Moderating Online Electronic Discussion Groups

 Mauri P. Collins

Instructional Designer

Center for Learning Technology

Old Dominion University

Norfolk, VA 23529

Zane L. Berge

Director, Training Systems

UMBC - Dept. of Education

1000 Hilltop Circle

Baltimore MD 21250

Cite as:

Collins, M.P. and Berge, Z.L. (1997, March). Moderating Online Electronic Discussion Groups. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference. Chicago, IL. March 24-28.

Session 40.35. Thursday, March 27th, 1997; 2:15 PM to 3:45 PM


This research is a pilot study to begin a comprehensive study of electronic discussion group (EDG) moderators and their perceptions of their roles, tasks, and responsibilities. The questions explored revolve around EDG moderators' conceptions of their roles, their rationale for moderating or not moderating discussion on their mailing lists, where they learned their craft, and where moderating lists fits within the context of their lives. With such descriptions of the tasks and roles of practicing EDG moderators, better training could be developed for those teachers wishing to function effectively as on-line discussion facilitators and moderators as part of their on-line teaching. Findings included indicators of the roles of moderators acting a different times and for different lists as a filter, firefighter, facilitator, administrator, editor, promoter, expert, helper, participant, and marketer. The moderators responding to this survey cited reasons an EDG should be moderated as keeping the signal-to-noise ration high; keeping the discussion focused within the topic of the list's mission; keeping down "flames;" and digesting/editing posts. Most learned to moderate by watching others perform those functions--rather like apprentices, and either volunteered to be a list moderator, were invited to be, or started their own lists. They cited the reasons they moderate as including being work related, part of their leisure activity or both work and leisure activity.

Descriptors: Computer-mediated Communication; Electronic Conferences; Moderating/Facilitating Discussion; On-line Teaching


Over the past four years we have been interested in online teaching, both as adjuncts to and replacements for face-to-face classrooms. We have also been involved in the delivery of professional development seminars using the electronic discussion group format. In reading the literature in these areas, there are descriptions of the roles and responsibilities of online teachers in course-related computer conferences (Berge, 1995; Feenberg, 1989; Eastmond, 1992; Davie, 1989; Kerr, 1986 ) and a subset of their roles and tasks are similar to those in our experience as public electronic discussion group (EDG) moderators. Both face-to-face, classroom discussion groups (Brookfield, 1990; Brookfield, 1986), and public electronic discussion groups (Berge & Collins, 1995) appear similar to the extent that they both involve social activity and discussion, are cooperative endeavors, are usually rational and purposeful, are sometimes systematic and often creative, require participation, involve formal or informal leadership or moderation (Hyman, 1980, pp. 13-17) and are used by their participants as venues for formal and informal learning (Collins & Berge, 1996).

This research is a pilot study that begins a comprehensive, quantitative and qualitative study of a diverse group of EDG moderators and their own perceptions of their roles, tasks, and responsibilities. The questions explored in this pilot study revolve around EDG moderators' conceptions of their roles, their rationale for moderating, or not moderating discussion on their lists, where they learned their craft and where moderating lists fits within the context of their lives.


More often than not, when conferences fail, it is because the person in charge is unable to overcome the initial difficulty of transposing leadership skills acquired in face-to-face settings to the on-line setting. . . . since so few people have participated in computer conferences, it is often difficult to find an experienced leader who knows the on-line equivalents of the codes operative in face-to-face groups. Furthermore, the codes of on-line activity are still very much in formation and to some extent every moderator contributes to inventing them. (Feenberg, 1987, p. 177).

While published in 1987, in our experience the above is still true. In the preface to the second edition of The Network Nation, Hiltz and Turoff (1993) state that they were generally satisfied with the predictions made in their earlier edition (Hiltz & Turoff, 1978) in all respects but one: they would set the wide-spread networking of this nation a further thirty years into the future, having under-estimated the rate at which this innovation would be adopted. So individuals who have had an opportunity to develop the skills Feenberg refers to above are still rare. Increasingly, teachers are looking to computer conferencing to extend their instructional realm in both time and space and this requires that they learn to transpose their teaching roles and skills to an on-line setting.

On the surface, this transformation rarely appears to be problematical to teachers. Enthusiastic faculty, experienced in face-to-face teaching, who adopt computer conferencing are sometimes dismayed when their on-line classrooms go awry. Feenberg (1986; Feenberg, 1987) suggests this is because potential moderators are unable to overcome the initial difficulty of transposing leadership skills developed in contexts that are rich in social signaling (e.g. the tacit signs of approval like smiles, heads nodding in agreement; frowns that indicate puzzlement or disagreement) to the "artificial" setting of a computer conference where the very context of communication and meaning-making must be explicitly stated and negotiated. Berge (in press) speculates that those teachers who are philosophically oriented to student-centered teaching may make an easier transition to on-line teaching as they are already oriented to discussion and interaction. But regardless if the online teacher is aiming to extend their classroom or to create a totally online environment, where are they to learn the necessary skills for their online work?

