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Excited by E-Moderation? A Canadian Educator Shares Her Best Hacks

By Marla A. Zupan / February 2019

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Today’s teachers are fortunate in that they can avail themselves of different positions and experiences that extend beyond the classroom. Some educators apply to teach overseas during the summer, while others seek out year-long job exchanges. One growing area that also promises adventure without the burden of travel is online professional development. Working as an e-moderator affords the opportunity to co-learn with teachers both near and far. But is this type of position really for you? For more than a decade, e-moderation has both challenged and invariably strengthened my communication, collaboration, and evaluation practices. So, if you feel that your current mindset needs a reset, and you enjoy problem solving and troubleshooting, keep reading! The following strategies, or hacks if you will, may serve you well as you contemplate a new virtual teaching frontier.

Ontario Teacher Professional Development: An overview

In 2017, 235,705 educators were members of good standing in the Ontario College of Teachers. According to their annual report, 31,348 AQ courses were successfully completed during that year. To meet ongoing demands, three-part sessional AQs are offered by 46 college-approved providers. In Part 1, candidates develop skills and knowledge to design, deliver, and assess programs within a particular discipline. Part 2 further expands upon these skills; and in Part 3, educators are challenged to extend and reinforce their knowledge while focusing on their leadership skills.  

Typically, fall, winter, and spring AQs span a 12-week period, with many institutions offering condensed, monthly sessions in July. In August 2017, one university piloted a six-week session while another organization began offering virtual professional development one module at a time. Course fees have also lowered significantly from $985 CAD in 2004 to between $600–$750 CAD depending on the provider. As a further incentive, candidates who completed AQs in math, technology, or kindergarten were eligible for $450 CAD subsidies through the Ontario Teachers Federation from 2015–17.

From e-Learner To e-Moderator

While exploring professional development opportunities for Ontario teachers in the early aughts, I noticed several additional qualification (AQ) courses were being offered virtually. However, my curiosity in this new online learning environment was met with skepticism from some colleagues. “How will you submit assignments?” several asked, while others teased, “Do you need a credit that easily?” Despite their doubts, I soldiered on to complete what would be the first of many online courses. The experience challenged me to discard my long-held perceptions of teacher professional development in favor of 21st century learning through the cultivation of a cyber identity. Purposely selecting visual arts as my first online challenge forced me to develop valuable time management, critical thinking, and research skills. How else was I going to learn to photograph, caption, save, upload, and share photos of my artistic endeavours? (Keep in mind, all of this preceded smartphones!)  Despite these obstacles, my interest was piqued and a journey began that would eventually lead to e-moderation opportunities across the province.

In 2006, following the completion of my tenth AQ, I transitioned from teacher-learner to course facilitator for an Ontario university. From that moment forward, I have enjoyed the predictable unpredictability that defines virtual moderation. Looking back now, it’s important to remember that years ago there were no defined expectations or requirements surrounding moderation. It was simply expected that facilitators would seamlessly transfer their experiences, knowledge, and personality to their virtual classrooms. It’s easy now to find levity in what were truly stressful situations at the time. Despite the proliferation of new learning management systems, apps, and productivity tools, the art of e-moderation has remained largely unchanged. It wasn’t easy years ago and it still presents obstacles today. If you are willing to take this on, be prepared to tweak your pedagogy in order to reflect a different way of thinking, teaching, organizing, and ultimately understanding how people learn.

Once my first e-moderation contract was signed, no support in the form of workshops or in-services was offered. There appeared to be a silent understanding that moderators would simply choose suitable strategies from their own classroom practice and integrate them online. However, in the glaring absence of both physical and vocal cues, the ability to motivate and guide candidates was a confusing proposition at best. Through sheer trial and error (and admittedly, terror), I began to fine-tune several of my go-to strategies. Over time, I made some interesting discoveries in my quest to further develop and refine my virtual persona or social presence.

