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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Ten Ways to Make Online Learning Groups Work

Facilitating a group of individuals who never meet is not unlike facilitating a face-to-face workshop or classroom conversation: fruitful learning experiences don't happen by chance.

There has been a lot of excitement about the potential of online networks to provide new environments for student projects, professional development conferences, and other innovative learning activities. “Virtual groups” of people who often never meet can hold a dialogue of sorts.
Online experiences can be frustrating and disappointing, however, when interaction with others in the group results in information overload, topic drift, or conversations that are just not all that valuable. But there are ways of making such long-distance learning really work, whether your group comes from an Internet listserv, a local bulletin board, a commercial network, or a computer conferencing system.
First, let's review how online groups function. One example is the Public Broadcasting Service's Mathline, a professional development program that involves more than 2,500 middle school math teachers in virtual learning communities nationwide. The program is designed to help teachers learn new ways of understanding math based on the new math standards. Each virtual group includes 25 teachers, whose schools or districts pay a fee for their participation. They log on at their convenience, either from a computer at school or at home. Messages may range from a couple of sentences (“Hi, how is everybody today?” or “Gosh, I'm feeling really insecure dealing with statistics”) to someone's long description of what he or she did in school that day. A computer system keeps track of messages they've read and what new messages are there.
A virtual conference, unlike a mailing list, fosters a feeling of belonging to a group. Further, teachers can get support from others as they need it. And they can do so whether they're early morning people (we call them the dawn patrol), lunchtime people, or people who prefer to burn the midnight oil.
The terms “virtual conference,” “virtual group,” and “online group” (there really is no agreed upon terminology) refer to many technologies. They may be real-time activities—like video teleconferencing or audioconferencing—where people are in different places but participate at the same time; or, as with the PBS program, they may enable participants to join in from different places at different times.
However these online services are set up, there are a number of steps that facilitators can take to get the most out of them.

1. Identify the Purpose

The most important thing an online conference needs is an explicit purpose. Will members exchange information? Generate new ideas? Learn and explore? A group can have many purposes—and its purpose may evolve and change over time.

2. Define Roles

Once the purpose is clear, you can begin to ask: Are the participants peer learners? Team members? Neighbors? Is the moderator expected to provide expert knowledge? Support and encouragement? A guide to other resources? If you aren't sure about these roles ahead of time, the group should discuss it. Different images of roles and relationships will provide cues to different ways of participating. To help your online group develop a sense of mutual responsibility, you may borrow some of the supportive strategies that cooperative learning groups use.

3. Create an Ambience

Even though your conference members or list may be part of a larger network with its own culture, you can give your virtual group its own flavor. Think about how the first message or topic will set the tone; about how you model message formatting; and about how you respond to comments. How can you help the group create a mental map of the environment so that members develop appropriate expectations?
Heavy-handed guidelines and rules about behavior make for a boring experience, but it never hurts to state explicitly the kind of atmosphere you hope to create. Do you hope your virtual group will be supportive, deep, amusing, fast-moving, reflective, cutting-edge, information-intensive, risky, silly, focused, unfocused? What styles and behaviors would help or hinder the atmosphere you want?

4. Nourish Conversation

Even if there are a lot of active participants in a virtual group, it's important to keep adding new material to keep the group fresh and growing—both qualitatively and quantitatively. Think not only of new messages but also new kinds of messages. If you've been asking a lot of questions, why not offer a case study? If members have been sharing resource information, how about polling them to take the pulse of the group on an issue?
At the same time, you need to watch for overload. People get overwhelmed by too many new messages. Assess the virtual group or list each week and you'll see considerable variation from day to day. At the end of each week, ask yourself about the conference's pace and the range of material added. Is the conference still interesting, or has it become stale?

