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Facilitating online discussion forums

Facilitating Online Discussion Forums: 6 Intervention Models

Dr Crispin Butteriss

Dr Crispin Butteriss

Crispin is a founding director of Bang the Table and the Chief Practice Officer.

Facilitating online discussion forums requires a light touch and a deft hand. It can be resource intensive; alternately it can be community lead. Here are six models we’ve seen our clients adopt over the years.

Facilitating online is a tricky task and I don’t always get it right which has prompted me to go looking for some guidance from elsewhere on the net – to little effect. I’ve googled “online facilitation”, “facilitating online forums”, “facilitating online communities” and come up with a few links. None of the links is directly relevant to our day-to-day task, which is working in an “consultation” environment, rather than “community” or “adult learning” environments, but all provide useful food-for-thought for the development of two resources that I hope to build on in time.

The first resource is a typology of intervention models. The second is a guideline specifically for the intervention in, and facilitation of online discussion forums.

My research methodology is pretty basic – I don’t claim to have studied the literature extensively – but is based on observation of several dozen online forums we have hosted for various clients since launch in November ’07. None of the models is “better” or “worse” than any other. They all have their place in the world. The trick is to work out which model to use in which circumstances.

6 Intervention Models To Facilitating Online Discussion forums

  1. No intervention
  2. Community lead
  3. Corrections only
  4. Corrections and answers
  5. Facilitated
  6. Deep Immersion

1. No intervention

The “Nil” intervention model is by far the most popular thus far and is exactly as it sounds. The forum is established as a community space for discussion about the topic at hand for a set period. The client observes but does not intervene in the conversation. This model is understandably very popular for organizations that are concerned about resourcing deeper involvement in day-to-day intervention in the forum space. It is by-and-large, an effective way to provide the community with a safe conversation space to raise and debate issues and present alternative solutions. It is also a very low risk strategy in terms of the human resource required to manage the forum. It overcomes the not inconsiderable concern about the “risk of getting dragged into a debate”. Once you’ve jumped in, it’s difficult to jump out again.

2. Community Lead

The “Community Lead” intervention model is really a subset of the “Nil” model. We have noticed on a few occasions for larger consultations one or a number of members of the community have jumped into the “facilitator” space and taken on a very active role in variously questioning, challenging, prompting, and answering comments/questions made by other users of our sites. These community facilitators are often on different sides of the debate, which seems to promote/provoke increased conversation and (mostly) positive debate of issues at a deeper level by return visitors. We have seen this happen on the current Hornsby Housing site, as well as the Newcastle Rail, Newcastle Bus Review and Nobbies Lighthouse projects in particular.

3. Corrections Only

The “Corrections Only” intervention model is sometimes adopted when a user makes a statement on the site that is both incorrect (deliberately or not) and has the potential to, or already is, causing the disruption to the intent of the conversation. Very often the community will self-correct in this situation, but when it doesn’t and there is a significant risk that the misinformation will become embedded as a baseline assumption in the debate, then it is worth taking the time to intervene. This model was adopted by Penrith City Council for the 2008/9 Management Plan.

4. Corrections and Answers

The “Corrections and Answers” intervention model clearly requires much closer monitoring of the conversation. Making the decision to answer a direct question is not a small decision. There is every possibility that once you have answered a question and revealed a willingness to be involved in the forum that you will be asked another and another. A few of our clients have chosen to strategically intervene in this way using two techniques: (1) Direct involvement in the forum space, i.e. posting a specific answer immediately beneath a question; and (2) Indirect involvement in the forum space by posting a generalised response in the forum and more specific response in the FAQs and/or loading additional content into the site library. This model has been used by Wingecarribee Shire Council, Port Stephens Council, and Newcastle City Council.

5. Facilitated

The “Facilitated” intervention model requires a particular skill set that I am interested in exploring more deeply in future posts. We are running a project right now for the ACT Chief Minister that is being facilitated by our colleague from Twyfords, Max Hardy. Max is responding to many of the posts and asking follow up questions in much the same way that one would in a face-to-face community meeting. This clearly requires listening, judgement, and empathy (skills common to good facilitators) as well as very good written English. It also requires time and a very good understanding of the subject matter.

6. Deep Immersion

The “Deep Immersion” model is a step beyond the “Facilitated” model in that the facilitator becomes an active part of the community carrying out all of the tasks of a facilitator as well as being allowed to have their own opinion. It is effectively a mixture of the “Community Lead” and “Facilitated” intervention models. This model can be used to “prime” a discussion if the community is reluctant to get involved. The facilitator/s need to have an excellent understanding of the discussion topic and a willingness to express an opinion.

Photo Credits: jmonro

Published Date: 5 June 2009 Last modified on September 5, 2017
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  1. It seems to me that there needs to be a distinction made here between the role of a facilitator and that of a moderator. Perhaps if your Google search had of been for "online moderator" you might have found clearer guidelines on when to intervene, with examples. To "intervene" implies that one is not already involved – and when facilitating (as apposed to moderating), we are almost always involved, trying to draw out discussion, summarise, and assist. A moderator on the other hand is almost always absent from the discussion, and intervenes when order is needed, or some such similar thing. Personally, I think the distinction makes thinking about facilitation and moderation a lot easier.

    I liked your the 6 "interventions" you have listed. I'm not sure I would call them interventions, or online community governence models of something similar. The facilitated model is something I am very interested in, like you I recognise a very specific skills set needed, and twice a year we run a "get together" (called a course for simplicity's sake) for people interested in looking at the skills of online facilitation.

    I hope you'll take a look and perhaps think about join in with us around July when we come together on the topic again. It would be wonderful if we could attract more civic workers into the 'course'!

  2. Hi Leigh,

    I agree with everything you have said. I should have been more explicit in framing the post around the difference between simple moderation (which we do) and these more "interventionist" "governance models". I like your descriptor for the typology better than mine too. I'm now off to look at your "get-together" site.