John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated March 03 (v1.1)
Around the world teachers are inviting students into cyberspace to enrich their learning experience. The tools and techniques of using online resources for teaching are as diverse as the Internet itself. In this article I will focus on the use of one of the oldest online communication environments - what used to be called bulletin boards or message boards, now often referred to as "forums" or "discussion boards."
The "bulletin board" metaphor captured the essence of how these systems work. You go to a specific location on the Internet and "post" a message consisting of a subject title and a message body. When other people read it, they can post a message in reply or post a different message using a different subject heading. Multiple posts referring to one particular subject title is called a "thread" of discussion. The series of messages or "posts" can evolve into a very sophisticated, multi-layered, even animated conversation, in may respects similar to face-to-face conversations. Hence the term "discussion board."
Teachers have invented all sorts of creative ways to use this communication space. The structure and purpose of discussion boards vary according to teaching style and course objectives. The features offered by the discussion board software also structure the environment, determining what can and can't happen. Here I will focus on strategies that have worked well in my undergraduate courses using Blackboard, which is one educational software system that includes discussion boards as well as a variety of other tools.
When you create a discussion board, will students flock to it with enthusiastic post and reply mouse clicks? If you build it, will they come?..... Maybe, but maybe not.
If you have a class of motivated people who are familiar with discussion boards, you may find yourselves off to a strong start. In my smaller classes of 20 or less students, where class activities encourage discussion and getting to know each other, students tend to carry that desire to communicate into the discussion board. Those few students who rarely visit the forum start to feel "out of the loop" when interesting things happen online, which sometimes motivates them to join in.
In other cases you may have to encourage students, draw them out, ask questions, set an example - be a good "facilitator" as they call it in online communities. Some of the strategies I discuss in this article might help in that respect. In many but not all ways it's similar to moderating a face-to-face discussion.
In my larger classes, students often are reluctant to talk in front of the whole group. That same type of shyness can lead to a very quiet discussion board. Students might also neglect the online forum because, in their mind, it is something superfluous, not really the class per se, but rather some kind of separate, peripheral thing that can be ignored if they so chose. If the instructor tends to feel the same way, consciously or subconsciously, students will detect this attitude quickly. Although instructors might feel good about adding modern technology to their teaching repertoire, simply setting up a discussion board without effectively integrating it into the course, and without taking specific steps to generate motivation to use it, will most probably culminate in a trickle of posts that quickly fade to complete silence.
You may need to offer concrete incentives to motivate your students. Participation may determine part of the student's grade. You might offer extra credit. Of course, the bonus point system you use will depend on your grading structure. In those classes in which I adopt this strategy, I usually award half a point per post, with a cap on the number of bonus points possible. To qualify for extra credit, a post must consist of at least three sentences and must pertain, in some way, to the course content. It's a lenient rule.
Although we instructors would rather not have to use such a system to reinforce discussions, it does work quite well. Sometimes enthusiastic students will continue posting beyond the point of attaining the maximum number of bonus points. Usually, though, once they hit the cap, they stop posting.
Knowing our students have grown up squarely within the age of computers and the Internet, we might assume that they all take to it like a fish to water. That's not necessarily the case. Some students may feel uncomfortable with computers, or may not have much experience with online communication. Those who have spent a great deal of time online may be quite skilled at web browsing, email, and instant messaging, but may not have much experience with message boards. Each online environment is a bit different from others, requiring a different set of skills and knowledge. Some people like the challenge of experimenting with new software and new styles of online communication. Others may be more wary. These attitudes may persist throughout the semester, resulting in the online forum becoming a unique subgroup within the whole class, or even a "two classes in one" phenomenon in which the atmosphere of the classroom and forum diverge due to slightly different groups of students participating.
Setting up a separate area for pure socializing may encourage students to hang out in the online environment for the course, especially if students get the opportunity to hang out with the instructor too in this more casual atmosphere. The instructor may see opportunities to stir up a good discussion, which can then be carried over to the academic discussion board. In general, "social energy" generated in the casual atmosphere can spread throughout the online environment for the course.