As suggested by Rojo (1995) in the conclusions to her dissertation, with a description of the tasks and roles of practicing EDG moderators in hand, better training could be developed in the necessary on-line interactional codes for those teachers wishing to function effectively as on-line discussion facilitators and moderators, without their having to be put into situations where they are themselves learners.

What are EDG and How Are They Used?

The EDG format is increasingly being used for the delivery of academic courses and programs, for online professional development seminars and for the implementation of discussion in courses delivered primarily through other media. For the purposes of this research we are defining "public electronic discussion groups" as publicly accessible on-line, topic-focused discussion groups to which individuals can voluntarily subscribe or can read in Web-form. Participant's choice of discussion list(s) is based on their interests, and their work-related, social and/or personal needs (Collins & Berge, 1996; Rojo, 1995) and the time available to read the volume of contributions turning up in their mailboxes. This makes EDGs different from classrooms where the participation is often involuntary and whose members' personal interests may diverge greatly from that of the teacher and the material being presented.

There are also significant differences and similarities in the power and authority vested in the leadership of classrooms and EDGs. Both teachers and moderators have authority vested in their positions by virtue of their status: teachers control grades and the evaluation of student progress as a representative of the accrediting institution. EDG moderators do not have this evaluative nor credentialing role, nor the power inherent in it. They can, however, by virtue of functions within the software that creates the EDG environment, summarily remove a subscriber and thus eject them from the discussion and prevent their return.

Teachers are employed by a credentialing institution and have certain defined responsibilities for the way in which their teaching is conducted. EDG moderators are responsible to a sponsoring organization - often a computer systems support unit - for the technical management of their list(s), and are often held responsible by the sponsor or by the online community members of the EDG itself for the conduct of list members. Both teachers and moderators can choose to center discussion and activities around themselves, or lead from the sidelines through modeling and behind-the-scene facilitation.

EDG Moderators and Their Roles

While there is a growing body of literature that describes and prescribes the functions and roles of online instructors, there is no similar body of literature that specifically addresses the roles, tasks and functions of online EDG moderators. The roles of on-line moderators appear to have been articulated largely from the individual, personal experiences of those who have performed those functions in their classrooms (Davie, 1989; Feenberg, 1986; Feenberg, 1987; Hiltz, 1994; Hiltz & Turoff 1978; Harasim, 1986; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles & Turoff, 1995; Mason, 1990). This represents a data set derived from a small group of very experienced on-line teachers rather than from research that articulates and summarizes the collective experience of a large and diverse range of on-line discussion group moderators.

McMann (1994) describes the work of several authors who characterize traditional facilitation (i.e., facilitation prior to the advent of computer conferencing). As he stated, many of the same roles, functions and tasks that involve managing the content, process, communications, and decisions are similar in either computer conferences or face-to-face learning. Still, Harasim (1990) points out that the facilitator's skills need to be updated and modified somewhat, and Feenberg (1987, p. 178) points out the critical need for a moderator to be skilled in setting the contextual cues that establish a shared communications model from which can flow the appropriate norms, roles and expectations for an instructional setting.

In both distance learning and place-based learning, the more activities that arise involving computer conferencing, the greater the need for skillful facilitating, systematic designing, adequate organizing and planning for a successful conference (Feenberg, 1986; Feenberg 1987; Feenberg & Bellman, 1990; Gunawardena, 1994; McMann, 1994). Several authors (e.g., Berge, 1994; Brochet, 1989; Feenberg, 1989; Paulsen, 1995) have attempted to list, largely from their own experience, many of the roles or functions of the computer conferencing moderator. These include: assistant, consultant, contextualizer, coordinator, discriminator, editor, entertainer, expert, explainer, facilitator, filter, firefighter, goal setter, helper, host, intermediary, leader, lecturer, manager, marketer, mediator, meeting chairperson, mentor, observer, pace-setter, participant, promoter, provocateur, social host, tutor, and so forth.


Public EDG moderators are often volunteers who, on a daily basis, moderate discussion in a myriad different on-line discussion groups and who have accumulated many years of practical experience among them at this demanding task.

