Four types of student posts in introductory online discussion activities

In introductory or ice-breaker activities, there are four types of posts that are made by students/participants on discussion boards or community blogs. These four types I have drawn up after looking at a selection of ‘Welcome Sites’ for new students. These Welcome Sites are used for new students to make contact with each other and the Department before they arrive at University. In these sites there is a blog in which students are instructed to make a ‘hello’ post which will be replied to by second year student facilitators or staff. The Blog tool is best suited for Blackboard, but in Moodle you would use a Forum discussion board.

Facilitator role

In many introductory online discussions, it is important to spot clues of uncertainty and to respond quickly, providing reassurance. The aim is to progress the student contributor from a state requiring little confidence (Hi there… posts – top of the table) to one requiring more confidence where they can start their own topics of conversation (bottom of the table). If the facilitator fails to reply, and participation drops, the student contributor/participant will drop in confidence and regress back up the table.

Table: Types of blog posts for introductory activities
Type of post Considerations Appropriate facilitator responses
Toe-dipping:
Hi there. My name is…
These may be short posts, little detail given. Main thing here to is to reply and acknowledge. Unanswered initial posts will have the same effect as blanking someone in a room. Greet everyone. Friendly questions to encourage discussion. Replies can be combined, e.g. Hi there X, Y and Z have you all received your course packs?
Anxiety:
Expressing a concern
Often combined with the first ‘hi there’ post. Watch out for use of words like ‘hopefully’ as in indicator of concern/uncertainty. Also check for multiple exclamation/question marks as an expression of emotion in text form. Unanswered anxieties will lead to lack of engagement and alienation. Reply quickly with an individual, supportive reply. When combined with the ‘Hi there…’ post, ensure you have made the participant feel welcome. Try to engage other participants with similar concerns.
Pragmatic:
Asking a question
Questioning shows that the participant is engaged and accepting of the environment. Watch out for questions about internal processes, as these are commonly quite abstract to new participants. When replying, consider how an outside may interpret internal processes – check your reply makes sense and clearly answers the question. Unanswered questions will lead back up to anxiety. Reply quickly with a clear answer. When combined with an expression of concern, ensure the question and concern are both addressed. Offer follow up discussion – don’t leave a dead end conversation.
Engaged:
Wanting to chat
Initial concerns are dealt with, and the participant is wanting informal conversation rather than pragmatic conversation (questioning). Lack of participation will lead up to questioning and then anxiety. The facilitator doesn’t have to directly interact, but will encourage others to reply. Let other students contact first, if no participation, then step in and engage conversation. You can do this by providing new information, or leading the participant into a particular topic.

Off this table, at the top before ‘Toe-dipping’ is another category of student/participant: the ‘lurker’. Lurkers will view the content of discussion boards and community blogs but not contribute. It is important that lurkers are made to feel as if they can contribute, which is why ‘the blank page’ of an empty blog or forum is very intimidating. The facilitator should write an introductory post, reiterate the activity and hence encourage participation. Where there is more than one facilitator, additional information may be provided, or a simple ‘hello, I’m also here’ post.

This short report comes from a short presentation I made to colleagues about facilitation of pre-arrival welcome sites.

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