Mauri P. Collins
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
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
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.
Communication; Electronic Conferences; Moderating/Facilitating Discussion;
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.
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
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
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 LSTOWN-L@sern.sunet.se (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 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
|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"
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
|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
"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."
"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"
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 %|
|Not work, but it helps||15.1|
|Leisure, but done at work||06.8|
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.
Berge, Z. L. (1992). The role of the moderator in a scholarly discussion group (SDG). [On-line]. http://star.ucc.nau.edu/~mauri/zlbmod.html
Berge, Z. L. (1994). Electronic discussion groups. Communication Education. 43(2), 102-111.
Berge, Z. L. (1995). Facilitating computer conferencing: Recommendations from the field. Educational Technology. 15(1), 22-30.
Berge, Z. L. (in press). Characteristics of on-line teaching in post-secondary, formal education. Educational Technology.
Berge, Z. L. & Collins, M. P. (1995). Computer-mediated scholarly discussion groups. Computers in Education, 24(3), 183-189.
Brochet, M. G. (1989). Effective moderation of computer conferences: Notes and suggestions. In M. G. Brochet (Ed.) Moderating conferences (pp. 6.01-6.08). Guelph, Ontario: University of Guelph.
Brookfield, S. D. (1986). Understanding and facilitating adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S. D. (1990). Discussion. In M. W. Galbraith, (Ed.) (1990). Adult learning methods: A guide for effective instruction. Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.
Collins, M. P. & Berge, Z. L. (1996). Mailing lists as a venue for adult learning. Paper presented at the Eastern Adult, Continuing and Distance Education Research Conference, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, October 24-26, 1996.
Davie, L. (1989). Facilitation techniques for the on-line tutor. In R. Mason & A. Kaye (Eds.), Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education. Elmsford, New York: Pergamon Press.
Eastmond, D. V. (1992). Effective facilitation of computer conferencing. Continuing Higher Education Review, 56(1/2), 23-34
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Feenberg, A. (1989). The written world: On the theory and practice of computer conferencing. In Robin Mason and Anthony Kaye (Eds.), Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education. Elmsford, New York: Pergamon Press.
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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.
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
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
Brought to you by emoderators.com
Berge Collins Associates
|Updated: January 1, 2011|