Time Saving Strategies and Tips for Instructors
Using Online Discussion Forums

(A practical guide under co-construction, April 2000)

 I give good courses. Evaluation results are positive. Why on earth would I want to use my time introducing discussion forums in my teaching?



Students and instructors being able to write messages at any time of day or night when it's convenient appears to be one of the great benefits of going online for learning and teaching :

I have found that the online mode takes just as much time as the face to face mode. What it does allow though is for me to carry out my teaching activities, and for students to carry out their learning activities when it is most convenient. One is not locked in by a schedule of classes.

When a campus-based classroom becomes network-enabled, discussion forums extend and strengthen the social interaction already occuring in that classroom. Thus, online learning activities may not only help deal with scheduling problems or the lack of adequate classroom space (administration), but also with teammates meeting one another, and students understanding better ill-defined problems (pedagogy).

Such benefits, however, are accompanied by time requirements. Students, professors and administrators need to give attention to how he or she manages his or her time in order not to disengage after one or a few online learning and teaching activities. The following document is written having colleague instructors in mind.

Management of online activities has become an ever increasing task and the more tools we have it seems the more work we need to do as instructors. For those of us who do collaborative learning, there is a concern associated with the amount of time the instructors need to spend in course management tasks.

Management of online activities has become an ever increasing task and the more tools we have it seems the more work we need to do as instructors. For those of us who do collaborative learning, there is a concern associated with the amount of time the instructors need to spend in course management tasks.

Instructor cannot ignore their own learning curve in the use of an online platform such as Virtual-U or another. Beyond the mastery of the basics of Virtual-U, many functions of the software are likely to remain unknown for a while. Furthermore, new releases will bring new features that add new challenges to the instructors.

Getting started

A few years ago, the learning curve was steep for one wanting to learn or teach online. Today, it takes less time to introduce a group of students to a virtual platform such as Virtual-U and its VGroups because more and more people have some experience with the Web. But learning the software remains a key step once an instructor has found a way to introduce online learning activities as part of a campus-based course. Saving time strategies are important in order for students not to be distracted from the main content of the course.

One must accept that learning the software itself will require some time for students. Providing on paper basic information such as the url address of the platform used and a short practical guide, saves access time at first.

One may start with a Demo Discussion Forum, and provide first the same Identification Code (ID) and Password (PW) to all members of the class. Students are then instructed to put their name at the end of each of their messages. The downside of this strategy is that some students make use the opportunity of anonymity to make light or evaluative comments on the course or the program they are registered to. Studies of early adopters' practices (transcript analysis of some courses, interviews with professors) show that students take from two to three weeks to have a sense of the environment. After a couple of weeks, almost all students are likely to possess the basic skills, an electronic address, and a Virtual-U (or other platform) ID and PW.

I learned the following:

a) The course must be very well structured.

b) We cannot overload students in the first two weeks.

c) We need to suggest activities that embed software learning so as to integrate the learning curves. For example: a conference in which the professor will request (and guide) many web-based activities that require surfing different spaces of the software.

As a valuable contribution to the discussion forum, students may be asked to introduce themselves. Some may already have a personal webpage they will want to make a link to as they introduce themselves.

I say to students to first introduce themselves. Contrary to a face-to-face situation, one is not there until he or she has written something.

Setting clear expectations

One is well-advised to say to students that he or she expects that they will go online at least once or twice a week, read the messages posted, write and respond to messages.

I instruct students to write about 500 words a week (3-4 messages), but I also value socially-oriented short messages, even those having apparently nothing to do with the content. Trust building is important in all group work, f2f and online.

Online, students expect a quick response to their questions. But instructors usually teach at specific times, and office hours are often set. To log on, and respond to questions in a timely manner creates a demand on the instructor that is likely to be a drawback in his or her adoption of the tool. The difference in expectations must be dealt with. One of the suggested solutions is for the instructor to state his or her availability upfront so that students know when they can expect a response to a question.

I announce at the beginning of the course that I will be available for one hour each day. This is a time that I know I'll be online and sitting at my desk, so it is not necessarily an "extra" hour. Some mornings there is no action, others maybe just some 1-to-1, or there might be a small project group discussion.

There isn't one single way of response! I know of colleagues that say they will read the messages posted once a week, as they prepare for the next class while others have been found to respond to a particular message or add to a discussion on a Sunday morning!

New roles need to be very well defined. Who helps the students? Who fixes what? Who responds to all those questions in the HELP conference?

Instructors don't have to try to do online everything they do in class. Discussion forums are there to support participative modes of learning. For instance, task assignment and task rotation are found most appropriate in order for a community of learners to move from asymmetric to more symmetric learning processes.

Instructors are finding that a web-based learning environment is quite similar to a classroom discussion, in the sense that it seems most successful when they are able to get students sending messages to each other rather than always back and forth to them.

