Baring Professional Souls:
Reflections On Web Life

Elizabeth J. Burge, Daniel Laroque, Cathy Boak

VOL. 15, No. 1, 81-98


Web-based practice is currently being described and analyzed extensively, but so far the literature shows few examples of frank, intrapersonal practitioner reflection about that practice. This reflective analysis of an online professional development event illustrates in three narratives and a meta-reflection how three practitioners negotiated the conceptual framework, the activity design, and the roles and presence of the two online facilitators. In addition to reviewing their knowledge of generic adult learning facilitation principles and online moderation issues, the authors show how they examined their experience and developed-not without some cognitive and affective difficulties-some insights into better managing the dynamic tensions of online discussions and reframing their expectations of participants' behaviors.


Les pratiques sur le Web font actuellement l'objet de descriptions et d'analyses détaillées mais, malgré tout, la littérature fournit peu d'exemples de réflexion franche et intrapersonnelle d'intervenants relativement à leur pratique. Cette analyse réflective d'un événement de développement professionnel en ligne illustre, en trois récits et une méta-réflexion, comment trois praticiens ont traité le cadre conceptuel, le design d'activités ainsi que les rôles et la présence de deux auxiliaires en ligne. En plus de revoir leurs connaissances des principes génériques à appliquer pour faciliter l'apprentissage chez les adultes et des questions portant sur l'animation en ligne, les auteurs montrent comment ils ont perçu leur expérience et développé leur perspicacité, non sans difficulté cognitive et affective, pour mieux gérer les tensions dynamiques générées par les discussions en ligne et recadrer leurs attentes face aux comportements des participants.

It is sometimes difficult to get some [educators] to see themselves as anything other than independently operating, fully developed, and wholly competent professionals. (Brookfield, 1995, p. 140)


We agree with Cervero (1992) that “The goal of professional practice is wise action,” and that “knowledge acquired from practice is necessary to achieve this goal” (p. 92). But how, then, is wisdom gained, and how is that knowledge analyzed? We agree too with Schön and other reflective practice researchers that the best kinds of knowledge and skill for a practitioner are not transplants of someone else’s theory or unquestioned prescriptions for practice. To us, then, the answers to our opening questions are based in the difficult cognitive and emotional processes of deliberate recall of experience and making personal sense from analyses of those recollections; that is, developing our own personal action theories and testing them in new experiential learning cycles (Kolb, 1984). Cowan (1998) sees the process of reflection in terms of two functions—analytical and evaluative—depending on whether we need to think in terms of how an action happened (analytical) or how well we carried out that action (evaluative). In this article we use more analytical than evaluative approaches, but still try to reach some evaluative conclusions for testing in a new experience. So we explain here how reflection may be a useful process for practitioners, our method of constructing this reflection, the highlights of the recalled events, and our commentaries or meta-reflections.

Reasons for Reflecting

The literature on Web-based educational conferencing now contains many prescriptions for and descriptions of good practice (Cahoon, 1998; Green, 1998; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff, 1995; Haughey & Anderson, 1998; Jonassen, 1998; McConnell, 2000; Salmon, 2000). Our reading of this literature reveals few overt references to the generic facilitation strategies for, and research into, adult learning, and little apparent experience of technology transfer in the sense of transferring, for example, knowledge gained from using audioconferencing to the use of Web conferencing. To us, having long experience in highly interactive face-to-face and audioconferencing, this “knowledge silo” effect is limiting knowledge transfer as well as effectively passing over much useful experience from the past 20 years.

We believe that it is time now to encourage the writing of intrapersonally reflective and frank records of our experience with Web-based practice. Distance education literature does have some examples of this reflective record that show the self and the professional soul of the practitioner (as distinct from the professional public presentation of self, Burge, 1996; Burge & Haughey, 1993; Evans & Nation, 1993), but it contains even less material that relates specifically to Web-based practice (e.g., Gibson, 2000, appears to be a rare document at this stage). What should help promote more work of this type is the current literature on reflection as a generic professional skill (Brookfield, 1995; Brockbank & McGill, 1998; Connelly & Clandinin, 1999; Cowan, 1998; Ferry & Ross-Gordon, 1998; Schön, 1983, 1991, 1992, 1995; Short & Rinehart, 1993; Zeichner & Liston, 1996). Before you see us baring our professional souls, however, we need to outline the context of our action.

