Short guide for online classes

Part 1: Participating in online discussions

Being a participant means...

  • being an equal member of a group
  • having individual perspectives that are worth sharing
  • respecting the facilitator's role

Chat protocol

The chat protocol is a set of communication-rules, the participants are asked to follow. Similar rules exist in face-to-face discussions. Their goal is to have an organized discussion that everybody can follow.

The protocol prevents the participants from talking simultaneously by letting them ‘virtually’ raise their hand before speaking. The rules might seem very strict at first but an order of speakers will help to get all questions answered.

Participants in online discussions tend to go off on a tangent. The chat protocol keeps the focus on one question at a time and prevents the discussion from instantly going in every direction, causing confusion.

Please observe the following rules while participating in an online discussion:

  1. Let the facilitator know if you have a question or want to make a statement.
    * Use a question mark (?) to signal that you would like to ask a question.
    * Use an exclamation point (!) to signal that you would like to give an answer, make a statement or share an idea.
    * Five stars (*****) are a special time-out rule, that can be used by the facilitator only. This rule asks everybody to be silent in the chat and to pay attention to what the facilitator has to announce.
  2. Do not submit comments while somebody else is "speaking". Not only is it rude, but the other participants will be very confused by different thoughts mixed together.
  3. If your statement refers directly to somebody else’s question or point, use that person’s name after the question mark (? – Tom) or the exclamation point (! – Nina).
  4. Do not send long messages at once. Hit return several times while writing a message, so people can keep up reading. Adding long comments to the chat slows down the discussion and prevents it from ‘flowing’.
  5. Question that do not relate to the topic of the discussion should be saved. They can be asked after the official class.

Rules of thumb

  1. Stick to the protocol
    * an online discussion resembles a classroom discussion in its entire rigor
    * discussions become very confusing and inefficient if everybody throws in their questions and answers in no particular order – no question will be answered that way and the class will not be able to reach a solution
  2. Use appropriate language or netiquette.
    * ‘netiquette’ comes from ‘etiquette’ and has been adapted to the modern cyberspace language, referring to appropriate online behaviour and communication
    * state your ideas and opinions in a respectful manner and choose your words as if you would face the person you talk to
    * you can strongly disagree with someone and still remain respectful
    * bold or capitalized words and sentences in posts are typically interpreted as a strong emphasis of point, where an entire message in all caps might be interpreted as anger or abuse
  3. Try to be constructive
    * your learning is enhanced only by your active contribution
    * make sure your responses are thoughtful – responses of "I agree" add nothing to the content of the discussion. Mention why you agree, refer to other points raised, and try to put your response in context
    * when responding to something you disagree with, be as specific as possible
    * short answers are desirable only when the facilitator ‘erhebt’ a ‘Meinungsbild’ and asks the class to state whether they ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ to a
  4. Use a person's name when you refer to a message
    * keeps the other participants oriented and lets them follow your train of thoughts
    * helps everybody to maintain a clearer sense of who is speaking and who is being spoken to
  5. You are expected to read all messages
    * not reading messages is the equivalent to sleeping in class or ignoring somebody who is talking
    * remember, that you want the others to read what you have to say

Part 2: Facilitating an online discussion

Being a facilitator means...

  • helping a group get its work done, without doing the actual work.
  • being a democratic leader, not a dictator.
  • managing class discussions.
  • keeping a fair-minded position in the class discussion.

Rules of thumb

  1. Be prepared for the class
    * prepare some notes about the subject matter, background information helps you to come up with questions
    * know how to use the online tools (e.g. whiteboard)
    * read about group work (see Understanding group work)
  2. Use Socratic questioning to encourage critical thinking during discussion forums.
    * Socratic questions foster critical reflection and facilitate the participants thinking
    * Paul’s (1995) taxonomy of Socratic questions include...
    - questions that probe reasons and evidence
    - questions of clarification
    - questions that probe assumptions
    - questions about viewpoints or perspectives
    - questions that probe implications and consequences
    - questions about the question
    * Come up with questions similar to the following:
    - What conclusions can you draw?
    - What is the rationale for your conclusions?
    - How does...relate to...?
    - What would be another example of ...?
    - What are other situations where...could apply?
  3. 3. Personalize contact by using the names of the participants
    * e.g. "Sandra, I really appreciated your comments about…"
  4. 4. Think about implementing the whiteboard into the discussion.
    * the whiteboard can be used for Concept Mapping or reflection
    * it helps the group summarizing important points of the discussion

Part 3: Understanding group work

A group task can be divided into three fundamental processes: planning, solving problems and finishing work. All three processes need to be supported by the facilitator in different ways, asking the group different questions. Keeping these individual processes in mind, a facilitator is able to structure the task and help the group to work efficiently.

work process

Process Considerations Tools
  • how will the work get done
  • what resources are available
  • what constraints will be placed on the group
  • what will success look like
  • Brainstorming
  • Concept Mapping
  • Cause-effect diagram
  • Process Mapping
Solving Problems
  • what prevents the group from getting its work done
  • describing the situation and defining the problem
  • what options are available to solve the problem
  • what steps need to be taken to get passed the problem
  • Brainstorming
  • Process Mapping
  • Cause-effect diagram
Finishing work
  • what does finishing work look like
  • measures or evidence for the goal being accomplished
  • formally declaring the work being finished
  • acknowledging what has been accomplished
  • what has been learned through the work
  • Debriefing
  • Consensus
  • Concept Mapping

The Tools

  1. Brainstorming
    * generating as many ideas as possible - it is not allowed to judge any idea, every thought is valuable and needs to be recorded, quantity is the goal and inspiration by thoughts of the other group members
  2. Cause-effect diagram
    * identifying and illustrating information about an action or situation, its cause and its effect - leads to a better understanding of what caused a problem or identifies possible outcomes of actions, can prevent groups from jumping to a solution too quickly and recognise alternative solutions
  3. Process Mapping (flowchart)
    * describing and illustrating a process in a step-by-step sequence - it provides a clear picture of a work process, the individual parts should identify the people that are in charge
  4. Concept Mapping
    * see Concept Mapping
  5. Consensus
    * gaining commitment to support a group action or decision - all members need to agree on one question or decision (not a majority vote), useful if the following process needs a lot of commitment of all group members, reaching consensus sometimes is not possible, consider alternatives like individual decision making or majority vote
  6. Debriefing
    * describing and evaluating the completion of a task or group work - helps to improve future work, group members learn about how to collaborate and reflect on their work

Decision Making

  • for new groups it is usually very hard to make decisions
  • in general, groups tend to jump to a solution too quickly
  • a facilitator can help structuring the decision process
    o Defining what is to be decided.
    o Choosing who will make the decision.
    o Determine the criteria.
    o Make the decision


  • Weaver, R. G., & Farrell, J. D. The process of effective facilitation. In Managers as facilitators (pp. 105-131). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Hines, R. A., & Pearl, C. E. (2004). Increasing Interaction in Web-based Instruction: Using Synchronous Chats and Asynchronous Discussions. Rural Special Education Quaterly, 23(2), 33-36.