In face-to-face classrooms, teachers leading discussions can control the interaction like being the driver of a car as one can:
· steer it back on topic;
· stop it when it gets dangerous;
· speed up when time is running out;
· slow down and invite those who are standing outside to come aboard.
The simile that leading a discussion is like driving is grounded in the realization that both are dynamic endeavors. As it proceeds, the leader makes judgments about how it is going. They attempt to direct and control it to arrive at the intended physical or intellectual destination. Of course, on many drives and in many discussions, we arrive at someplace other than we intended with delightful or dreadful results.
Online interaction is much different from face-to-face interaction. Online interaction tends to be asynchronous; the experience is much different for those who participate early (when there has been few contributions) compared to those who participate late. Further, if an online discussion is going off the topic, it might veer widely before the instructor is able to redirect it. Even after the discussion has been redirected, the asynchrony remains, so the redirection may be inconsistently seen.
If driving is an accurate simile for leading a face-to-face discussion, then launching a ball down an obstacle-strewn path may be an accurate simile for leading an online discussion. The discussion will find its own path down the hill, and its course will be influenced by, but not determined by, how the instructor begins the discussion.
While this may seem a distressing prospect (“does he really mean I can’t control my online discussions?”), I take it to mean that online instructors must plan their online discussions more carefully and completely than those who plan for face-to-face interactions. Further, they must be prepared for the reality that prompts leading to effective online interaction often emerge out of three or more trials. For online teachers, improving online interaction is an on-going, and very interesting, part of the work.