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Manuals and Guides: Networking

The Electronic Forum Handbook, continued
Study Circles in Cyberspace

Manual Index

Organizing an Electronic Discussion Group
Moderator Guidelines for an Electronic Discussion Group
Participant Guidelines for an Electronic Discussion Group
Lessons Learned

a. Dialogue versus Debate
b. Netiquette
c. Emoticons
d. Moderator Technology Checklist
e. Ground Rules
f. Evaluating the Experience


Organizing an Electronic Study Circle/Forum

Moderator Guidelines

Organizing an Electronic Study Circle/Forum

Organizing an electronic forum and study circle requires advance planning whether it is to be face-to-face or electronic. We have compiled a list of the major steps and have included our experience in planning for the electronic forum in italics following each step. We suggest that you adapt our examples to meet your needs.

The Planning Steps for an Electronic Forum

1. Decide who will organize the electronic discussion.

Who will sponsor it? Who will participate? What is the optimum number of participants? Who will moderate?

We had three organizers who determined all of these factors. Because it was used as an instructional strategy in our classrooms, we sponsored it as teachers. We also took moderating responsibilities. Jill and Pam were co-moderators with Jill posting questions and harvesting voices while Pam tried to manage the technical aspects. But co-moderating can be arranged with shared responsibilities in various ways. Margaret was the silent moderator which meant that she observed what was happening and "coached" us when she perceived that we might make changes in what we were doing.

2. Set up the electronic discussion group by creating a listserv.

In most cases because of limited resources, a listserv will serve the technical function of an electronic mail discussion group. Jim Morrison, Horizon Digest 100, October 30, 1994, explains,

"A listserv is a means of discussion through computer networks, most commonly now the Internet. In most LISTSERVs individuals are enabled to attach their own electronic mail addresses to a common list. Every message sent to the electronic mail address associated with the list can be sent to every electronic mail address on it. The MODERATOR, if there is one,...tries to stimulate discussion of sufficient interest to provoke at least some messages each week." Listservs can be public or private. If it is public, anyone can join in the discussion. If it is a private listserv, membership is controlled by the moderator. Our experience is with a private listserv. Just as in a face-to-face study circle, an electronic study circle that is private can be opened to anyone."

Only one individual must have access to the technological assistance required to set up a listserv in order to have everyone use it. Anyone who has access to technological assistance with the Internet through an organization such as a school, workplace, or library, can investigate using one.

Two of us with the University of Georgia checked with our computer support network. We were told we could have a listserv. We were also asked the purpose of the list and we were both officially listed as co-owners with a technical person who helped us manage problems. We found that when error messages came to us rather than panic, if we forwarded them to our co-owner, he would learn the problem by reading the message and would advise about remedies. We never learned how to read those error messages, but we did learn to take his advice!

3. Use listserv for planning.

Once we had the listserv, we discovered that we could use the listserv for planning. Jill, Margaret, and I began to send messages directly to NIF-L at the Internet address and we would get the mail and respond in a planning/discussion group. This allowed us to become familiar with the technology while also providing an advantage of group communication.

4. Decide on topic of discussion and a time.

What issue will be discussed, when and for how long?

We planned a pilot electronic forum to take place over a two week period. We chose "freedom of speech" as a topic because of the broad appeal. We then carried out a six week forum on People and Politics. The first week was introductions and netiquette. The second through fifth weeks we introduced choices by posting discussion questions on each Sunday night and moderating the discussion each week. In some cases, the threads of the conversations from previous weeks with those choices continued at the same time new choices were being discussed. The sixth and final week we harvested the voices.

5. Select related reading material that will provide common reference for participants.

We used the same material we used for this topic in face-to-face discussion. Kettering Foundation and Study Circles Resource Center have materials to guide moderators in typical forums and study circles. We ordered issue booklets for all participants and sent them out as soon as participants signed on.