Setting the Action Context

Cathy invited Daniel and Liz to help plan and moderate a voluntary online professional development discussion: Learner Services_Appuyons l’apprentissage.” It was the latest in a series of bilingual (French and English) fora developed by the Node Learning Technologies Network <> and supported by the Office of Learning Technologies (OLT), Human Resources Development Canada <>. The Node is a Canadian not-for-profit organization that promotes effective uses of Internet-based technologies in education and training. In its online community, educators and trainers exchange insights into the challenges they face; moderated online conferences enable them to explore their challenges, develop response strategies, and further their professional objectives.

The planning took place over approximately six weeks in about eight meetings held as team audioconferences of on average one hour. Liz and Daniel held a few telephone discussions of their own to focus on how they would present a joint facilitation interface. Relatively few e-mail messages were exchanged among the three of us. We did know each other as professional colleagues and of each other’s experience of adult learning facilitation and use of online discussions, with Liz bringing some additional information from earlier qualitative research (Burge, 1994). We had never worked together as a project team. Cathy operated from St. Catharine’s and London, Ontario, Daniel from Toronto, Ontario, and Liz from Fredericton, New Brunswick. Our meeting agendas usually had several key items, mostly focusing on logistics, but the agendas often evolved into discussions about the content of the Forum and our various opinions about the best ways to facilitate discussion. Cathy offered guidance from earlier Node fora and focused on how to ensure that Node and the OLT would be satisfied with the general results, that the time frames were kept, and the software used effectively.

Two hundred and twenty-three colleagues registered for the three-week event. Several concurrent starter discussion topics were set up. Fearing too much fragmentation of the discussion, we decided not to enable participants to set up their own topics, but instead chose to add more topics ourselves as ideas emerged from the discussions; 25 topics ultimately were set up. A high number of noncontributing members became evident as the Forum proceeded. Although many messages indicated some trust in the discussion climate, there were few sustained sequences of topic-focused, in-depth discussions. Daniel and Liz joined the discussions usually every two days (as explained in our introductions) but deliberately did not respond to each comment. Daniel made public summaries of several discussions. At the end of the first week Liz asked a Node staff member to produce a visual concept map of the key factors associated with learner services mentioned by discussants in the relevant topic messages. The factors were categorized into “Getting into,” “Getting through,” and “Getting out.” Another Node staff member made short summaries of some discussions. To generate more interaction and to synthesize information messages to the Forum, Liz developed an online instrument for rating the importance of learner services principles and guidelines identified during the discussions. Approximately 55 participants sent in their ratings. The few online feedback comments about the Forum indicated satisfactory experiences. A description of the Forum and the supporting resources are available at < nodeforums/services/>. We decided only after several weeks had passed that we would reflect more and gather the subsequent thoughts into a form suitable for presentation in a paper format.

Developing Reflective Approaches to Practice

The reflective process and the telling of its results were not easy tasks. Our training to write in a style we describe as “traditional, confident academic speaking in the third person” pulled at the opposing need to look behind our professional façades and examine our less confident practitioner selves speaking in the first-person style. Reflection on our practice involved looking for how we did what we did (analytical), challenging our habitual assumptions, letting go of some old ideas, and risking discomfort when exploring new ideas. For convergent or accommodative learners—those practitioners who tend to action and experimentation rather than reflection and theory building (Kolb, 1984)—the reflective process is not a natural preference. There are affective costs too, including the “loss of innocence” and the “gradual realization that the dilemmas of teaching have no ultimate solution” (Brookfield, 1995, p. 239). Schön (1983) shows similar costs using the example of a planner who dares to challenge his or her “self-reinforcing system of knowing-in-practice”: he or she might experience “the uncertainty (and perhaps also ... the paralysis) ... if [he or she] were to allow [his or her] system to come apart” (p. 282). For us, the process of reflection and analysis to write this article was akin to baring our souls—hardly something we do every day, as it took much time and not a little soul searching!

Developing our narrative did help us to render explicit our tacit and intuitive knowledge. Often we three act intuitively and decisively; we know and respond competently in a context without being able to fully explain our decisions or describe all our actions. Schön (1987) calls these responses “knowing-in-action” (p. 25). Sometimes, however, such tacit knowing is not enough: we come up against a surprise, a new set of conditions, problems, or results that need different knowing-in-action (in this case, a voluntary online professional development discussion with people we would not meet face-to-face). So the patterns of habitual thinking and action responses have to be broken, and we engage in some instant and, again, often subconscious “reflection-in-action,” that is, “restructuring [redefining our earlier action strategies], theories of phenomena, or ways of framing the problem ... [and inventing] on-the-spot experiments” (p. 35). Schön argues that knowing-in-action and reflection-in-action are “increasingly complex components of reflective practice” (p. 123). Schön has had his critics (Boud & Walker, 1998), but his basic framework has merit, we believe.