It is this experience that our research seeks to capture and make explicit. Feenberg (1986; Feenberg 1987) notes that the "usual way we learn to play dominant roles is in our experience in dominated roles. . . the ability to chair a meeting is widespread among people who have attended meetings; and the ability to teach is readily cultivated by many who have been taught. It is in the course of these experiences that participants acquire an understanding of the implicit codes on the basis of which the group communicates" (1987, p. 177).


This research is a pilot study that begins a formal, qualitative study of a diverse group of EDG moderators and their own perceptions of their roles, tasks, and responsibilities. The questions explored in this particular research project are:


A electronic survey comprised of 9 questions (eight open-ended and one closed-ended) was sent as electronic mail to (See Appendix A). LSTOWN-L is a public EDG specifically for discussion listowners and moderators, where the technical issues surrounding the administration of discussion lists are aired, questions asked and responded to, and old and new members of the group (n=550+) have access to the collective knowledge, experience and wisdom of the group. Contributions to the list primarily involve posting of facts or explanations of various features of the list management software, tips or tricks to make list administration easier, warnings concerning recalcitrant list users and computer systems that may be causing large amounts of mail to be returned (which creates added work for the list owner/moderator).

Over one hundred surveys were returned, with 73 usable surveys coming from persons who moderate the lists they are responsible for. "Moderate" in this case indicates that they take some active part in the day-to-day discussion on their lists. This ranges through the set or any subset of the following: reading every post prior to distribution; sometimes editing and/or annotating posts; returning posts for rewriting; answering questions off-line and redirecting messages; discarding messages that are outside the topic area of the list; discarding messages that contain ad hominem attacks, proprietary information or content that could bring unwelcome "official" attention to the list; reading the posts and "digesting" them (i.e. compiling several posts into a single message); posting FAQ regularly; monitoring the discussion and "stepping in with a wry or gently chiding remark from time to time as exchanges get heated" (L-Soft, 1996); contributing in such a way that a sense of community develops among the EDG members; regulating discussion of controversial subjects to avoid "flame wars" (vitriolic, often vulgar or profane verbal attacks), and other related tasks.

The unusable surveys drew our attention to technical distinctions among several terms made by LSTOWN-L members:

1. A list administrator is a person who is responsible for the installation and upkeep of the list management software on a host computer. This person sets up lists, names them and assigns passwords. List administrators make sure that the software is functioning correctly and that there is an active connection with the Internet on lists that are external to the host institution.

2. A list owner is the person to whom "ownership" of the list is assigned by the line in the list header that says "Owner=." This person is responsible to the host institution for the list and is given specific prerogatives by the list management software, including adding and deleting members, determining how mail should be handled when sent and if returned, if the list is private or open to anyone to post, and if the list is moderated or unmoderated. A list owner is defined here as only dealing with returned mail and not taking part in the day-to-day discussion on the list.

3. A list moderator is the person(s) named in the "Editor=" line in the list header. This person is usually responsible, at the very least, for dealing with bounced mail, adding and deleting subscribers and any other prerogatives that the listowner (who may be the same person) affords them. On a moderated list all mail addressed to the list goes first to the person designated as "Editor," is then processed and distributed to the list by the list moderator. On a unmoderated list, mail is distributed immediately and automatically to all list members, and postings to the list are monitored by the list owner/moderator who may, or may not take an active part in the discussion.

(Note: Terms used here are for LISTSERV, but other software such as majordomo and listproc have similar functions to "Editor=" and "Owner=.")

The returned surveys represented more than ten percent of the total list membership, many of whom apparently do not moderate or facilitate discussion on the lists for which they are responsible. Represented lists ranged from those solely for the distribution of binary files for executable programs, through lists that for the distribution of digests of other lists, those compiled as newsletters to moderated and unmoderated discussion lists with posts ranging from one or two a week to several hundred daily. From our experience, this was a fairly representative sample of the range of both lists and list owners/moderators.


The Respondents

The moderators surveyed were all members of LSTOWN-L, a discussion group with over 500 members, designed for those who administer, own and moderate EDGs. Of the 73 respondents 68 percent were either students, staff, administrators or faculty at academic institutions (some respondents combined two or more of the above roles); 8.2 percent were from business, 5.5 percent from industry, 4.1 percent from government, 1.4 percent were self-employed and 12.3 percent did not respond. This is consistent with distribution of access i.e., proportionally more educational institutions have Internet access than do business, industry or government, although that is rapidly changing.

There was a wide range of length of time moderating lists: 30.1 percent were new, with six months or less of experience; 28.7 percent had from 1-2 years experience; 6.5 percent with 6 months to 1 year of experience; 15.1 percent from 2-3 years; 16.5 percent had 3-4 years; and 6.8 percent had five or more years of experience.