6. Recruit participants.

Strategies for recruiting participants include inviting friends, neighbors, club members and relevant listservs. We decided to invite friends and colleagues who had expressed an interest in our electronic discussion experiment to participate in a pilot discussion. In most cases, we already had e-mail contact with them so we sent an invitation via e-mail with specific instructions about when it would be held and how to join. Specific instructions as to how to "subscribe" were given to us by the technical support person. We gave all who were invited very specific commands to subscribe. In addition to a number of people we knew and had specifically invited, we also has some people who were told about it and asked if they could participate. Finally, students enrolled in our seminars during Fall 1994 were asked to participate.

7. Signing up participants.

People who are invited to join should send e-mail messages to the listserv address asking to subscribe. A listserv automatically subscribes and unsubscribes people to the listserv with very specific commands. A list of those commands is listed in Appendix D. These simple commands are automatically sent to people who subscribe and should be kept on file while participating.

Send message to: LISTSERV@NODE
Subject line: Subscribe new listserv and your real name

We used one of the first class sessions to schedule a synchronous time for our classes to introduce themselves. Unfortunately, some participants had erroneous e-mail addresses and our computer support system developed some unexpected idiosyncracies. In addition, those participants who were used to their own computers and found the system in the classroom different, were slowed down somewhat. These factors frustrated the early communications.

8. Begin posting information.

What information will you need to introduce the issue? Will participants introduce themselves? Do you have some ground rules each participant should read first? (See Appendix).

We began posting information reminding participants to send for their reading materials and to note start dates for electronic discussion on their calendars. As soon as everyone successfully subscribed, we posted the first official introductory information about the issue, who the moderators would be, the structure, time frame, and information relating to research which we were conducting. Next we posted netiquette and ground rules for participation. Samples are included in Appendices B and E.

Moderator Guidelines

The moderator's role is very important in the electronic forum or study circle. There is more than enough for one person to do, so if it is possible to have co-moderators, we recommend it. There are a number of ways to divide the tasks. In our electronic forum we had a co-moderator in charge of discussion and harvesting, a moderator in charge of the technology issues and problems, and a silent moderator who assisted with formative and summative evaluations.

1. Provide a range of views on the issue.
The material you provide participants to read in preparation for the discussion should offer various perspectives on the issue. (See Appendix A for information on dialogue versus debate.) National Issues Forums often use issue booklets published by Kendall-Hunt to structure the discussion. This background information that is shared with all participants can be posted on the Internet to be downloaded by participants or it can be mailed in advance. Because downloading is a complicated function for some computer mail systems and may require considerably more time on-line at potential cost, at this point in time, snail mail is preferable. Include instructions for subscribing to the listserv.

2. Welcome everyone and communicate the purpose and goals of the electronic forum or study circle to the group.
Post the following:

  • Timetable (beginning and ending dates and times)
  • Format (schedule for each new discussion question)
  • Expectations (if a certain amount of time or frequency is crucial to the discussion, it should be stated in the beginning)
  • Netiquette (general for any communication on the Internet. See Appendix B.)
  • Ground rules (specific for interaction in your forum discussion. See Appendix E )
  • Emoticons (See Appendix C.)
  • Dialogue versus Debate (See Appendix A.)

Please note that in order to encourage broad participation and discourage domination, it may be useful to explain to participants at the start that domination on the Internet can occur with quantity, length, and frequency of messages.

3. Introduce moderators and then participants.
Consider some ways to break the ice. It is particularly important to do this in electronic forums due to the lack of non-verbal cues and visuals. If photos or video tapes can be exchanged through the mail prior to the discussion, this helps participants establish identities and contributes to development of a sense of community. Participants can also be paired first for introductions and then introduce the other participant to the entire discussion group. Each participant should be asked to develop a signature which includes personal e-mail address and to use it for every message sent.

