A user interface for simultaneous moderation of e-discussions
Effective moderation is a crucial factor for successful synchronous discussions. The importance of moderation is even higher in technology-mediated and distributed e-discussions. Additional indirection of communication and reduced expressive density, such as limited gestures, mimics or intonation, require special effort to reduce the risk of potential discussion problems such as miscommunication or lack of involvement. Useful group sizes for Computer Supported Cooperative Learning (CSCL) applications may vary, depending on tools and communication channels involved. In many synchronous e-discussion forms, the ideal group size is small, often smaller than the typical size of a class. In these and other situations, parallel work in smaller groups can be considered for classroom use of CSCL. Due to their co-location requirement, traditional direct discussions naturally limited moderators to observe one discussion at a time. Means of telecommunication eliminate this limitation - from a technical point of view, a moderator could observe multiple discussions simultaneously. However, the task of simultaneous moderation turns out to be a cognitively challenging task. Without assistance, moderators are easily overstrained, resulting in mediocre or poor moderation performance - and hence, in mediocre or failing discussions. Parallel moderation not only requires moderation to be effective, but also to be efficient. Within the Argunaut project, a dedicated system for moderation assistance was built, suitable for both single and multiple simultaneous discussions. This paper describes the system's user interface for moderators. It focuses on the translation of simultaneous moderation challenges into an appropriate user interface and on insights gained in the design-driven development process and from user involvement during the development of the system. Each of the parallel discussions may need to be viewed from various perspectives (e.g. the current state, recent development, participant's activity over time or social relations in the group of participants), resulting in a large amount of complex information to be observed. Computationally, the presentation of dense information is accomplishable via information visualisation techniques. However, this cognitively highly demanding approach is inadequate for real time classroom use. Hence, a main goal was to reduce the cognitive load of the moderator. Three strategies were employed: a) the transfer of trivial observation tasks to the computer (e.g. detecting participant inactivity over a prolonged period of time), b) focused visualisations with low complexity that allow the moderator to quickly grasp important situations and c) a comprehensible workflow that takes a moderator's specific and extended focus into account.