The first version of MFO was a complete and utter experiment. Framed as an exercise in online course collaboration, you can read my evaluation of the experience at

The much revised version set sail in term 1, 2002. The third version, run in term 2, 2002, was much changed again. Its principle difference from term 1 was the fact that this course had a lot more structure in place on day one. I had decided after previous incarnations that starting a course with little obvious structure left people uneasy. It was clear too that to have enough time to collaboratively build a course would mean that we needed double the time allocation. In short, I had to decide whether it was more important for participants to learn how to build a course (not a bad aim in the case of emoderation I would argue), or was it better for people to actually focus more on the actual skills required to be a successful emoderator? I chose the latter.

Hence, details of course outcomes and outline were not negotiated as a group, but set in place for people to read as they arrived. It was made clear that these aspects of the course were negotiable, as I believe they should be in a constructivist environment. If a course is built from the ground up by facilitator and participants it is a clearly a constructivist experience. But if the course structure is already in place, how does that this version of the course was still constructivist in nature. In a very real sense I believe constructivism does involve constructing something together, and if we weren’t constructing a course together (a very real and identifiable product as part of a collaborative process) what would we construct together? Learning. Of course. But that only sounds easy.

I attempted to preserve some semblance of constructivism in this course by:

  • Ensuring that everyone knew that course content and outcomes were negotiable
  • Encouraging people to find resources appropriate to the course
  • Allowing people to choose their own areas of focus. This I attempted in various ways:
    • Having people self-select around topics for group discussion activity
    • Having people in groups manage the process of group discussion via negotiation within the group
    • Having daily doses and chats as optional for those who had more time
    • Allowing participants to plan and stage their own online events
  • Having people other than the facilitator responsible for the daily doses

Comment from a course evaluation:

At least one person was happy: “(the) course structure….allowed for all participants enough scope to succeed.”

I have just recently discovered a handy chekclist to determine how constructivist a course is and I offer it here for your perusal. How many of these categories did the course satisfy? I have ticked the boxes I think I apply:



Multiple perspectives


Student-directed goals


Teachers as coaches




Learner control


Authentic activities & contexts


Knowledge construction


Knowledge collaboration


Previous knowledge constructions


Problem solving


Consideration of errors

Not sure what this means


Chance was there, but not taken by many.

Apprenticeship learning


Conceptual interrelatedness


Alternative viewpoints



Any comments?

Authentic assessment


Primary sources of data

Yes – participants themselves were often the source of data














Chat Sessions

One other major change from previous courses was having a chat schedule set and arranged early in the course. This was clearly a successful  move. Chats were on the whole well attended, with the best attendance of all at one of the night chats. A downside was that the chats tended to be visited by the same people every time. Clearly some people have more flexible timetables that allows them to make time for participation in scheduled online chats.

Yahoo Groups Discussion List

Use if this list was again problematical. Such email lists are widespread on the Net and it is my persistent belief that future emoderators need to know what they are and how they operate. However, the advent of this discussion list has caused confusion in all 3 versions f the course so far. Many seem to lose their anchor to the home of the course – the WebCT site – and feel adrift thereafter. It is clear that for some the email list is a boon because the amount and frequency of discussion increases, but the collective effort can become splintered. Once the use of the list kicks in you have discussions on the WebCT site, and via your email. I personally, and I know there are other like me, prefer to continue online discussions via email, but there are significant numbers of others who would prefer everything in the one place.

I did say that there would be only ONE week when the list was used for discussions, but many did choose to continue the bulk of the discussions there. One suggestion has been that we could use the list for that one week, then close it down so people are forced back to the discussion forums on WebCT. Any thoughts on this?

From an evaluation:

“I would suggest that people unsubscribe to the yahoo email group after using it for the original purpose. It flooded the normal email and was often used for personal replies where the WebCt email and Discussion would have been adequate.”

Navigation and Site Maintenance

One of the challenges of running an online course is presenting information in way that everyone can find it, and providing multiple navigation paths that all lead to the same information. It is a fact of life that no matter how logical you may feel the course navigation is, there are always a few people who will visit the information, or will seek to, find the information via another path. This became an issue on this last course because I became a bit slack about updating and archiving the weekly tasks. I won’t let this happen again and I apologise to those who got a little confused because I failed to keep the archive of weekly tasks up to date.

Email Games

I won’t say much here that hasn’t already been said in previous evaluations. They absolutely require a quick response from participants or the whole thing drags on and threatens to fall in a heap. I believe they are a valuable component of the course as they model an alternative to gathering data from participants, and I will persist in including them as part of the course.

Online Events

These I thought went well, but there was some comment from a few people that in a short course like this perhaps participants don’t feel competent enough to conduct their own event on conclusion. I take this point, but still believe that no matter what the state of readiness is for each person, everyone can host an event to the best of their ability. Do you agree? 

I agree that it is unrealistic in the available timeframe that everyone be a fully fledged emoderator capable of hosting their own online event with confidence. This would be the goal of a much longer and more intensive course.

A comment from an evaluation:

“Some things could be changed. I would have offered more alternative ways of doing the final assignment. Not everyone may have been comfortable hosting an online event so soon as it were. Working in groups or as a pair an alternative assignment could have been completed. Trying to get 12 people to do 12 online exercises that required group participation was a big ask. “

Facilitator's reply:

Hosting an online event in collaboration with others was always an option; several have done this effectively in earlier courses.