Constructing Our Reflection

We did not undertake this activity of planning and moderating an online conference in order to develop stories of our reflection-in-action and commentaries on our stories. In the heat of the online action, we were fully engaged in knowing-in-action and reflection-in-action in order to make the best judgments. Afterward, during post hoc reflections we decided to capture what events we could most easily recall (in itself revealing), at first using a separate voice for each of us. Even that process produced surprises: we learned things about each others’ reactions to our behaviors that we did not expect, and we helped each other explain thoughts and feelings that at the time of the action were felt only as vague background murmurings. The narratives below foreground those murmurings. To create this record we exchanged multiple written drafts and used mostly e-mail, with few telephone discussions to clarify some of the recollections. Ultimately, we used a single reporting voice for each of the four stories and then multiple voices for the commentary on our learnings. We can cheerfully testify that the whole process was as challenging as the literature indicates!

Our narrative uses a sequence of three stories: negotiating the conceptual frame, assessing facilitation issues, and managing our personal selves. We include some literature here, but we did not mention the authors specifically during our actual thinking.

First Narrative: Negotiating the Conceptual Frame

The original title for the Forum was “Learner Support.” During the first planning conference we discussed basic objectives, terminology, and topics. Almost immediately Liz expressed unease with the term learner support, arguing that the title suggested a deficit model of learners and that the term learning services would better respect adult self-esteem and autonomy and the appropriate stance of the institution. Daniel agreed, but Cathy hesitated before agreeing to the change. She consulted with her project partner, the OLT staff, who indicated that although they did not mind the services in learning services, they did not want to abandon the emphasis on learners. The final title became “Learner Services_Appuyons l’apprentissage.”

Subsequent discussions centered on refining the (conceptual) focus, that is, how to think clearly and analytically about the whole concept of learner services. We identified the key issues as diversity in learner characteristics and needs, the impact of learning and training models, administrative support, access to learning resources and personal counseling, the role of gender in learner services, and evaluation strategies.


Cathy: Liz’s immediate challenge to the title prompted me to expect other challenges to the planning process and to wonder how well each of us understood the others: we shared a common vocabulary but did we share the understanding and expectations behind it? I felt some anxiety as the Forum start date drew closer while Liz and Daniel insisted on revisiting the key concepts, but as the talk progressed I began to wonder about our usual practice. Node staff were accustomed to being in charge—setting conference parameters, creating annotated bibliographies online, helping moderators think through how they would handle a conference, and providing ongoing process and technical support so that participants had a meaningful experience. Our focus was always on participants, and I started to see an instrumental attitude creeping into our relationships with moderators. Perhaps we had not paid enough attention to the understandings that moderators bring to conferencing; perhaps we had not collaborated with them as much as we had assumed. Liz and Daniel were forcing me to rethink our objectives instead of just fitting them into our framework. My educator-self acknowledged the sense in such rethinking, but my administrator-self worried about staff time, budgets, and deadlines. Would this forum get off the ground? And if it did, how much would it resemble the forum we had planned to hold?

Liz: I considered it a professional duty to question any and all preconceived notions and to push for a very clear, negotiated understanding before we went to the next stage of planning. Sometimes I felt a twinge of guilt for slowing down the expected action, but assumed that tactful perseverance would help the process to end well.

Daniel: I wanted to feel confident about the work at hand. This meant verifying and questioning the premise of the conference, understanding whom we were meant to reach with the discussions, and clearly delineating the expected outcomes. In essence, I wanted to ensure that the framework of the conference was solid. I did not feel the pressure of the clock and only later came to recognize that Cathy was concerned that what Liz and I were doing might disrupt the plan.

Second Narrative: Assessing Facilitation Issues

Our collective experiential learning about online activity and (separately) about how adults learn in various contexts had distilled into some generic principles and strategies for facilitating adult learning. We felt now the need to make explicit this tacit knowledge and look for any omissions, as Liz and Daniel had to work in a new context; that is, a voluntary and noncredit online discussion that might attract a disparate number of people not necessarily familiar with each other’s practice. A list of general principles and strategies rolled through our minds, with the overarching one being that the generic principles for facilitating learning in any context have to be the starting place for thinking about online moderation (rather than beginning from the features of the online software).