4. Ask participants to share a personal connection or interest in the issue.
The human element is very important in any discussion. Because electronic discussions tend to feel somewhat less personal without faces and warm bodies, it is particularly important to help the participants relate to the issue personally through relating experiences.

5. Post discussion question(s) according to timetable.
One or two questions is adequate to begin the discussion of the issue. Participants can be overwhelmed by a barrage of questions. Suggest that participants use the subject heading to keep messages organized.

6. Encourage participants to give feedback to one another.
The moderator can effectively model this behavior by using names and quotes from comments to thread the discussion. It is also helpful to send private notes occasionally to participants who are not contributing or to those whose messages are misunderstood.

7. Summarize the comments.
Include points of common ground and disagreement at the conclusion of each segment of the discussion and before moving on to a new discussion question.

8. Encourage participant evaluation.
Ask them to communicate privately to you at your own e-mail address if they have comments or suggestions about how the forum or study circle is operating. At the conclusion of the harvesting, an evaluation can be conducted on-line or off-line (See Appendix F).

Tips for Moderation of an Electronic Discussion Group

1. Be familiar with all the reading materials which will be distributed to the participants.
While you do not have to be an expert on the topic, it is important that you are conversant with the various aspects of the topic for discussion. You may want to collect some recent news clippings from common media sources to bring into the discussion.

2. Write the discussion questions to stimulate dialogue in advance so you can concentrate on HEARING during discussions and more effectively moderate.

3. Be prepared to take an active role as moderator.
Because there is no non-verbal feedback to be used in the electronic mode, your messages to individuals and the group are critically important to the health of the discussion. If you want to make a suggestion for how an individual might improve communication, send a personal note rather than a "public" one to the entire group. In addition, you should be prepared for "threading" the discussion. This technique is similar to that of summarizing. This function is particularly important in an electronic discussion since it will take place over a period of time with participants coming in and out of the conversation. You will bring in various aspects of what people have said and left unsaid that have a bearing on the topic in general and the choice in particular.

4. Set the tone of the discussion by posting netiquette and specific ground rules at the beginning.
A short list of emoticons can also assist in humanizing the interaction.

5. Be prepared to assist with various technical problems.
Each discussion group, depending on the listserv set-up and participants' computer set-ups, may have different capabilities and limitations. We have developed a checklist for discussions with the technical support person who will configure your listserv. (See Appendix D.)

6. Don't be afraid to take a break.
Just let the participants know that you will be away from your role for a specified period of time and what they should do during that time. Leadership often emerges in interesting ways in an electronic discussion. A short departure of the moderator can encourage leadership from participants. You will be able to read the messages from the discussion when you were unavailable and assess any problems that might need attention when you return.

7. Stay aware of and assist the group process.
The group dynamics in cyberspace are different from face-to-face groups. Time is a factor since people come and go in cyberspace at different times. Also discussions are mostly limited to text and lack nonverbal cues. Moderators can do a great deal to facilitate group process on-line.

8. Help the group grapple with the content.
Participants have more time to reflect before responding to the discussion questions or to particular messages that have been posted. This aspect can be an advantage in dealing thoughtfully with the content. Moderators can ask questions and probe without putting someone on the spot.

9. Use questions to help the discussion progress.
While one or two questions may be all that a group can tend to when the issue is introduced, more specific questions related to the on-going discussion can focus thinking and keep the discussion productive.

10. Save an adequate amount of time for closing the discussion.
In order to harvest the voices and summarize common and divergent points of the discussion, it is important to allow for further participant input. Because participants may not be on-line everyday, it is important to leave enough time that everyone who wants to can have a final comment.

Manual Index

Organizing an Electronic Discussion Group
Moderator Guidelines for an Electronic Discussion Group
Participant Guidelines for an Electronic Discussion Group
Lessons Learned

a. Dialogue versus Debate
b. Netiquette
c. Emoticons
d. Moderator Technology Checklist
e. Ground Rules
f. Evaluating the Experience