I sometimes set up a separate forum for the purpose of playing a game of some sort, ideally one that's educational in nature and somehow enhances the course. In my group dynamics class, we play "word association" in which anyone is free to post in the title of a message a single word that is an association to the word appearing in the title of the message preceding it. Students enjoy the game, which also serves as a kind of projective test, a barometer of sorts, revealing interesting aspects of the group's dynamics and the personalities of the students.
Making Rules Clear
In the section of Blackboard that describes the discussion boards that are available within a course, I like to provide clear rules and guidelines. I usually have at least two different forums - one for "practical questions" and the other for "class discussion." I don't award bonus points for posts like "When is the next exam?" or "What chapter should we be reading?" So the description for the forum devoted to practical issues states that such questions belong there and not in the class discussion forum. Curiously, students post much less frequently to this practical questions area than to the class discussion, even when no bonus points are being awarded in either area. In the description for the class discussion board, I usually list the following items:1. To count for extra credit, a post must be at least three sentences.That last item is especially important for courses in which the material applies to the students' lives, as in the psychology courses I teach. Often students will want to discuss friends, roommates, or family. Protecting their confidentiality is important. I also strongly discourage any "gossiping" that might develop.
2. Irrelevant posts or pure socializing doesn't count (like "Hi there. How's it going?".... "I thought the movie Hannibal was great!")
3. Don't simply ask a question. Give some background or explanation.
4. Practical questions about the course should be placed in the Practical Questions area. Those kinds of messages placed in the Class Discussion Board will be removed.
5. Respond to what other students are saying or asking. I want you to talk to each other. Let's not slip into a "sage on stage" interaction where everyone relies on me to respond to questions and comments.
6. Be HELPFUL and friendly to each other.
7. If you mention people you know, remember to protect their anonymity. Never mention any specific information about people that might reveal who they are.
Sage on Stage?
As you probably noticed in the items above, I try to steer clear of a "sage on stage" style of interacting with students. Not only do I believe in the educational value of their actively sharing ideas with each other, but I also want to avoid spending many hours typing in answers to numerous questions that often arise from a need to passively absorb information, which is an all too common attitude on the Internet.
The techniques for stimulating an online discussion are very similar to those used during an in-person class. In a Socratic way, encourage students to reflect on their ideas and questions. Provide just enough information to get them thinking about deeper or broader answers. Encourage other students to respond to a question or idea from their classmate, especially if it's a question that, much to your dismay, is something you already discussed in class, perhaps at great length, so you can safely assume other students know the answer. Perhaps remind them about that class discussion. Post a link to a website that contains information related to a student's question or issue, then ask the student to report back to the group about what they learned from that site.
The nice thing about discussion boards is the "asynchronous" nature of the communication. You're not on the spot to immediately and cleverly facilitate the discussion. You can take your time to ponder an effective way to intervene with Socratic wisdom.
Most of the time I allow students to bring up whatever topics they wish to discuss. That unstructured atmosphere may inhibit some students, but I like to leave the door wide open for whatever might be on their minds, even if it's a topic that's not directly related to the course material. Sometimes I do seed the discussion board by creating a new thread. There might be an issue leftover from class that needs further exploration or clarification, or the forum might need a stimulus to help it out of a sluggish period.
Riding the Ebb and Flow
A message board discussion, like any discussion, ebbs and flows, sometimes in predictable patterns, sometimes not. At the beginning of the semester, you may find yourself clicking into the various discussion boards for your classes ("making the rounds," as I like to call it), looking for posts, but none appear. Students tend to be overwhelmed during those few two weeks, so it might take them some time to get to the forum. Silence tends to breed more silence, and not many students want to be the very first person to post. So it might help to post a few inviting, even humorous prompts , like "Hey where is everyone?" or "Come on in, the water is fine!" or "Tap.. Tap.... Is this thing working?"