First, then, we reviewed generic facilitation principles and issues. Adults participate more and learn better when they feel some ownership in learning goals and activities, that is, when their intrinsic motivating drives of competence and connectedness are engaged (MacKeracher, 1996). Differences in preferred styles and habits of learning (Keefe, 1987) mean that not all learners will be enthusiastic about the same learning models, technologies, and learning activities. No facilitator can ever accurately assess what is going on inside a learner’s head as that learner constructs conceptual frameworks, nor can a facilitator presume to assess accurately the real cognitive and affective impacts of his or her interventions. Learning activities need to include the full range of learning strategies (Olgren, in press). Facilitators have to address the fact that some learners bring to discussions an incomplete understanding of how their social presence influences their peers and what conditions are needed for productive group learning (Tiberius, 1999). It takes time (and pain sometimes) for teacher-dependent adult learners to transform themselves into information-literate, skilled, and assertive learners. Learners engaged in self-directed learning can be expected to want to disengage at times from the group discussions in order to think and clarify their ideas before moving on. Also, they will not experience learning always as a stress-free process (Taylor, 1986). In summary, a good facilitator focuses on both the task and social aspects of learning and on its components and ongoing dynamics, does not work to be the visual or verbal center of the learner’s learning world, and ensures that any action avoids blocking the adult’s intrinsic motivating needs to feel competent and connected.

Second to be identified were the key online facilitation strategies and issues (which build on the generic principles, but recognize the particular features of the online environment). Some adults will need time to become familiar with the human and technical components of a new environment (Michaud & Thomas, 1998). Use of technology often implies a reorganization of work and a redefinition of our relationships to others (Franklin, 1990). Use of any communications technology will amplify what learners and moderators do well and not so well. One person’s freedom to send messages at any time and however often may lead to another’s information overload. Topic-focused discussions are necessary frameworks for conceptual organization, but we need cognitively sophisticated inputs into these frames if participants are to be kept involved. Small tasks can become a heavy burden (Michaud & Thomas, 1998). Making content summaries takes time, and its usefulness in a constructivist learning context is not assumed. A moderator cannot afford to get trapped into the “Atlas syndrome,” that is, feeling responsible to hold up the discussion world and give fast feedback to every message. One bad online experience for a novice learner or moderator may result in aversion to using the software.

Third to be acknowledged were our personal ethics, that is, to be seen to be congruent—to walk our talk about facilitation and constructivist learning. We especially valued economy, not only the fiscal kind but also the elegant kind as shown in well-designed effort (Norman, 1993), for example, uncluttered screens with no unnecessary features in the software. We knew the need for our own contributive restraint when sending online messages. We valued also constructivist learning frameworks (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996; Jonassen, Peck, Wilson, & Pfeiffer, 1999; Wilson & Lowry, in press) because humans are programmed to construct their own meaning actively rather than to receive information passively. As facilitators we must deliberately promote the use of the full cognitive strategies repertoire, that is, the recall, organization, and elaboration of information as well as for metacognition (Olgren, in press). Implementing all these ideas and values in front of our peers would not be easy. We could not modify the software, and we knew we had little screen time to establish our credibility. Our reputations definitely were on the line.

More thinking then occurred, but now with a more detailed focus on managing the interpersonal learning interactions in the Forum online context. The specifics of facilitating cognition and metacognition, translated from our face-to-face practice, rolled across the mental screens in Liz and Daniel’s minds and in their own conversations. To assist cognition, we had to clarify discussion objectives or directions, help participants both analyze their experience and respect that of others, model a self-disciplined keyboarding-to-think process, reward succinct, on-topic messages, and overtly encourage contributions that show a rapport style or a collaborative floor rather than singular expressions unlinked to earlier opinions (Tannen, 1990). As necessary, link ideas together, but avoid premature closure or releasing learners from such responsibilities. Challenge participants to go beyond the familiar and critique their assumptions or habits. Encourage participant-participant interaction—go beyond participant-facilitator talk. Use nonverbal representations to visualize the discussions, for example, a visual metaphor or analogy or a concept map. To assist the affective aspects of learning, we had to legitimize expressions of unease, send participants a personal e-mail, write in “narrowcast” mode (as a radio announcer is trained to speak to only one person), and accept typing errors—to a point. To assist metacognition we asked participants to assess progress toward their discussion goals, we asked for ideas to improve the environment, and we tried to legitimize any participant’s expressed need to withdraw and reflect for a short time.