Today, it appears that the word e-moderator is being used with greater consistency to describe those who oversee online courses. Over the years, however, the position has been referred to in many different ways including virtual instructor, online teacher, technical support person, e-lecturer, content creator, virtual guide, and course developer. The inability to reach agreement on a standard name suggests online facilitation truly is different from traditional class instruction. The Socratic method and one-sided lecturing, which defined the latter, are no longer welcome in virtual environments. King added fuel to this argument with her declaration that teachers should be viewed as guides on the side and no longer considered to be sages on the stage [1]. She urged teachers to replace their long-held methodologies with more collaborative and constructivist ways of thinking. However, asking teachers to relinquish control of their classes in order to present a shared learning experience is an extremely difficult request to make. While the concept of growth-mindset may be common parlance today, it had yet to become part of anyone’s e-vernacular a decade ago,

By definition, a moderator is defined as someone who presides over a group. I feel this explanation can suitably address different interpretations and issues such as student engagement, social presence, technical support, and multimedia integration [2].

Six Hacks….From The Trenches

Understanding the basic responsibilities and expectations of e-moderation is an important first step. But what happens next once you log into your course shell? The true test will lie in your ability to quickly create a welcoming, user-friendly environment for up to 25 candidates. In a short period of time you will need to build trust among a cohort of educators, who until this moment have been strangers to one another. Can you inspire a group of diverse candidates to share, plan, trust, and collaborate with one another in order to realize their shared goal? It’s a daunting task for any newbie to contemplate. So here are four survival scaffolds that may help to buffet your first e-moderation experience.

Hack #1: Don’t forget where you came from. Keep in mind that we were all students at one time, trusting and learning from those who stood before us in various classrooms and lecture halls. Do you remember what you craved as a learner? Was it clear expectations, organization, meaningful content, and teacher support?  This first tip encourages you to maintain your student mindset before making any decisions. Many of today’s online environments allow instructors to log in under a generic student profile. This provides an overview of your student environment before class begins. Can you navigate it smoothly? Are your content sections clear? Would you thrive in this kind of environment? If any of your answers are “no,” consider making some revisions before the course goes live.

Hack #2: Plan, plan, and then...plan some more. As educators, this is not news. Planning is essential, regardless of your assignment or location. If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail. This axiom is especially true in online contexts because a successful learning environment is one that is organized, user-friendly, and functional. Phillips notes virtual students often have different needs from their physical counterparts [3]. Get ready to open a new Google doc and create a checklist with the following questions:

  1. Is there a welcome message?
  2. Are the introductory activities (Icebreakers, social media sharing) clearly articulated?
  3. Is the home page easy to navigate?
  4. Can candidates locate content and distinguish it from discussion forums?
  5. Is there a calendar with start/end/due dates?
  6. Is the assessment and evaluation process (projects, reports, etc.) detailed?  
  7. Have drop boxes been set up?

Hack #3: Check your hotinks! As an e-moderator, one of your most important start-up tasks is to verify the validity of all embedded hotlinks. Since websites and content can disappear immediately and without warning, this is a practice that should be continued throughout a course. Missing content or articles can often be found via new URLs but these updates must be clearly communicated. Consequently, one useful strategy is to anticipate different scenarios and plan for them accordingly. If a hotlink is compromised, how can you empower your candidates to cope? One solution is to set up a “Dead links” forum, where teachers can inform their colleagues and suggest interim replacements by conducting Google searches. This idea is supported by Fein and Logan who suggest setting up an FAQ forum allows students to provide immediate feedback to one another [4]. Surveying your online landscape and considering all potential obstacles is an essential part of any e-moderator’s front-end preparation. It definitely demands a time investment on your part but your success will be obvious when the first day passes without a myriad of emails, alerts and/or panicked postings from candidates.

Hack #4: Be present for and to your candidates. Although online moderation is not a typical, 9–5 job, it does require daily maintenance. Ontario College of Teachers’ guidelines require AQ sessions to consist of a minimum of 125 hours of work that is approved by the Registrar. These hours can include online activity (postings, reflections, projects) as well as offline work (reading, preparation, research, curation). Regardless of the length of a course, e-moderators should strongly encourage time prioritization. I recommend teachers immediately identify a regular 30–60 minute block of time that can be devoted to and for uninterrupted coursework.

It would also behoove e-moderators to establish their own routines for maximum use of time. Checking in several times each day allows me to quickly respond to pressing emails and/or discussion forum queries. When projects are submitted, my goal is to conduct assessment immediately as everyone appreciates timely, detailed feedback. This not only shows respect for candidates and their work, but also helps to build a stronger online community.

