get engaged in. Appeal to their life experiences,vested interests and ambitions. It might even be a good idea to letthe students create some of the topics, especially if you provide anoverall academic framework to guide them where you want them to go.If it is a group-created paper or project, let the students pick thesubject within the bounds of the academic objectives. Surely, youwant more than just "discussion" of student opinions &emdash; amatter discussed in more detail on the topic of academicdeliverables.

4) Don't settle for justopinions. Everybody has opinions. They are like knee jerk reflexes,occurring with little thought once they have been formed. Thus, it isnot surprising that many classroom discussion groups online aredominated by opinion messages, rather than rigorous analysis andcreative thought. Teachers should insist that opinions alone are notsufficient. They must be supported with data and rational discourseand even re-examined in light of what others in the online group arethinking.

5) Structure the activity.Give students guideposts to help them think of things to say that areacademically meaningful. Choice of topics has a great deal ofinfluence here. Topics should be organized around an academic themethat serves course objectives. Topics should not be so open-endedthat students digress. You can go further by creating activities thatare best performed in a structured way. For example, debates can bestructured by requiring students to post a position, to which othersrespond with pro or con supporting arguments, followed by critique ofthe arguments. Or brainstorming can be structured by having studentsfirst generate a list of alternatives; re-think the list by creatingnew ordering, structure, or relationships, systematically evaluatingeach item to produce a "short list" of viable alternatives; and thenreaching consensus decision on the best choices, followed byprioritization.[11]

6) Require a hand-inassignment (deliverable). To extend structuring to its logicalconclusion, you should require students to do something besides justexpress ideas and opinions. They should produce a deliverable fromthe conference. This kind of activity capitalizes on all theadvantages of constructivist theory, which holds that students learnbest when they have to integrate, synthesize and apply information bycreating a deliverable piece of work. Such a deliverable can includeidea generation and analysis, decisions, plans and designs,proposals, case studies, problem solution, research projects, termpapers or reports, portfolios or role playing. These activities arenot supported well by the typical threaded-topic software, but theyare in FORUM, which not only supports group-based electronicpublications but also allows students to create links to ideas, filesand graphics in context with specific character strings or objectswithin a shared document.

7) Know what you arelooking for and involve yourself to help make it happen. Irrespectiveof the specific learning activity, the teacher should know whatquality work is and should intervene as the work is being developedto steer students in the right direction. When the teacherparticipates in a conference, providing extensive critique, feedback,and encouragement, students cannot help but become moreinvolved.

8) Peer grading. Tellstudents at the beginning of the conference that at the end of theactivity they will be asked to rate each other on the value of eachperson's contribution. This can be a powerful incentive for studentsto do quality work in the conference. However, most of the studentsthat I encounter do not like to grade each other. This is especiallya problem if they have bonded as a result of operating in a learningteam. In that case, they may want to give everybody an A, even whensome students made distinctly greater contributions to theconference. Problems also arise by having them rank each other,because they might think that rank 1 gets an A, rank 2 gets a B, andthe lower ranked students will get a failing grade. One possiblesolution is to have students grade the contributions of anothergroup, which also gives them added learning experiences. Anotherpossibility is to structure the ratings so that they don't translatedirectly into A, B, C, etc. The teacher might say, for example, thateveryone will get an A, B, or C for the peer helping portion of thefinal grade, depending on the peer helping ratings. The ratings mightbe in the form of "superior, good, fair, poor," or some equivalent.Another possibility is to have each student name the one student inthe group who helped them the most. Students who are named more thanonce might get bonus points on the final grade. A similar approachcould be used with a ranking scheme. Students with the best ranks getthe most bonus points on the final grade.

W.R. (Bill) Klemm is a professor at Texas A&M University inCollege Station, Texas.
E-mail: [email protected]

Editor's Note: The author originally presented this paper at theTeaching in the Community Colleges online conference (April 7-9,1998).


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This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.