We knew only too well that asynchronous, text-based discussions can falter quickly, not least because of lack of time to build a functioning group, or because of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem. A key challenge we faced, therefore, was how to act as an influence for psychological stability and cognitive coherence. To help us resolve our concerns, Cathy organized (The Node built) a trial Forum for testing the compatibility of the software with our needs for an economy of cognitive effort and a “clean” interface.


Being beyond techno-innocence, we tried to question what appears to be universally accepted wisdom and to do so in relation to our own experience and values. Brookfield (1987) calls this stance “reflective skepticism: [it] is present whenever individuals call into question the belief that simply because some idea or social structure has existed unchanged for a period of time, it therefore must be (a) right and (b) the best possible arrangement” (p. 21).

Why Daniel and Liz went to such lengths to think through all the facilitation principles and strategies was initially a bit of a puzzle, but on further reflection we saw some reasons. The first was our situating of the new tasks in the familiar ground of past experience and sorting out which elements and dynamics in the online context were qualitatively different from the elements and dynamics in non-online contexts. We were in effect foregrounding our personal practical knowledge: that “moral, affective and aesthetic way of knowing life’s educational situations” (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988, p. 59). The second reason was to help us avoid being technology-driven or unduly influenced by whatever element or dynamic first appeared on our professional “radar screens.” The third reason was our need to think that we had not missed any key principles as we scanned our knowledge frameworks. We had a professional obligation to the Node and the OLT for making the Forum successful—especially after Cathy had mentioned in passing that a 20% response rate in large conferences and lists is not uncommon (20%, Liz thought: Were we doomed?). The third reason was our wish to be, and to be seen to be, personally ethical and congruent, terms we had not seen discussed openly in terms of online practice. Being online certainly meant being on the front line.

Cathy: As Daniel and Liz began to explore the limits of the software, I experienced other concerns but kept them to myself. Although I wanted to give Liz and Daniel plenty of scope to analyze issues and objectives using their own experience and personal style, I also wanted to ensure that our objectives were met. Individual expertise had brought us together, but it was also perhaps beginning to separate us. Whereas Liz and Daniel were concerned about the shortcomings of the online environment I was concerned that they fully consider the opportunities it offered. Once again, we heard their analysis of the task at hand, but did not always comprehend its significance. When Liz expressed concerns about the conferencing interface, I put aside her concern on the grounds that the software would accommodate interaction without bending discussions out of the shape she needed. I thought (also privately) that while all of us could see the limitations of the medium—and all media have limitations—we should make the most of its potential for promoting reflective thought and accommodating disparate schedules and levels of commitment. When Liz and Daniel expressed apprehension about lack of response during the forum, I responded that the expected response rate from those who signed on was 20%. I had meant to say that although the Node and the OLT were offering an opportunity for people to participate, we did not expect Liz and Daniel to make the conference happen all by themselves. But they did not find reassurance in this at all!

Third Story: Managing Our Personal Selves as Moderators

Hiding behind all the professional negotiating “screens” and strategic action talk was much self-analysis and self-talk.

Liz: I thought about the form of online personal presence I should adopt and how to help establish inclusion without being intrusive. I had long ago decided not to commit to daily log-ons, but the issue was how to encourage participants to carry their responsibility for action without my being perceived as lazy. I knew of my preference for using intuitive and metaphorical thinking styles, but worried that such use online, with people I could not see, might inhibit rather than encourage participation. As well, the established wisdom appeared to accept that the moderator should produce discussion summaries, but I had never been convinced of their usefulness in a constructivist learning context.

Daniel: I worried about generating adequate content for my online peers: was my decade of experience enough? I thought about how to make connections and identify patterns of emerging ideas that would help the practitioners online. I questioned the Node’s expectations of my professional performance and their support capability during the Forum (as a consultant, I needed to define my client: was it the Node, the OLT, or the participants?). Like Liz I was concerned about the capacity of the technology to accommodate my needs.

In our discussions following the conference, we (Liz and Daniel) discovered that both of us had privately thought about the factors for healthy and productive group dynamics, for example, use of humor, expressions of emotion, and silence. Each had worried about whether we could maintain the focus and pace, respectfully discard inappropriate messages, encourage the unexpected, and support participant thinking without denying opportunities for the participants to develop their own responsibility for the success of the interactions. But we didn’t share our concerns.


