When poorly structured, Web discussions can bore or alienate students, veer off topic and even hinder students' learning.

Web researcher and psychology professor Curtis Bonk, PhD, shares ways that instructors can prevent this from happening in the book "Electronic collaborators: Learner-centered technologies for literacy, apprenticeship, and discourse" (Erlbaum, 1998). His list of problems and remedies:

Problem: Students are quickly overwhelmed by too much information. When teachers fail to organize conversations, participants become confused.

Solution: Plan and streamline course discussions. Plot the duration and focus of discussion threads. Have students take turns running discussions about course readings.

Problem: Students are easily stumped by online tasks, such as cutting and pasting text on the Web. Sometimes they lack Web expertise, misunderstand directions or are unsure what's expected of them.

Solution: Structure online activity. Provide guidelines for posting and pasting material, how often to comment, length of comments and what to say in them.

Problem: Student comments lack justification. They often make assertions without providing evidence.

Solution: Model ways to support arguments. In your own postings, cite research studies or theories to back up your comments.

Problem: Students seldom connect their online comments to specific course concepts because they don't realize they're expected to, and they tend to speak anecdotally. Comments are often unrelated to course readings, theories or research topics discussed in class.

Solution: Frame questions in terms of concepts. When posting a question for students, ask them to answer it using specifics from course readings.

Problem: Students are too nice on the Web. Perhaps because students also see each other regularly face-to-face, and because their comments are recorded online, many hesitate to criticize.

Solution: Encourage role- playing. Assign students to play out roles of devil's advocate, pessimist or optimist to help them take different sides and spur debate.

Problem: Peer camaraderie is lacking. Students tend not to reach out to each other online as fully online as they do face-to-face.

Solution: Assign online buddies. Pair up students to help each other troubleshoot software problems and respond to one another's questions about course content.

Problem: Instructors struggle to teach and not preach. Instructors easily fall into lecture mode, jeopardizing student interaction.

Solution: Encourage students to initiate discussion topics. Require them to take turns running discussion threads about particular course readings.

Problem: It's difficult to form a "community of learners" online. Because students can't see each other, it takes time for them to build trust and speak freely.

Solution: Encourage students to interact casually. Allot discussion threads or areas for hanging out and personal introductions.

Problem: Web postings are time-consuming to grade. Students often post large amounts of text, making it hard for instructors to keep up.

Solution: Award points according to set criteria. Give points for posting regularly, interacting concisely with others and showing deep thinking, rather than for generating lots of text.

Problem: Computers crash. Students' computers or Internet connections may malfunction, or glitches may plague online discussion software.

Solution: Troubleshoot. Check in regularly to see whether students need help using the discussion software or whether you need to call technology support personnel about more serious software problems.

--B. MURRAY