I don't like to see a student post a message and then receive no response, especially if it's a quiet student or anyone who feels they might be sticking their neck out a bit by posing a question or suggesting an idea. Getting no reply at all feels like a "black hole experience" - one that makes you wonder why your post receives the silent treatment. It can stir up all sorts of anxieties and insecurities, thereby discouraging the person from posting again.
If I think this might be happening, I'll jump in and reply to the student myself.... But when? Sometimes it might take a day or two, or three, for someone else to reply. Because my responding first to a student bypasses a response from other students, or may bias the ensuing replies from other students, I like to wait those few days before saying anything. I'll mark it as "unread" to remind myself to reply if no one else does.
You might see bursts of activity just before and after an exam, when assignments are due, when students feel confused about something in the face-to-face class, or when something controversial or interesting comes up in class. Students may post more messages as well as longer, more complex messages that address a variety of important issues. If message titles are ambiguous and threads migrate to new issues that no longer relate to the original message titles, you might decide to change the titles or create new threads with new titles that highlight the different issues at hand.
When replying to someone's post that contains several important ideas, I like to cut and paste two or three key sentences from their message into my message, with my comments interjected between the quotes. This keyboarding technique can lead to an interesting interweaving, multi-layered dialogue.
Quiet spells may follow spurts of activity. I find that posts typically die down for a few days, then pick up again. Complete silence for a week or more may indicate a group that's dying out completely. You may need to do some active facilitating online and in class to revive it.
If necessary, I sometimes privately email a handful of students who typically do participate in discussions, or whom I know have good ideas, in order to let them know that I'm "counting" on them to share their thoughts and questions, and to get some discussion going. This strategy seems to work well, both in stimulating online and in-class discussions. I believe that contacting people with a new communication pathway - as in emailing someone whom you rarely or never emailed before - feels like a "special" communication to them, as if you are attempting to connect on a different level.
The absence of face-to-face cues has a major impact on how people communicate in message boards. You can't see other people's faces or hear them speak. All those subtle voice and body language cues are lost, which makes the nuances of communicating more difficult. But humans are creative beings. Over the years text communicators have develop all sorts of innovative strategies for expressing themselves through typed text - what I like to call "expressive or creative keyboarding," such as:- parenthetical expressions that convey body language or "subvocal" thoughts and feelings (sigh, feeling unsure here)These techniques enable a lively conversation that can simulate a face-to-face talk. Many students may not be aware of such techniques, so the instructor might model how they can be used effectively. Of course, if you want to emphasize the development of traditional grammar and composition, ignore what I just said :-)
- voice accentuation via the use of caps, asterisks, and other keyboard characters in order to place vocal *EMPHASIS* on a particular word or phrase
- trailers to indicate a pause in thinking.... or a transition in one's stream of thought.....
- emoticons like the smiley, winky, and frown, which are seemingly simple character sets that nevertheless capture very subtle nuances of meaning and emotion
- LOL, the acronym for "laughing out loud" which serves a handy tool for responding to something funny
Different students have different reactions to text discussion. Some may be frustrated by the tedium of having to type everything they want to say, feeling a face-to-face discussion is easier and more thorough. Those with superior writing skills have a communicative advantage. They may not be the same students who have the verbal advantage in the classroom. Those who are ignored or interrupted during class discussion may have a stronger voice in the discussion board. Those who dominate an in-person meeting may lose some of their influence online. The group dynamics in cyberspace may be very different than in-person.
The Online Disinhibition Effect
People say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. Without having to look at others eyeball to eyeball, they loosen up, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the "disinhibition effect." It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share personal things about themselves, or express an interesting opinion that otherwise they would keep to themselves. However, the disinhibition effect is not always so benign. People act rude, critical, angry, even threatening. The disinhibition may indicate an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through ideas and personal issues - or it simply turns into a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.