Liz: Much of the interaction detail is still unclear to me. My styles of divergent, intuitive, and recursive thinking (as distinct from always convergent, rational, and linear thinking) makes this current recall-and-reflect process difficult. I made no online summaries, but it seemed as if the prevailing wisdom was so strong that others made a few summaries. Should I feel guilty? I don’t think so: I still maintain that their existence may promote passivity, and it feels as if I’m being asked to look through the rear-view mirror when I want to keep my thoughts on the cognitive paths ahead. Because the technology enables such summaries does not mean to me that they are cognitively essential or even useful, and may even provoke dependency on others. To be quite frank, I can see very few differences in generic facilitation strategies between audioconferencing, online and face-to-face contexts; the only task is to figure out how the features of each technologically mediated context influence the application of those generic facilitation strategies; and that to me is a smaller task than having to learn the generic principles and strategies in the first place.

I now can better reframe some of the dynamics of online activity. They include antinomies, trade-offs, and cautious expectations. An example of an antinomy is that the feature of asynchronous (any time) message sending can conflict with the imperative for (relatively) synchronous thinking that enables learners to explore a topic in depth and within a reasonable time limit. An example of a trade-off is the loss of the warmth of voices and the speed of thinking in real-time conferencing and the gain of some pause time for thinking (or escaping an expected fast reply). An example of a cautious expectation is that future participants might be encouraged to be metaphorical thinkers if they see me role-modeling that behavior. I felt touched when someone sent me a message of reassurance that they liked a metaphor; my emotional response was felt before my cognitive response. The online me felt playful at times, but perhaps less inhibited may be a more honest response. Sometimes I felt that because I could not see the participants, I felt less social control; there were fewer paralinguistic cues to process before deciding why, when, and how to intervene and contribute. It is an irony of much adult learning facilitation that you do your best work by keeping quiet or at least staying clear of others’ conversational routes after having set up the road signs (Finkel, 2000). Another irony is that moderators probably will not receive a lot of metacognitive feedback from participants when the flow of thinking is at its best; the cognitive “whitewater rafting” traffic of a lively discussion leads to the next thought, not to the moderator’s presence. So a moderator often has to make best-judgment inferences about such flow and let it happen.

I suddenly realize, while writing this, that our narrative did not inform you that Daniel and I were under “encouragement” to produce a set of guidelines for effective learner services from the discussions. Why this narrative omission, I wonder? I have no clear answer. But I do now understand why I had been feeling some tension and disappointment: what chance did we have of producing good guidelines if we could expect only a 20% participation rate? Had I accepted an impossible situation? Given a tough assignment in other contexts, I often place an unwarranted burden of responsibility on myself to make things work. Obviously this theory-in-use does not always match my espoused theory, that is, “Don’t be an Atlas and try to hold up the world. Share the load; it’s not always the moderator’s fault if the conversation is not sizzling.” So clearly I don’t always walk my talk. My learnings here? Reduce my facilitation expectations for voluntary online activity, abandon some delusions of responsibility, and be very careful about raising participant expectations for sustained discussions. Another learning applies here: I took a reputation risk and developed a set of draft learner service guidelines that participants could rank-order online. The risk lay in the phrasing of those guidelines: the words I used deliberately tried to push the conceptual boundaries past tidy and polite prescriptions to reflect some realistic dynamics and interpersonal politics not often discussed in the literature. I have very little idea of how that risk was understood: no feedback on those words came to me. Who, perhaps, is going to tell a peer-moderator that she appears to be too frank, or too provocative; perhaps even a little eccentric?

Daniel: What did I learn? At times, the action seemed muddled, as so many events occurred within such a short time. I cannot recall every thought and every change of direction, but I have more insights now. For example, I had always assumed facilitators took on different tasks (from preparing an introduction to greeting participants, from summarizing weekly exchanges to providing references). Tasks are usually discussed at the beginning of a conference, and our tasks were discussed with the Node’s staff. But what about my moderator roles? What did they really expect of me: traffic cop or motivator, content-expert or counsellor? Halfway through the conference I became uncomfortable with who I was meant to be. Was I meeting the Node’s expectations? I didn’t know. I should have recognized this unease, but I did not. Like Liz I missed the spontaneity of synchronous meetings. However, I did learn to modify my facilitation skills in order to maximize the time offered by asynchronicity. As a virtual facilitator I am not pushed for an instant decision—I can define my strategy and put it into action over two or three days. As Cathy would say, “Relax, no need to panic.” Time is really on my side.

