Some tips for running online discussions

by Harry on March 13, 2020

As instruction moves online — largely to be taught be people who have no experience teaching online (like me) and mostly with very limited technical support — people are going to need to share experiences and tips, not just about the technologies they are using but about general principles and practices — they will even, I hope, share curricular materials. I plan a post early next week with some preliminary thoughts and to provide a space for people to share ideas, but for now The Discussion Project, a UW-Madison project that trains instructors to manage in-class discussion better, has shared a 2-pager with some tips for managing on-line discussions. And, for those for whom this is new, maybe my ACUE post on how I use online discussion in my face-to-face classes will be useful too.



Dwight L. Cramer 03.13.20 at 2:33 pm

This is going to be a real challenge for you guys. I’ve been part of various ‘online learning commmunities’ for years, and seen a real evolution from the early days of MIT’s open courseware initiative to the much more sophisticated offerings currently on Coursera or Edx. A couple of modest observations:

Edx and Coursera actually offer materials on how to develop courses for their platform.s There ought to be some relevant materials in (as well as a great deal that, while interesting or valuable in the longterm, doesn’t deal with the specifics of moderating online discussion fora).

In the darkest recesses of adjunct academic slavery, there are the online teaching gigs at the for-profit educational bucket shops. I’ve got to believe that some of the denizens of that underworld will have valuable insights (because they’ve been walking this walk for years) and would enjoy nothing more than the opportunity to share their experience with the tenured lordlings of academia.

Finally, from a personal perspective, the ‘learner communities’ of the internet are populations so different from the population a traditional university-age full time students (especially at institutions of the quality most of you guys seem to be associated with), that a great deal of that experience isn’t going to translate well into the current situation. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take it all in, it just needs to be filtered.

And, one last, odd thought, this situation is a very good opportunity to assess online learning delivery vs. the on campus setting. There is a (fading) stigma associated with unorthodox learning alternatives. I think the jury is still out, and it will be good to have more information. I don’t personally have a dog in the fight, and my personal suspicions are (i) there in continuing value to immersion in a university community (especially for traditional age students) and (ii) the whole question of degrees, certifications, licensing, academic and professional credentials, etc. is on the cusp of exploding, and the online vs on campus distinction will emerge out of the splatter of all that.


Alan White 03.13.20 at 4:06 pm

Hi Harry–first my sympathy to you and all so suddenly faced with this challenge–I doubt if I would be up to it were I still teaching. I particularly feel bad about underpaid adjuncts burdened with this if they have little online experience with instruction.

You probably saw this on Leiter but I thought it contained much good advice on and experience with online teaching:

Best of luck!


Barry 03.13.20 at 5:07 pm

I spend several months on a project involving me (in Michigan), a German finance team, and another team in Chennai, India. My day would start at 6AM with a end of day conference with the Chennai team, then a 7:30 AM mid-day call with the German team, then working.

I learned that I had to take a full hour at the end of the day to write up the next work steps for the Chennai team. If I skipped anything, or didn’t specify what to do ‘if…’, or how to fix problems, then they couldn’t do their day’s work, and we would have lost a day.

That’s how people need to think for these – the students are your team, and your manager will want to know what was accomplished this day. If the students screw up, it’s on them ( except that you need to know what and why); if the students can’t do it because the instructions were not satisfactory, then it’s on you.


Neville Morley 03.13.20 at 7:59 pm

Thank you! We are being threatened with Microsoft Teams…


Barry 03.14.20 at 12:24 pm

I did a little bit with Teams back in Jan-Feb; it’s serviceable.

The big problem is diversification of platforms, where people need to check several programs during the day to keep up.


Cranky Observer 03.14.20 at 3:39 pm

We’ll see how well Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Google Hangouts do when 300 million people try to use them simultaneously. Maybe even Monday the 23rd!


eg 03.15.20 at 3:29 pm

I’ll be watching this process with considerable interest — in particular for evidence of the usual suspects exploiting what no doubt appears to them a “Shock Doctrine” opportunity.


passer-by 03.16.20 at 9:42 am

There are now a lot of discussions groups and resources online, and it’s both extremely frustrating and very interesting. I do find it weird that US academics specifically (some of whom have spent a lot of time commenting on privacy matters etc.) seem not to give a single thought to the myriad issues raised by voluntarily surrendering that much data to private companies.
This is, for example, what the so popular Zoom says about their data collecting:

“Whether you have Zoom account or not, we may collect Personal Data from or about you when you use or otherwise interact with our Products. We may gather the following categories of Personal Data about you:
Information commonly used to identify you, such as your name, user name, physical address, email address, phone numbers, and other similar identifiers
Information about your job, such as your title and employer
Credit/debit card or other payment information
Facebook profile information (when you use Facebook to log-in to our Products or to create an account for our Products)
General information about your product and service preferences
Information about your device, network, and internet connection, such as your IP address(es), MAC address, other device ID (UDID), device type, operating system type and version, and client version
Information about your usage of or other interaction with our Products (“Usage Information”)
Other information you upload, provide, or create while using the service (“Customer Content”), as further detailed in the “Customer Content” section below”


M Caswell 03.16.20 at 11:36 am

How do you handle time-zone differences for online discussion classes? A class with a student on each coast, Europe, and Asia seems impossible.


passer-by 03.16.20 at 2:57 pm

To be clear, my concern is not purely theoretical. As a professor at a European university, I am trying to switch everything on-line while being emphatically reminded by my hierarchy that I am NOTsupposed to use MS Teams or Zoom or anything google because of major issues of security and privacy (while, of course, the “national” alternatives do not have the capacity that we suddenly need…).
So does anyone have good recommendations of open source software that would not have the same security and privacy issues of those other US firms?


ph 03.17.20 at 12:29 am

‘” It’s never tool late to do nothing at all.” I’m against making any decisions about changing to online-education, or any other major system-wide changes while so many of the decision makers are in full-scale meltdown, or panic mode.

Why not declare a world-wide one month vacation? Where the f*ck is the urgency? Surely, just about everyone will benefit from a hiatus from the panic. Why not try displaying some adult behavior? Delay all decisions about delivery systems, until the current crisis can be properly assessed.

What can we do that will make a real positive difference? 1/Don’t panic. 2/Distribute lists of online sources and resources to students and encourage them to use their time wisely to prepare for a return to a normal way of life. Many instructors in rigorous programs already demand students complete all required readings before the first day of class.

The very worst thing to do is rush unworkable quick fixes into place, fixes unlikely to leave many satisfied, and then try to return to normalcy. And, yes, I’ve completed a variety of courses on-line. The systems work well after experienced and motivated instructors, and tech teams, have tested and worked with the system.

The current approach is like bundling your kids into a car and then handing the keys to an adult who’s never driven – “Have fun, and stay safe!”


ph 03.18.20 at 1:32 am

Thanks, Harry. Stanford Professor John P.A. Ioannidis more effectively makes similar arguments on the risks of panic-driven decision making: A Fiasco in the Making. (See Iraq, see Libya, WMD, Obama Secret Muslim, Putin Puppet,Threat from Immigrants) America’s recent track record panic-driven decision making? Not so hot. Worth a read!

“John P.A. Ioannidis is professor of medicine, of epidemiology and population health, of biomedical data science, and of statistics at Stanford University and co-director of Stanford’s Meta-Research Innovation Center.”

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