In some cases the ambiguity of texttalk creates a "transference reaction," which is the tendency to project your own expectations, wishes, and anxieties unto the ambiguous figure sitting at the other end of the online connection, or to misperceive that figure as being like someone else you know. Outside the discussion board, in private email or in-person, the instructor might need to mediate and help clarify the situation when transference reactions occur between students. A student's transference reactions to the instructor can help the instructor understand that student's behavior in the course.
I've never seen any extreme examples of the disinhibition effect in the discussion boards for my classes, but the effect is there nevertheless. Students tend to ask questions and express opinions that don't come up in class. They tend to engage in more honest exchanges with each other. They more freely describe personal experiences related to the course material. Some students may be more willing to debate the instructor, including students who otherwise are very quiet in class. Students who are shy in-person may especially benefit from this disinhibition effect.
Although hostile remarks may surface, my rule about being helpful and friendly to each other - as well as my quickly moderating any frictions that break out - often succeed in preventing significant conflicts.
In Blackboard I always turn on the feature that allows students to modify their messages after posting them. Besides being able to correct composition errors or unclear writing, students also appreciate the chance to modify or delete the opinions, ideas, and feelings they express. I recommend the "24 hour" rule to students: If you feel any discomfort about a message you're about to post, don't post it right away. Save it in a separate file. Wait 24 hours, then read it again to decide it you want to post it, modify it, or delete it. "Sleeping on it" and rereading the message with the psychological perspective of a new day can make a big difference.
I also usually turn on the feature that allows anonymous posts. Giving students complete anonymity may result in things better left unsaid, but I find that students rarely use these feature - and when they do, their message tends to be valuable rather than deviant.
The online disinhibition effect also may lead to obtuse, confused, and vague questions - questions with obvious answers, that were already answered many times before, don't make sense, or require a book-length reply. It would be understandable for an instructor to feel annoyed when many of these questions start surfacing. On the other hand, they do give us a glimpse into what's happening, or not happening, in the minds of a subgroup of students.
Integration: Bringing Online and Offline Together
Because the discussion board and the classroom feel like different environments involving different styles of communicating, the two may become disconnected or "dissociated" from each other. What is said in one domain may not be said in the other. Although topics discussed in the classroom may easily carry over into the discussion board, the reverse isn't always true. Students may experience the forum as a separate entity, a subgroup of the class, something not truly connected to the course. What is said there stays there. In particular, the disinhibiting effect of texttalk could lead students to say things online that they actively refrain from bringing to the classroom.
The instructor may need to make special efforts to integrate the online discussions into the classroom. In class I mention important issues that came up in the discussion board, sometimes referring to the people who were involved in the forum discussion, sometimes encouraging students to continue the dialogue.
While online students may discuss topics that were covered in class many days or even weeks earlier. Ideas and questions have been lingering, the material is just beginning to sink in, or perhaps students simply are responding to old posts. Bringing these discussions back into the classroom may feel like an awkward digression or regression. A better strategy might involve facilitating these dialogues only in the forum, resulting in a compilation of asynchronous discussions that stretch across the range of the course, ideally culminating in an overlapping and synthesis of ideas that may not be possible in classroom teaching that typically follows a more linear temporal path.
In extreme cases, the discussion board evolves into a kind of subconscious voicing of problems that are actively avoided in-person - for example, differences of opinions or conflicts among students. It is possible to work through these issues in the forum, allowing the beneficial effects to seep into the classroom without openly discussing them in the class. However, the best approach is to head off the dissociation before it becomes too deeply embedded. In both domains, make an attempt to discuss potential problems before they become more intense.
Under ideal conditions, classroom and online discussions will complement and enrich each other. Students will recognize the pros and cons of each environment. They will learn to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages of each. When the group moves fluidly from one realm to the other - when both environments combined give expression to a wider range of ideas and voices - then the class has succeeded in extending itself into cyberspace.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
The basic psychological features of cyberspace
Cyberspace as a psychological space
E-mail communication and relationships
The online disinhibition effect
Transference to one's computer and cyberspace
Extending a work group into cyberspace
Conflict in cyberspace: How to resolve conflict online
Bringing online and offline living together: The integration principle