I responded to my peers in public discussions, in private e-mails, and in visits to their own Web sites. It worked: reactions were compelling! Everyone responded to my e-mail, showing how he or she felt encouraged. Three said they were touched by my action (although a common expression in French, the touching is still notable in this context when you consider the virtual space of the conference). Participants seemed to feel a real connection and were motivated to be even more active in the conference. On two Web sites I visited, learning support became a topic of discussion. The Node’s Forum thus expanded and took on its own life on other sites.

Although I do now feel wiser in my present online practice, questions still remain. For example, what is silence in a Web conference? As a facilitator I am hired to be heard, that is, to intervene; yet silence (or nonintervention) can also be meaningful in a group. In a face-to-face context we learn to read silence mainly through body gesture and facial expressions. In audioconferencing, we also recognize the need for silence (e.g., always wait 15 seconds after you have asked a question). What is the meaning of silence in an asynchronous mode? How can I define my quality of facilitation when I am silent? What is the difference between a lazy silence and a meaningful silence?

Cathy: Liz and Daniel have expressed more onerous expectations of themselves here than I remember having for them, and although this could be partly due to their professional ethic, I also need to be more aware of my communication. Online conferencing is not the medium for adult learning but it is one medium that allows adults to connect with others in their busy lives. The fact that participants can commit just as much time and effort as they wish is both an advantage and a weakness of online forums and means that all involved need to examine objectives and expectations openly and fully.

We learn new things every time the Node hosts a forum and the process of reflecting on this one has shown me the possibilities of Schön’s (1983) comment that “When someone reflects in action [he or she] becomes a researcher in the practice context” (p. 68). I would like to think that next time we would strike a better balance between offering moderators freedom to experiment and providing helpful direction, but of course the challenge of next time will be to find traces of familiarity in a unique situation. I know now that in the past we have not asked our moderators enough about their experiences, their concerns, or their hopes, and two issues stand out.

First, while enabling forum participants to interact with each other and to learn together we (the Node staff) have not looked deeply enough at the need for hosts and moderators to interact and learn together. Second, and related to the first, we have not been inclusive enough in our definition of community: we could do much more to build community for moderators through an atmosphere that encourages connection, exploration, and expression of uncertainties. Although we never discussed Brookfield’s reflective skepticism when we were working together, I think if we had done so we would have discovered that I interpreted it quite differently than did Liz and Daniel. Whereas they may not have found the Node skeptical enough about the rightness of online forums (and therefore not open enough to their past experience), at times I thought them not skeptical enough about the rightness of their past practice (and therefore not open enough to the experience before them). What was never in doubt is that we all wanted to do the best we could, and their initiative in reflecting on our experience together is only more evidence of this.


Baring our professional souls in three key narratives has been a challenge. We have tried to reach past the expected professional façade of being “independently operating, fully developed and wholly competent” (Brookfield, 1995, p. 140) and examine our intrapersonal professional feelings and thoughts. We have explained the difficulties of carrying out deliberative reflection on action and listed insights in the commentaries. Now it is time to step back even further—to comment on the whole reflection and identify its usefulness. Again, we now engage in the self-discipline of writing-in-order-to-think; never an easy or fast task, not the least reason being that it takes time and sustained effort to pull and push tentative ideas through all the cognitive filters of our past experience, biases, and habits.

Our first meta-comment relates to the three narratives. Their sequence shows a concern first for the content and the structure of the Forum, then for adult learning and its facilitation, and ultimately for our own presence and selves. Their combination was the context for our planning: rather than the typical planning context that centers on the design of materials, the context here was a joint concern for content and process followed by deliberate assessments of our own understandings of distance education and our knowledge about ways to manage our presence online. For Liz and Daniel, used to being visible in other learning contexts, it is a little surprising now to see how we felt that being online also meant being on the line, that is, worrying about less-than-perfect participation and feeling susceptible to reduced self-esteem and critical judgments from peers.

Our second meta-comment relates to our interactions. We negotiated with and reacted to each other, continually and respectfully challenging each other’s knowledge rather than being “techno-automatons” fitting ourselves into preconceived frames. Any assumption, any prior learning was fuel for critical questioning. We had to trust each other’s judgment despite a few serious misgivings about the use of prior knowledge. Interpersonal courtesies had to prevail even during periods of unease created by our differing needs.