In this study neither gender, age nor academic degree were questioned as these were not considered to impact the particular areas under investigation. However, from the names of the respondents, it is estimated that less than two percent of the respondents were female.

What should the role(s) of a EDG moderator be?

This question was phrased to elicit what these respondents thought the moderator's role should be, whether or not they were in a position to actually perform the set or any sub-set of them. In Table 1 we have categorized them and show indicators from which the categories have been built.

Table 1. Moderator Roles

% of responses


Filter (content)


To make a higher signal/noise ratio; keeps advertising out; keeps out tasteless jokes; weed out irrelevant, impolite, illegal, etc. contributions


Prevent flame wars; eliminate petty flames; keeps out ad hominem attacks; referees


keep group focused toward mission (i.e., group leader); attend to interpersonal issues between group members (e.g. complaints)


Help with technical problems; archiver; delete/add members; "sweeps floor"


At a minimum: to enhance the clarity of the posted information, (e.g., added references: headers, inserted comments in [brackets], reformatted text, clarified citations of other articles, ask authors for clarifications and/or rewrites, sometimes suggesting same


Generates useful discussion; finds and posts interesting posts from other sources


Expert in field/manufacturers representative; evaluates accuracy of information in posts; answers technical questions; compiles FAQ
No role listed




Help people with needs (more general than "Expert")


Just like everyone else (as opposed to "Expert" or "Administrator")


Promote/explain list to potential members

Criteria for moderation

"Filtering should be on the basis of specific, explicit criteria. These criteria should be set out in advance, and should be drawn up in association with the group's readership" (Respondent)

When the respondents were asked if they had a formal, editorial policy 49.3 percent said they had, 41.1 percent said that they had not, and the remainder either did not respond, or moderated several lists, some with and some without formal editorial policies. The percentage that claimed informal editorial criteria against which they judged the appropriateness of posts was 46.6.

Editorial policies greatly ease the moderation of lists, especially those with controversial subject matter. Such policies can be disseminated frequently to the list, and sent to all new members in response to their subscription request. Editorial policies also serve to create cues concerning the context in which discussion will occur and as Feenberg (1987, p. 178) suggests: "These contextual cues establish a shared communication model from which flows norms, roles and expectations." Participants' understanding of what is expected of them is increased, and in the case of breaches in the communication norms, editorial policies can be posted as a general, non-personalized reminder to the entire community to re-contextualize the discussion.

What is their rationale for their activity: i.e. why do EDG moderators believe discussion lists should or should not be moderated?

Moderating discussion lists, especially those with controversial content can be harrowing and time-consuming--so why do it? Moderators appear to value their own time and place a high value on keeping the "signal-to-noise" ratio high. (This expression comes from ham radio communication where every effort is made to fine tune on a broadcasting source to keep the incoming signal clear and the amount of static and sound distortion low.) Part of their concern stems from a desire to retain the number of subscribers to their list, while providing a valuable service to their readers. For example:

"In the case of an announcement group especially, it should absolutely be moderated. The items I've rejected have convinced me of that. Also, if an announcement group does not stay on topic, people won't read it. Since the very idea of such a group is to reach as wide an audience as possible with pertinent information, the quality must be maintained or the audience will desert the group. I have rejected various sales offers, chain letters, and pyramid marketing schemes, all of which are clearly inappropriate for an announcement group in a hierarchy devoted to technical topics" (Respondent)

Table 2. Reasons a list should be moderated

% of responses




Keep signal-to-noise ratio high; orderly housekeeping; weed out irrelevant messages


Keep discussion focused with the topic of the list, reduce FAQ; aid and promote worthwhile discussions of relevant issues


Keep down flames


Timely posting of announcements, working papers etc.


Keep "trade secrets" or proprietary information off list


If list is not voluntary (i.e. work or school related)


Digest messages, edit posts

Many respondents felt that EDGs should not be moderated. There is a strong cyber-cultural sense that a EDG belongs to the participants in the discussion and that their right to freedom of speech should be vigorously maintained. Moderation also takes time, can tie a moderator to their list as if it were an inescapable daily chore and can delay postings to the list.

Table 3. Reasons a list should not be moderated

% of responses


Response time


Slows response time; inhibits free-flowing discussion; avoid censorship


Consumes moderator's time


List belongs to members, adults are self-regulating


Resentment of moderator's censorship

Learning their craft: How did they get started as moderators?