One question I hear often is, “How are you online all of the time?” Obviously, this isn’t the case as I have other demands on my time. However, the use of a few strategies can effortlessly enhance one’s perceived online omnipresence. Your goal is to reach multiple people in a personal way, quickly. One way of doing so is through the use of humour and/or personal anecdotes. Jokes and stories are sure-fire ways to resonate with people while creating memorable connections. A second method is to address candidates by their names and to occasionally follow up on an earlier comment. This shows you are not only paying attention, but that you value their contributions. I keep track of candidate information (such as their current position, school board, interests, hobbies, etc.) by reading and responding to their introductory postings. Jotting down a few points on a spreadsheet keeps pertinent information handy for future use. Again, this will require some organization on your part, but it yields huge benefits by showing your candidates you care.

Ely advocates taking time to forge real connections in different ways, be it through social media via hashtags or regularly scheduled live chats using video software like Adobe Connect [5]. In addition, she suggests posting a daily announcement with a greeting, quote, meme, or joke accompanied by weekly calendar updates will sustain both engagement and interest. Which brings me to my next point.

Hack #5: Make it personal. Really. Evans profiled Stacy Horn who created a bulletin board system called the East Coast Hangout, or Echo in 1989 [6]. Although it was a text-based Unix discussion forum, which operated separately from the Internet, it still exists today. To what can be attributed for its continued success? Ultimately, Stacy refused to commercialize her site, rejecting any and all overtures that promised financial success. Instead, she chose to cultivate her personal connections and invest in her audience. E-moderators would be well served to draw inspiration from tech pioneers like Horn, whose longevity in virtual spaces cannot be denied.

Despite this well-intentioned example, establishing a rapport between yourself and virtual strangers (both literally and figuratively) is no easy task. Without visual cues and body language, what can new e-moderators do? Kyei-Blankson and Keengwe believe organizations that offer supportive instructor learning communities are invested in successful virtual learning [7]. These separate environments provide e-moderators with downloadable templates and resources as well as forums for posting questions, anecdotes and messages of encouragement and humour. Ely points out creating a space for instructor interactions emphasizes a human dimension through sharing, venting, and relating to one another. Once a comfort level is established through these cyber-connections, e-moderators can similarly engage with their students in order to build relationships, validate contributions, and foster inclusivity.

In my experience, student engagement begins when you choose to share some personal information about yourself. Until you mention some of your interests, goals, and experiences, you will remain a virtual entity, which, for many candidates, can be off-putting and alarming. Maintaining a healthy balance between saying nothing and oversharing is key. To that end, I’ve developed an easy acronym to help you to engage with your learners. Just give them a brief VIEW of you.

V–Upload a visual aid that candidates can quickly associate with you and your personality. Whether it’s a photo, icon, image (bitmojis are always fun) or video, visuals can effectively provide context without compromising privacy. Travel shots, pet photos, hobbies, nature, and even TV show memes are just as effective at generating conversation.

I–Introduce yourself by sharing some professional background information. Candidates will relate to you quickly when they can identify similarities between their experiences and yours. For which school boards and districts have you worked? How many years of teaching experience have you acquired?  In Ontario, candidates can easily view their e-moderators’ credentials and professional designations by way of the Ontario College of Teachers public register. Ultimately, sharing some facts about your pedagogy, areas of interest, and professional development goals are sure to resonate with your audience.

E–Encourage your candidates from the first day in order to ensure their success. Nothing can replace of a kind word or a supportive comment. They don’t take long to type (or record, if you’re using audio like QuickTime or a screencast) and they can inspire overwhelmed candidates. Using vocatives (addressing candidates by name, as mentioned earlier) is also effective as it personalizes your communication and further builds online intimacy.

W–Establish different ways of contacting you outside of the course environment. This could be through instant messaging, live chat, Instagram, Twitter, or personal email. I have found providing a secondary contact gives candidates instant peace of mind. They can relax knowing that in the case of an emergency, they can reach me immediately.

(Note: Rules regarding personal email use can vary with different institutions/organizations; be sure to apprise yourself of acceptable conduct.)

Hack #6: Give feedback that is timely, varied, detailed and specific! Every educator understands the power of rubrics and how they can be used to inform learning. It stands to reason, then, that teacher candidates would expect the same kind of feedback with respect to their own online submissions. Ely suggests e-moderators clearly list all of the assessment methods and tools that will be used so that there is no confusion once a course begins. Although rubrics are by and large the most commonly used AQ assessment tool, I nonetheless have been feeling constricted and stifled by them of late. For me, the repetitive practice of highlighting, referencing or bolding standard textbox criteria does not feel individualized or specific.