Instructors spend less time helping students - they help one another. They're quick to respond to questions in the HELP section. Those who are not familiar with online conferences learn by doing.

Time is likely to be wasted on both sides (instructor/student) even if the syllabus is clear, even if there are learning exercises. Some students don't pay attention to them, but this is particular to online learning activities.

Not only are we all struggling with learning the virtual-environment but some do not have basic computer skills. The first part of the course is definitely devoted to becoming comfortable with those aspects.

Sometimes the students in a course are all new to online learning and sometimes not. The amount of time that the students and instructor spend online is certainly related to their newness.

Interacting online

Time-saving tip. One way to save time is for the instructor to stay out of online class discussions. This not only saves my time but makes for better student discussion. As soon as the instructor says anything it is taken as authoritative and it can turn the discussion into student-instructor dialogue instead of student-student dialogue. I break the students down into groups of about 20 for online discussion and while I monitor the groups to make sure that inappropriate things are not being posted (harassing comments, attacks on individuals rather than discussing the issue, etc.) I rarely contribute to the discussion. If I need to correct or direct a discussion I often do it indirectly. I.e., instead of posting a message in a discussion group that is a response to a specific message, I will post a message in the Main Class conference (that all students are supposed to read) indicating that the idea has been presented that ... but other issues need to be considered are a, b, c, etc.

Time-saving tip. To create teams (dyads or triads) that meet f2f, asking them to share with one another what they know. Unfortunately, this strategy does not apply to totally online courses because they cannot meet face-to-face.

Time-saving tip. A professor may not participate in the VGroups but nevertheless demonstrated commitment : reading the messages, building on them in class, grading them.

Time-saving tip. By directing (or re-directing) questions or comments into the appropriate conferences, it changes the communication from student ´ instructor to student ´ student ´ instructor, etc. This simple strategy clearly re-focuses the interaction, reflects the belief that everyone has something useful to share, and takes away the need for the instructor to respond to all postings.

Time-saving tip. Expert groups (2-4 people), ones that include a person knowledgeable in the use of the Internet, may be created.

Time-saving tip. Considering chat tools, many features strengthen interaction:

- sound to alert one when someone is trying to contact one
- join by invitation
- the ability to have multiple sessions (i.e. 2 simultaneous private chats)
- messaging option (if it's just a quick question & answer there's no need to set up a chat session)

Anxiety-saver tip. One thing we have tried is sending out explicit printed materials ("How to get online") and phoning everyone before the course begins to see what kind of system they have and how they feel about their computer skills, etc. This seemed to help minimize some of the confusion and anxiety in the beginning, but I wouldn't call it the ultimate solution, particularly for large courses.

Anxiety-saver tip. A short video of only a few minutes that could be given out with the course materials might help quite a bit to calm the fears of those who are new to online instruction.

Assessing and reusing resources

The next time teaching the course instructors can refine and re-use what has already been developed to a certain extent and this helps. Instructors that reflect on their own practice and are willing to share ideas and resources may use discussion forums to these ends. To build on existing digital resources is a must, one's own and those of others (i.e. jointly create bibliographies with students, activity structures, ec.). For instance, this guide is being co-developed by instructors that reflected on and shared their online practices.

Recognizing the evolving roles of teachers and learners

What we may be witnessing here, at a deeper level, is a change of expectations on the part of the learner.

Most of our instructors think that the workload with the online mode is greater than regular teaching. Personally, I have found that the amount of time I spend online has not decreased over time. That's because the more I learn, the more things I want to try, and the more I enjoy what I'm doing!

We have to learn to talk efficiently through writing (quite new, isn't it?) and to take advantage of this media. Getting ideas from others, asking the right questions, isn't an art that can be useful, even in wordplace?

TeleLearning researcher Lucio Teles referred to Stacy Ashton's framework to situate the role of the instructor in online collaborative environments.The model was originally developed by Zane Berge and includes four main components regarding instructor tasks online:

1. Pedagogical,
2. Managerial,
3. Social, and
4. Technical.

This framework is helpful to better understand the relative weight of these tasks in the overall task of online teaching and which techniques are useful in helping the instructor in each of these four tasks.

Teles' team is finding that the Managerial component is having a rather heavy weight in the overall task. Researchers are asking: Is that because the systems are not adequate, or because the tools are not yet refined? Or is this intrinsic to collaborative teaching online?

While those whose work is to manage learning systems or to develop the tools for online learning activities, instructors are uniquely positioned to attend to the pedagogical component of online activity for learning purposes.


Note - This document is an evolving one, and builds on the online discussions carried out by instructors online in the Global Educators' Network.


Thérèse Laferrière
for the Time Management Online Seminar Participants
Spring 2000