Ask an online tutor what they like most about their job, and be prepared for a lengthy answer. They will probably wax lyrical about things like having contact with people from all over the world. The chance to share and learn alongside a great range of individuals. The cut and thrust of considered online debate with interesting and informed peers. The level of support that an online group can generate for each other. The great vibe you get when an online group gels well. How you can see learning take place before your very eyes in forum discussions…. and so on.
Ask your online tutor what they like least about the job, and you invariably get the same two-word answer: forum summaries! As in, having to write them. Actually, marking assignments (another two-word answer) rates pretty high in dislikes as well…
We all know that providing summaries of often complex and lengthy forum discussions on an online academic course is a Good Thing. In case it’s not glaringly obvious why, here are some of the main reasons:
- a forum summary does just that — it summarises. It highlights the salient points made by individuals in the discussion, and presents them in a short and digestible form. It cuts out the rambling and the pontification.
- a forum summary shows that the online tutor has actually read the posts. In fact, the good online tutor will be contributing to and developing the forum discussion as it unfolds. The not-so-good online tutor will only show up for the summary. The truly dreadful online tutor won’t bother with a summary at all.
- a forum summary clearly tells students that a discussion has drawn to a close.
- a good forum discussion summary is a resource in itself. As such, you might want to also produce a version of your forum summary as a PDF document, and store it in an easily accessible course folder. That way you can build up a bank of useful forum summaries for your students in one place. This makes the summaries easily accessible, and good for review or revision purposes.
Of course the downside of forum summaries is that they can be very time consuming to produce. The summary of a lively and wide-ranging debate may run to several pages. Summary writing is in itself a skill.
Here are a few tips to help you with forum summaries:
Tip 1: Do it!
Make sure you summarise all discussions. Include all the pertinent, insightful and incisive points made in the discussion, and ignore the dross (sorry, less useful info).
Tip 2: Use students’ names
If you’re going to name some contributors (e.g. Jane pointed out that xxx, while Joe felt that xxx, ), then try to name all of the contributors. Imagine yourself as a student reading a forum summary in which all of your course colleagues are mentioned except you!
Tip 3: Don’t use students’ names
Or rather, don’t always use students’ names in summaries. Although students report feeling a warm glow of pride when reading their own names in a forum summary, don’t labour the point. Write some summaries in which names are included, and some in which names are not included at all. A bullet point list of the main points made in a discussion may suffice (but see below for some tips on how to liven this up visually).
Tip 4: Be there
Respond as appropriate during the discussion. You may need to step in and redirect a discussion that is getting off the point. You may need to answer a query in a posting. You may want to provide a summary halfway through a discussion (this will make your final summarising job easier in the long run). It’s important to be present and visible during a forum discussion. Students need to know that you are reading, thinking about, expanding on, and responding to their comments. There is nothing worse than an absent online tutor.
Tip 5: Don’t skive
You can always get a student to produce a summary for you, but it needs to be a meaningful activity for the student, not a chance for you to skive. Students should receive credit for any summaries they produce, even if it is only lavish praise. Best to get students to volunteer to produce a summary, rather than forcing them to do so. Make sure your students have several different summary models to refer to. Summarising is a skill that students may not have, nor want or need to develop, so don’t count on the ‘students-do-the-summary’ option.
Tip 6: Make it look good
Finally, you can make the summary more interesting for you to produce (and for your students to read) by using a variety of summary types and layouts. A discussion forum summary does not always need to be purely discursive text or a series of bullet points. You can:
- produce a mind map of key points
- use tables, with and without images
- use an adjective or a single keyword as a paragraph heading for each key point, or as the organising principle for the summary
- use student names as the organising principle of the summary
- create a wordle word cloud of key words/points (www.wordle.net)
- include screenshots or visuals of processes or student products if relevant (especially if the task requires students to produce an image, or something you can take a screenshot of)
The 6 images in the slideshow below show some rather groovy-looking forum summaries from one of our online courses, the online Cert ICT. These summaries were produced by Valentina Dodge who tutors on the course (thanks Vale!). I hope they inspire you to try out some different styles for your own online forum summaries… And look forward to any tips you may have for producing ‘good’ forum summaries.
Online forum summaries -some ideas
Great advice (again), Nicky. Getting the students to write summaries is an idea you put to me some time ago, but I’ve yet to do it – afraid of losing control??
What I do do that helps save time is – from time to time – record an oral summary: I’ve found that the students really like to hear “their master’s voice” especially if it’s unscripted and informal. But you really need to make fairly detailed notes in advance, so it’s not always such a huge time-saver. Another idea is to save summaries from previous discussions (with other student cohorts) on the same topic, which you can then customise for the present discussion. But you do this at your peril: it takes only one wrong name for the students to suss the fact you’re doing some creative recycling!
You’re right, Scott – learners like these kinds of summaries. For my English Ed (university) classes last year, in the forum I would actually post video round ups. Very quick and easy to do (used http://www.Eyejot.com, which has a very useful embed tool), and the learners really made a big deal about it. For them it was like having the teacher actually sitting there speaking to them inside the forum. Loved it!
I like the idea of audio summaries, but presume they take a bit of skill to turn out well? I know Nicky sometimes uses dictation software for writing, and I tried it, but I don’t think my head works in the way the software works, so I find it hard to ‘write’ by dictating. Do those of you who do this map out a structure and then do it in one take, or how do you do it?