Feenberg (1986, Feenberg 1987) says the usual way we learn the behaviors appropriate for those in dominant roles is to observe others in those roles from our position as subordinates, very much like apprentices. So where did these EDG moderators learn their craft? How did they initially become list moderators?

One source of information on EDG moderators' technical tasks is detailed in software manuals like L-Soft International's (1996) List Owner's Manual, which devotes an entire chapter to the social and cultural niceties involved in "Moderating and Editing Lists" and goes on to the specific software commands and routines that must be used.

Many more learn from their experience as discussion list participants, watching others moderate lists and then stepping into their shoes. Sometimes moderators volunteered for the task after having been a list member for some time and they felt the need to increase the signal-to-noise ratio; sometimes they were asked to step up when an existing moderator stepped down; and still others started their own lists, wanting the content matter to be very specific, the discussion to be conducted in a particular fashion, or so they could take a direct hand in shaping the list. The latter were usually dissatisfied with the conduct of discussion on existing EDGs, or had not been able to find a list that matched their specific interests.

Table 4. Reasons why moderators began

% of responses


Example Indicators
Volunteer 23.3%

"I volunteered because no one else would, and I'm at a hub site."

"I volunteered, at the time the group was being discussed for possible creation."

"The 'editors' were using an 'ad hoc' distribution system, and, due to technical considerations, it was 'clogging' part of the <name> network. I stepped in to provide a 'resource-efficient' distribution mechanism."

Invited to 9.6%

"I was asked to do so by the previous moderator <name> when he thought it was time to pass it on."

"I asked to be the moderator when the old one retired"

Started List 52.1%

I was one of the people who proposed the need for the newsgroup, after seeing many postings related to the <list topic> in different groups on the net;

I looked for a list with this purpose and couldn't find anything. I then rounded up a 'critical mass' and a willing host site and got it going;

No response 15.0% No response or unable to determine from response

Where does moderating lists fit within the framework of moderator's lives?

For many moderators their work is a "labor of love" and they devote many hours to reading and responding to posts to their lists.

Table 5. Where does moderation fit in their lives?
Value Label Valid %
Work 28.8
Leisure 30.1
Both 09.6
Not work, but it helps 15.1
Leisure, but done at work 06.8
No response 09.6

For 38.4 percent of the respondents moderating lists is a work assignment, or one that helps with their work; 36.9 percent view moderating as a leisure activity, done both away and at work and 9.6 percent consider moderating as a mixture of both work and leisure. List membership and moderating for some is a way of keeping a finger on the pulse of their discipline or profession or is used as if the list members were consultants or subject matter experts available any hour, day or night to respond to queries with facts, techniques or experiences. Other respondents likened their time spent moderating as "hanging around the water cooler" or "in the lunch room" at work where they were able to connect with others with similar interests while physically remaining in situations where they may be without a contiguous peer.


This research series is on-going and will elaborate on the questions considered here with a larger and more diverse group of moderators. The personal skills and attributes that EDG moderators believe best undergirds effective on-line context-setting and discussion facilitation will be investigated as will where moderators themselves learned their craft and their suggestions for appropriate training activities ("if I only knew then what I know now"); their suggestions for development of explicit training in the skills of synthesizing and summarizing discussions threads--if indeed such activity should be undertaken, and the maintenance of participation among the voluntary participants of electronic discussion groups.


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The On-line Survey

Dear List Moderator:

We are surveying list moderators to attempt to find out some general information about moderators and the role of moderators in electronic discussion groups.

If you would edit the survey so that answers are made below each question, it would be appreciated.

If you would like a summary of the results of this survey, please include that request in your completed survey in the "Additional Comments" area below along with any other comments you may have.

Please return completed questionnaires before November 1, to BERGE@UMBC2.UMBC.EDU.

Zane Berge, Ph.D.

mauri collins, M.A.

----------------------SURVEY OF LIST MODERATORS-------------------------

1. What should the role(s) of a discussion group moderator be?

2. Why should (or should not) discussion groups be moderated?

3. Have you developed a formal, written editorial policy for list(s) you may moderate? If so, what

does it say?

4. If not, what informal criteria do you use to determine the appropriateness of posts to your list?

5. How many and what kinds of discussion groups do you moderate?

6. How long have you been moderating discussion groups?

7. How did you get started moderating a discussion group?

8. How does moderating a discussion group fit in with the rest of your life? e.g., Is this part of

your work, your recreation etc.?

9. Status (check or list all that apply): __student __ staff __ faculty __ administration
__ academia __ business __ industry __ government __ military

Any Additional Comments:

Thank you for your participation. Last revision June 13, 2000

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Berge Collins Associates
Updated: January 1, 2011