Encouraging Participation in An Online Course

As I continue my reflections and keep learning how to facilitate online, one of the activities this week was responding to a very interesting scenario on encouraging participation. Just like in a face-2-face classroom setting, the online environment also has a variety of students with different learning styles, personality types and technical skill level (peculiar to an online setting). All these makes different participants engage and participate differently and at different rates.

Unfortunately, whereas ‘Flexibility: Learning at the pace and time of the learner’ is supposed to be a great advantage of an online learning environment, we soon discovered this could be a source of irritation and potential conflict in an online environment.

Here was the activity:

Imagine that you are a course leader. You encourage participants to contact you if they experience any problems in the course. It is Friday of Week 1 and you find the following message in the Week 1 Reflections forum:

One thing that really irritates me is the really loud students who like to dominate discussions and then have the nerve to call those of us who prefer to observe and reflect a bit, before participating, ‘lurkers’.

It is 20 minutes since the message was posted and none of the participants has yet replied. How would you respond to this message?

This is a very interesting and real scenario. Whereas you don’t want the active participants to become ‘quiet’, you also need to encourage others to reflect and make contributions when they have one. Some people feel they only learn after they have taken time to reflect properly before they can participate while others may see their learning as part of their discussions and participation. These people feel they only learn as they ‘talk’… How true is this?

Some participants spoke on different learning theories and the need to make this known to students upfront. Others spoke about drawing them all to a separate discussion to discuss how they would love to participate and be treated in the course. Others spoke about addressing the issue of calling names (which I think is needed), only I’m not sure how! One participant particularly spoke about reprimanding the ‘culprit’. He feels this student would be expecting some form of ‘action’ to be taken against the ‘loud ones’. What do you think?

However, from all the responses given by participants in our course, I find these points coming out as tips…

1. Acknowledge the problem and apologise for the experience.

2. Explain the balance (taking into consideration the different learning styles)

3. Encourage participation either by introducing other platforms or by assigning specific tasks

4. Draw participants to collectively discuss & agree on how they want to interact

5. Leave the door for further feedback open!

Do you agree with these? What might you add to or remove from this list? 

My thoughts and Response.

Coinage of words must be taken into consideration. Such ‘lurkers’ would usually be ‘word sensitive’ and the wrong words can permanently shut them up. So I believe care must be taken to appreciate and encourage their feedback and view. However, we should not shy away from showing ways of improvement. Striking this balance (I think) comes from having experience of doing this with different cases, over time.

So I would respond with something close to these lines… 

Hi friend,

Participation is very key for a successful learning in an Online environment, and especially in this course. Learning and a meaningful contribution can definitely not take place without some form of reflection. The only difference is how long it takes for individuals to go through the process – from taking in, to reflection and to contributing. In this course, everyone is encouraged to reflect and participate at their own pace… taking note of the activity schedule & deadlines! I must however say that you will benefit more from the course when you reflect and participate more. 

Kudos to everyone!

Hopefully this response was fair enough…

So tell me, as a facilitator in an online course, what would your response be? If you were a participant in this course, how would this response affect you? Consider from the perspective of one of the ‘loud’ participants and from the ‘lurkers’, what would be your response (even if it’s not an audible response)?

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