We do learner-led summaries on a lot of courses, but of course it makes much more sense to do it on, say, an e-moderation course (where you’re learning precisely those skills) than it does on a ‘learn to use Moodle’ course. Though it’s not a bad skill to have anyway…
Thanks for the software tip – Jason
Thanks for these additional tips, Scott and Jason (and I am indeed using my dictation software to dictate this very response, Gavin!). I didn’t know the Eyejot site that Jason recommends, and will try it out at some point. Thanks!
Thanks for the recap here and showcasing these examples. I’d just like to add a few points about this challenging skill. I’m not sure that all forums need to be summarized, I think you need to strike a happy medium – you can also overkill with summaries and then course members wait for the tutor’s summary rather than read each other as the conversation is unfolding. I guess it depends on how many forums there and how often a forum task is offered. Balance is key!
It’s great to read your list of “whys” Nicky and I agree totally that there are many reasons that make summarizing a really “good thing” as you say it indicates that a discussion can be wrapped up which to a helps focus and move forward. However, I would also argue that sometimes it is important to summarize to help the discussion along, not to to close it all but simply to tidy it up, make it more manageable for any new contributors who haven’t posted yet or to continue the “debate”. This type of summary actually draws peripheral participants in work wonders . Personally, I’ve found the best way to do that is to summarize the salient points and then actually address the non-participants directly to ask them to confirm their views. I’m not just talking about teacher trainees here, also speaking from my experience of wiki forums for university students.
Timing is important with summaries. At the beginning of courses I’m quite “strict” and share a summary within 24 hours of a task deadline . This helps sets the pace and show late contributors that they’ve missed out without any finger pointing being necessary! The message is quite clear. As a course moves on though, I have to say that I find flexibility becomes essential. Online learning or training is often chosen because it fits in with a busy life style so being too rigid with the deadlines and drawing conversations to a close might limit the depth of exchanges. It’s a tricky one and rules, I’d say, need to be group-specific.
On this topic of timing and non-participation, an idea I’ve been experimenting with is to share the summary in private with any individuals that haven’t yet contributed.
So far students and trainee feedback confirm that this:
• allows for win-win rescheduling of a missed deadline
• reduces the reading for the non- or late participant which in itself helps them get back on track
• shows the tutor cares and appreciates the “missing” contribution
• adds group cohesion to the dialogue (this is what your course colleagues are saying, can you add your views?)
• shares the concept of summarising as a team and merges the participant/tutor roles and ideas further
• sets the scene for peer-created summaries.
Have any of you tried this? Do you think it helps?
Oh and by the way, given all the colour and formats available for weaving, I’d say quite into summary tapestry! I think the enjoyment comes at seeing such diversity of forum contributions represented in as varied a way as the views the final collation represents. Making sure there’s something for everyone while making sure everyone has been part of the flow of exchanges is what makes it a great part of a great job ?
Ooops sorry if this is a bit too long for a comment on a post on “summaries” but I spend a lot of my time doing and thinking about this skill!
Thanks for all these great insights, Vale. I really love the idea of sharing a summary in private with non-participating individuals, in advance of going public. Brilliant. N
Oh this is excellent advice Nicky – one I’m book marking right now lest I forget before an online course. Thank you.
Thanks for the tips-very useful Thanks also for introducing me to wordle (Windows won’t let me use it yet, but I’ll work that out tomorrow) and to slideshare.
Thanks for your comments Vicki and Sue. Sue – you need to have Java installed on your computer to use Wordle (www.wordle.net), this may be the problem? Just in case, you can download it from here: http://java.com/en/download/index.jsp
Hope this helps!
To borrow an idea from Russell Stannard and following on from Jason’s idea of recording forum summaries, another variation could be to use a screen recorder such a Jing (http://www.jingproject.com/) to provide the summary. One advantage of this being that the moderator could highlight the sections in a post that is of particular interest and then comment on it briefly before moving on to the next post. A disadvantage, however, would be that as Gavin says this would involve some preparation and planning for it to come off successfully – but nonetheless as an interesting alternative it could be worth trying out at least once in a course.
Thanks for the tip, Nicky. Who knew?
Thanks for the article!
I really liked the idea of using wordle for this purpose – never thought it could be used in this way.
I am not an e-moderator at all yet, but I was just thinking – could we use delicious as a summarizing tool? Let’s say if a course involves lots of reading and getting to know new on-line tools, a moderator could create tag bundles for each topic/week. Or do you think that would be not worth the trouble?
Hi Vera, thanks for your comment and glad you like the Wordle idea. As you probably know, there are literally hundreds of ways Wordle can be used in face-to-face teaching as well, you’ll find a few more ideas here: http://www.slideshare.net/rjensen/twenty-five-interesting-ways-to-use-wordle-in
As to using delicious – we use Diigo to do this. Not so much as a summarising tool, but simply as an effective way to keep links for a course, divided up per topic/week. In our Cert ICT and Cert IBET courses, from example, we cover quite a lot of ground, and find this a useful way to keep links for participants up-to-date — the great thing about Diigo (as opposed to Delicious) is that links can be commented on by viewers.
This was great. Thank you so much. I love the wordle idea. This has indeed been a fantastic time for me. I love learning and bringing new things to my toolbox.