In asynchronous discussion forums, participants usually come from diverse backgrounds, including gender and culture, and the textual cues they post online are usually reflections of their own diversity. How you handle equity and diversity issues can be a key to online course retention.
A goal of equitable facilitation of online discussions is the promotion of a safety net and the provision of opportunities to freely express one’s ideas, feelings, and experiences in an online discussion forum. The hope is that this will ensure respect for diversity and other important issues as well as promote reflection and better understanding. Based on Dr. Joyce Kaser’s publication, “Equity in On-line Professional Development: A Guide to E-learning That Works for Everyone” (2004), I describe briefly the suggestions discussed for facilitating issues of equity in online courses.
1. Monitor the course to make sure that the equity content is accurate and comprehensive. The facilitator is the individual who must be aware of possible stereotypes and biases embedded in the course and who is able to examine and analyze these issues in light of what is being discussed in the course and the forum.
2. Establish early an environment that enables participants to be safe and secure. This could come from the type of learning the group is participating in as well as the facilitator’s style of engagement. The facilitator could provide the ground rules, including the right to ask questions and to respond in ways that are respectful of one another. The facilitator could also take the discussion to a deeper level or move to the exploration of issues with equity implications.
3. Intervene, as necessary, to keep the discussion on track. When participants become disrespectful to each other, demonstrate rude behavior (flaming), or post inaccurate information, the facilitator needs to intervene as quickly as possible. While a telephone call could be an effective course of action, much of the conflict resolution should be done online. Modeling good and effective behavior that fosters equitable interaction is critical.
4. Monitor the level of trust that exists. The facilitator is the agent who promotes the building of trust among participants. At the same time, the facilitator makes sure that any sensitive issue that becomes a point of discussion and exploration within the course is appropriate for the level of trust within the group. When several of the participants post messages and no one dominates the discussion in any significant way, it is possible that participants trust one another to express what’s on their minds.
5. Note your own hesitancy about exploring any aspect of equity. The facilitator should ask him/herself what his/her personal biases or fears might be that may interfere with effective facilitation. These issues may result in the facilitator’s avoidance of certain salient topics or discomfort when participants raise points related to those topics. In such an instance, the facilitator could raise his/her reservations to the group, making this a learning opportunity for everyone.
Excerpted from 5 Suggestions for Equitable Online Facilitation, Online Classroom, October 2006.