Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Participating in Online Discussions on Time

As an avid moderator and participant of online discussions for both "traditional" classes and online professional development, I am often faced with the question: "Is it too late to post?" My response: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise?" Or, in relation to our discussions, if a participant submits a response a week after everyone else has left the discussion, is there any value in the post?
discussionconsideration of a question in an open and usually informal debate  (source)
I love to read what participants have to say, even when they are late, but the truth is that the point of an online discussion is missed when participants post after the end of the discussion. The debate has ended.

Why do participants think it is OK to (chronically) miss the discussion?
Everyone can make excuses for missing a discussion, but the truth is that everyone in the discussion usually has a busy life with lots of good reasons to be doing something else. The majority are still able to participate on-time. What is missing for the chronically late participant? The missing ingredient is the sense of urgency that should be present in his or her participation. The late participant gets to read what everyone else said and still gets to say something. The big deal is that online discussion is not just about reading thoughts and posting a thought, it is a two-way street, or more often it is a ten-way street with lots of people posting lots of thoughts, providing critical feedback to each other, furthering understanding, and knocking down the walls of old limitations. This all takes place in the immediate aftermath of the discussion getting started. It lasts until the end. Then everyone moves on to the next topic.

The second culprit of the late participant is poor management by the moderator. This comes in the form of not having well-stated expectations. It also comes in the form of not following through on those expectations. Troubles arise too when the moderator is too distant and is not actually aware of who is and who is not participating. These factors can make a huge difference in increasing on-time participation and, more importantly, increasing the value of return for all the participants.

Why is showing up well into the discussion different from being late?
It is one thing to show up well after the discussion has started or halfway through the dance. These participants may have missed the early meaty debate, but they also have an opportunity to stoke the fire anew. Their participation can renew and refresh the conversation with a different take, leading the entire group down a path less taken. They can be truly, fashionably late. But, missing the dance entirely is a bummer. Showing up in a newly purchased three piece suit with the most amazing thoughts and insights will be completely wasted if a person arrives when everyone else has left to attend the next party.

How can we better foster on-time participation?
The moderator can take control of participation in a discussion by following two steps:

  1. Set and follow strict expectations that do not give credit for participation after a discussion has ended. Each moderator can decide what this window is, perhaps even allowing for a day or two of overlap with the new discussion.
  2. Be in communication with participants on an ongoing basis regarding their participation. This can be done through grading, comments, and direct messaging via email or other methods.

It would be inaccurate to tell the late participant that their post will have no value. If she or he has done research, put together a meaningful post, and wants to share it, at least the participant, likely has gained something. Yet this person needs also to understand that the post cannot be considered part of a discussion because, by that point, the discussion has ended.

If creating valuable online discussions is important to a class, then the leaders have to take a stand for full participation in a timely manner. The online discussion is not a throw-away portion of a course; it is potentially the heart of the course, the source of inspiration and the nexus of what comes next.

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