De Bono’s Hats

There were 2 chat sessions where Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats were explored as a way of structuring online chat or forums. In one of the sessions participants actually took on the various roles assigned by the coloured hats and participated for a time in that role. I personally found it to be quite a liberating experience to be given a role to play out. I thoroughly enjoyed not having to be myself and therefore not having to feel responsible for what I was saying.

I believe there is immense potential for further exploitation of these roles in online communications. Not only is it mentally freeing and challenging, it is a great problem solving technique, and as per the constructivism checklist above, it provides multiple and alternate viewpoints. To work effectively it needs the deft hand of a skilful moderator, and of course some pre-event instruction on the nature and purpose of the Six Thinking Hats approach.


In every incarnation of this course so far most people seem reluctant to do any searching for any resources. My rationale in asking people to do it is that this is a constructivist learning experience, and a crucial way that participants can contribute to others’ learning is to contribute resources for the course. To those who did contribute resources, thank you. To those who didn’t, can I ask why you didn’t? Is it time? Is it not having the confidence to select resources that you think may be of value to others learning about emoderation? Is it because you saw this aspect of the course as low priority? Should it be a designated outcome of the course that everyone discovers and shares at least two resources? 

My apologies too for not updating the resource section of the WebCT site. I guess I made this low priority too (following the lead of participants!) but this is another site maintenance issue. In a course of this nature just keeping up with all the correspondence in the forums and email on a daily basis is extremely time intensive. I make no excuses but in an ideal world I would work with a colleague (or participant?) on this course whose task it would be to update resources, archive the weekly tasks, etc. These are more technical tasks that don’t necessarily have to be the responsibility of the course facilitator, and when pressed for time I cut corners. Now if this were a paying course this would be unacceptable!

From an evaluation:

“There was a lot of food for thought here. Maybe more references and resources would be useful. Perhaps a requirement to have read E-Moderating by Gilly Salmon???”

Group Discussions

These were definitely better than on the last course. This was the first time I had let people self-select into discussion groups and perhaps that had a positive effect, and this term most groups were able to negotiate who was to summarise. How one summarises online discussions I realise now needs to be taught and modelled. To me it seems self-evident. Summarising a group discussion involves

1)      referring to all posts by all participants and drawing together the more important points

2)      charting the different directions the discussion took

3)      commenting on any decisions reached by the group

4)      in larger and more prolific discussions this can be done periodically so the various discussion threads can be drawn together regularly allowing the discussion to proceed with greater clarity

I would like to draw attention to a an excellent summarising post that Damien provided on Scenario 2 (Should Online Forums be assessed?) , and I think it’s worth repeating here in full.

People started by looking at whether assessing people for just being there was enough, and quickly we came to distinguish between process and content. We immediately faced an ethical question about whether or not students should be told about how much information is being collected on them by their very being in a tool like Web CT. It was pointed out that this will vary from group to group - and so is an issue for the moderator. In the same way the level of intrinsic / extrinsic rewards needs to vary from group to group.

This led to a comparison between two theoretical groups, one F2F, the other totally Online, and the question of whether they are learning the same things - Michael came up with this site to explore:

From there we went into a discussion of the emotional component of e-learning, and how it needs to acknowledged and managed. This in turn led to a discussion about the role of chat, and how you assess it, and in thru that lead to a discussion of plagiarism.

Some of the topics covered in response to the plagiarism issue came from the site, and included strategies like the need to build strong relationships. This in turn led to how we encourage student to engage with other students in generating new knowledge, and ideas for giving points to students who just participate, but big bonus points for students who engage with another students in developing ideas….and we were back into the previous loop.

That was pretty much the end of the discussion, which degenerated into an unattractive brawl as to who would write the summary. I tried to get away with a short cut, but that was disallowed by the umpire, so have finally got this together Any arguments about the content of this summary are always entertained.


Drop outs kept in touch

As in most professional development modules there were a number of people who were not able to keep up with the course and chose to withdraw. There is nothing remarkable about this except during this course people who were having difficulties kept me informed so I was never left wondering if they were still on board or not. I mention this because it has been my impression in past courses that people in this position rather use the online medium to hide from the fact that they are getting behind. I would like to think that the educational culture collectively is changing so that people in online courses do make the effort to inform the coordinator of any difficulties, but I am probably just imagining this. I do however see this as a significant issue and take every opportunity to highlight examples of good manners in this respect in online courses. It is easy to drop out and disappear online, and as an online facilitator I really appreciate it when don’t hide behind the medium.

Who’s done what?

This little innovation was extremely successful. No one complained about it, several said it was useful to keep track of what needed to be done (it certainly is invaluable to me in that respect), and I figure that in some cases it may have acted as a gentle spur for some to keep up. I’d appreciate any thoughts you may have on this.

Other Excerpts from your evaluations

1)      "Question is will people be able to put what they learned in to practice. I'd say yes! So a job well done. I'm more confident at using chat, lists and forums for learning tasks and activities. Which is what the participants should have come here for."

2)      "It was useful to get an insight into facilitating an online course - the strict timelines kept the pressure on but a facilitator would need to constantly be involved to keep track and respond to students."

3)      "Perhaps…. more tapping on the shoulder or "hushing" of the more talkative characters (and non talkative ones)."

A Final Word on Assessment

It has been suggested that perhaps a group portfolio or product may be alternative outcome for those who would prefer not to aim for the practical skills of emoderation. Perhaps it is just as valid to know about emoderation as a first stage (be a theoretician as it were) before graduating to practical competence?

Michael Coghlan
July 26th, 2002