Our third meta-comment relates to the use of the tool for the task. To be successfully applied in a learning context, online conferencing must fit the learning task and the characteristics of the learners. In our case, the tasks as interpreted by Liz and Daniel, the moderators, really required topic-focused and cognitively sustained interactions between participants formed into effective working groups. But the participants were not a group united by a common need, nor did they know each other, nor was there a tangible reward at the end, for example, a course credit. To add to these factors were the features of the tool, for example, online conferencing enables sending messages at any time and for any reason, but such logistical enablers may act also as cognitive disablers—participants may feel socially left out if they cannot log in often enough or intellectually left behind or isolated if they cannot participate as they wish. In addition, busy practitioners may find it impossible to remember or to find the time for continually returning to the online Forum to contribute. According to their pragmatic approaches, the smarter action might be to wait until enough good ideas are generated or useful information is transmitted and then download and print it. Call it furtive opportunism or call it brazen efficiency, the point is that the moderators may feel as if they have an impossible situation that contrasts strongly with the dynamics of other interactive contexts where all the conditions demand and produce more overt contributive energies.

Three questions therefore arise for noncredit professional development activity online. First, if we know which generic conditions are needed for lively and sustained higher-order thinking and task completion activities, how might these be generated for a voluntary, online professional development exercise that allows for reduced levels of group responsibility and many read-and-print levels of participation? Second, should expectations of sustained and outcomes-based group activity be severely reduced when working online for voluntary professional development activity? For example, is it possible to really come up with the determinants of good learning services in three weeks with over 200 individuals coming in and out at various times? A broad-brush approach may still be worth it, but we should be realistic as to the results it can produce. Moreover, perhaps the facilitator must better balance proactive and reactive stances. At times it may be best to present a question or a puzzle and let the participants deal with it for 48 hours; at other times the moderator needs to link various comments, bring people together, reenergize the discussion, bring closure to a given argument, and so forth. In addition to the balancing act, we perhaps also need to revise the “rules of the game.” For example, in dealing with the “read-only participants,” we could be explicit and say to all participants at the beginning, “You can take time off during the conference, but not all the time. Don’t be surprised if I mention you by name as I would in a synchronous context if someone was silent.” In essence this is what Daniel did when he wrote individual e-mails to participants who had become silent after their initial input.

Third, is moderation the best word for a Node-type discussion? If it is, where might we ground its meaning—in moderate intellectual activity, in presiding over discussion or in its traffic control connotations? If it is not the best word, what is a better replacement?

Our fourth comment relates to ethical professional behavior. There are two sides to this: one is working with peers as participants in the conference; the other is working with peers in the organizing and moderating team. In the first case we were always aware that we were dealing with people who had experience in distance education. We helped link comments together, show similarities and differences, and, of course, summarized on a weekly basis and redirected questions that were left unanswered. But when questions went beyond our experience or when we felt that someone else had relevant information to share, we made a point of referring participants to those individuals. In other words, we tried not to suffer from the Atlas syndrome: we respected our peers and their needs, gave up our control, and gave those around us the space they deserved to share their own experience and analysis. Ethical issues were also important among ourselves. We were given little time to organize and set up the conference, and there were different expectations depending on who we were and where we were from (moderator, facilitator, host). This was a potential recipe for conflict. It became essential to have the ability to maintain an open discussion while respecting all points of view, and ultimately resolving issues in the “pressure cooker” created by time limits.

Our fifth comment is a few words of advice to ourselves for the next time. If a PD activity is to be memorable in a positive sense for practitioners who are usually time- and energy-stressed, then we would assess what outcomes are realistic given the context of these conferences and assess what techno-mix and time-type combinations (e.g., real and delayed) are appropriate for a given outcome and given users. We also believe that technological advances will make it easier to combine asynchronous and synchronous time in the domain of computer-mediated communication. Soon these fora could start with asynchronous discussions, follow with a 90-minute live exchange on a hot topic that came up, and then return to more asynchronous exchanges. In short, we will focus on the people and their tasks and time, and we will be willing to question and reconfigure the processes of professional development.


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Elizabeth J. (Liz) Burge is a professor of adult education at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton campus, and Guest Professor at Mid Sweden University for 2000-2001. Her e-mail address is

Daniel Laroque is Project Manager and a consultant in distance education and work associated with Réseau Interaction Network, Inc. His e-mail address is

Cathy Boak is the Director of The Node Learning Technologies Network Her e-mail address is

ISSN: 0830-0445