5. Provide Feedback

Encourage those writers who contribute good messages by sending them private thank-you notes via e-mail, and by acknowledging them publicly in the conference or list. You may also offer feedback to discourage writers from doing certain things, such as writing too much (possibly overwhelming other participants with screenfulls), using a format that is difficult to read (all caps or no spaces between paragraphs), or using a style you don't find appropriate (abusive to other members, for example).
Of course, it's best to give a writer positive feedback for those things you want to encourage instead of negative feedback for what you don't like. But sometimes negative feedback is needed, and even appreciated. When this is the case, do it privately via e-mail, and offer an alternative (for example, “I think people would be better able to respond to your ideas if you put spaces between your paragraphs” instead of “Your responses are much too dense!”).
In online parlance, those who rarely write anything are called readers, and sometimes they are called lurkers—a negatively loaded term that often makes readers very defensive. In fact, there's nothing wrong with being a reader!
Occasionally, however, you might remind readers that writers appreciate their feedback. Encourage them to do the electronic equivalent of nodding their heads and smiling, so that the writers know they are being heard. Some readers feel that they shouldn't write anything unless it has what they consider substance. Let them know that adding a response like, “I'm enjoying what others are saying” or “Thanks for taking the time to share that” is a worthy contribution.
Readers, too, appreciate feedback. From time to time, you might send all members a note, letting them know that you're glad they are present and inviting them to suggest how to make the group better. Again, sending a note like this as e-mail instead of posting it in the conference or list gives the individual the opportunity to respond privately. Sometimes, a reader who is noticed in this way will turn into a writer!

6. Adjust the Pace

Some group members will sign on four times a day or once a week, and some will let a whole month go by before signing on again. This is what we mean by the term rolling present. Generally, people consider material current if it has been entered since they last logged on. If you have several members who sign on four times a day, they may make it difficult for most group members to engage with the virtual group: it will all go by too fast. You may need to do some things to slow down the pace.
One way to even out the rolling present is to provide cues that let participants know which items are hot and active. You can put this information in an information file or in the first conference message, or you can send out periodic e-mail updates. Sometimes it's useful to always have a message with the current agenda available to give people a picture of what's going on in the conference that week.

7. Support (and Recruit) New Members

The problem of the rolling present is particularly critical for new members. Although new members can stimulate a virtual group, they may have problems figuring out how to enter a fast-moving discussion. One way for them to introduce themselves is to create items that anyone can respond to, even those who don't think of themselves as experts on the topic. Send a message to newcomers encouraging them to respond to those items.
If you notice someone in another virtual group who would be a good recruit for your own group, send him or her e-mail with a pointer to a particular item that you think might interest them. As at any gathering, it's much easier to enter a situation with many people and conversations if you have a specific place to go.

8. Recap by Weaving

Weaving is a networking term that refers to the process of summarizing and synthesizing multiple responses in a virtual group. The weaving item or response tells people where they've been, where they are, and where they might want to go next. It can identify issues people agree upon or issues that still bring up many questions or require more information.
Weaving gives all members, however long they've been participating, a chance to start fresh or take off in a new direction. It can help keep the group from spinning its wheels. Sometimes, you can give people a better sense of what the virtual group is all about by simply copying the topic index or a list of all the conference messages and posting it. This may remind participants of items they wanted to go back to or it may reveal a gap in the conversation that can be filled by starting a new item.

9. Track Participation

It's very helpful to pay attention to who is doing what; it could show you ways of improving the conference flow. A number of different tracking tools can help you see who has been in the group recently, who has read which messages, and who has added messages. It's usually a good idea to do this once a month—or more often in online seminars. It's amazing how often your impressions of what's happening can be off base.

10. Go with the Flow

There is no right answer to what should be happening in a virtual group—there may be times when you are more or less active. The key is to use the information about what's happening to learn, so that you can be a more purposeful facilitator.
Facilitation is paying attention to what is happening in your group, as distinct from what you wanted or expected would happen. It is not unlike facilitating any group: if participants aren't participating as much as you'd hoped, don't admonish them. Instead, notice what kinds of issues they are engaged in and find ways to weave those issues into your group activity. You must detect where members are now and work with that energy to move in the direction you need to go.
Does this sound familiar? The fact is, facilitating a group online requires all the finesse and skill of facilitating a workshop or classroom experience. When you get online, remember everything you've ever known about designing and facilitating group process. Just ask yourself: How can we move these virtual chairs into a circle?

Lisa Kimball has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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