Interestingly, it was a corrupt rubric file that set me on the path towards assessment enlightenment. In the absence of this particular document, I prepared anecdotal feedback by creating a split-screen on my laptop. This allowed me to evaluate candidate submissions on one side while simultaneously typing comments into a separate document beside it. The positive responses indicated teachers felt validated by my specific comments and constructive suggestions. For me, this was proof positive that no one wants to be placated with generalizations. Today, Google Docs’ edit feature enables me to add comments directly onto a submission, thereby saving even more time.

According to Ely, it is also good idea to incorporate a mixture of assessment approaches including audio notes, videos, rubrics, anecdotal notations, reflections, or a brief screencast. The latter was a real discovery for me, thanks to Google Chrome’s Screencastify add-on extension. In a very real and accessible way, screen casting fills in the blanks of online learning through the integration of my voice, inflections in tone, and even physical presence (should I choose to embed video). Ultimately, I can offer my perspective in ways that will resonate more effectively thanks to the personalization of the feedback. The intimate nature of screencasts is a win-win for all concerned. I can converse informally and easily about a candidate’s work, which only serves to deepen our online connection. Kebritchi, Lipschuetz, and Santiague agree that an instructor’s ability to communicate, form community, and deliver the appropriate lesson makes all the difference in student learning outcomes [8].

The Future Of E-Moderating

The diversity of online AQ subjects that are currently available is a strong indicator that virtual teacher education is on the rise. Coupled with lowering costs and various subsidy incentives, e-moderation is quickly becoming an exciting employment opportunity for those who wish to develop their leadership skills and pedagogy in a less traditional format. However, working and learning alongside adults requires a different kind of attention to detail, preparation, and care that you would normally devote to your physical classroom environment.

This article outlined six hacks or strategies to ensure your first foray into virtual education is a successful one. First, e-moderators must be prepared to plan and organize their course shells, identifying potential problems that may arise. If possible, log on as a student before the course begins and take some time to navigate the environment. If forums, content areas, contact information, and support sections are clearly defined, your students will be the happy beneficiaries.

Secondly, the importance of relationship was emphasized through development of your social presence. Online education is very much a give and take situation and if you are perceived as distant by not logging in regularly, community development fails. I recommend using the VIEW acronym in order to develop online rapport quickly. This includes uploading a visual, creating an introduction, encouraging and ensuring student success, and providing ways to contact you if necessary. Creating a good VIEW can reveal as much or as little about your personality as you wish. Ultimately, though, it is a clear indicator that you care and are invested in candidate achievement.

Finally, the evolving nature of feedback was discussed along with several different ways of informing candidates about their progress. AQ courses are a big investment of time for many people and everyone appreciates validation of their efforts. I have found candidates also appreciate and crave meaningful and personalized constructive criticism, as opposed to general statements using tired qualifiers. With these strategies, I am confident that any journey you choose to take into the world of online education will be challenging, exciting, (busy!) and very rewarding.


[1] King, A. From sage on the stage to guide on the side. College Teaching 41, 1 (1993), 30- 35.

[2] Choi, H.J. and Park, J.H. Difficulties that a novice online instructor faced: A case study. Quarterly Review of Distance Education 7, 3 (2006), 317-322.

[3] Phillips, J. 7 Tips on how to prepare for teaching online. eLearning Industry. October 20, 2016.

[4] Fein, A. D., and Logan, M. C. Preparing instructors for online instruction. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 100, Winter (2003), 45–55.

[5] Ely, E. Teaching online: Challenges and solutions. February 23, 2018.

[6] Evans, C. L. The woman who taught internet strangers to actually care for one another. Quartz. June 23, 2018.

[7] Kyei-Blankson, L., and Keengwe, J. Faculty-faculty interactions in online learning environments. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education 7 (2011), 25–33.

[8] Kebritchi, M., Lipschuetz, A., and Santiague, L. Issues and challenges for teaching successful online courses in higher education: A literature review. Journal of Educational Technology Systems 46, 1 (2017), 4-29. doi: 10.1177/0047239516661713.

About the Author

Marla A. Zupan, OCT, Ph.D., is a qualified elementary Ontario elementary teacher currently working for the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB). Her research interests at OISE/UT included teacher education, virtual learning environments and social presence. Her current focus is on the delivery of technological skills in primary classrooms.

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