This Quick Guide looks at effective online facilitation and its importance in online teaching and learning.
Specifically it unpacks the various interpretations of 'facilitation', the impact of online mediums on teacher and student roles, facilitation strategies, and emerging models and theories. The focus of this guide is on practical application and strategies associated with the facilitation of student learning.
This guide will be of relevance principally to teachers and learning support
staff delivering courses or supporting students online, and designers of online
Online facilitation, in broad terms can be described as the act of managing the learners and the learning through an online medium.
Facilitation can also refer to the managing 'the communication of others online' (Coghlan 2001). In online learning this managing is usually done by a teacher or tutor. It is frequently referred to in the literature as 'online moderation', though moderating can also be a student task in some circumstances.
Facilitation is also a pedagogical term that applies to student-centred approaches to teaching as opposed to teacher-driven - the teacher's role moving from expert to one of facilitation - "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side" (Kempe 2001).
All three are usually inextricably entwined when it comes to online teaching.
Just as the teacher manages discussions and learning activities in the traditional classroom, so it is online. However, online teaching has some special challenges: students often have not met one another or the teacher, the nature of communication is limiting and void of visual cues, and there are challenges keeping tabs on individual students' learning when they are studying remotely. The role of the online teacher or facilitator is therefore both special and crucial for effective learning outcomes and enjoyable learning experiences.
Online teaching is moving from an emphasis on web content to a more interactive structure that recognises the social and interactive elements of knowledge construction, and to pedagogical approaches that enable student-centred (e.g. problem-based, inquiry-based, discovery, and authentic learning) which are found to be extremely effective for online learning (Jasinski 2001; Ambrose 2001; Salmon 2000b). Teachers need to have much more than just technical competence if they are to be successful online. They need an understanding of the dynamics of online communication and interactions and need to learn effective ways of facilitating and teaching online.
It should not be assumed that teachers (or students for that matter) automatically know how to communicate or behave online (Coghlan 2001). Many do not and require professional development or mentoring in the skills and techniques of facilitating.
The ultimate goals of effective design of online teaching programs from a teaching perspective should be to facilitate learning, and "meaning making" (Salmon 2000b), and to meet the academic, social * and pragmatic needs of learners (Kempe 2001). Effective online facilitation should engage, guide and motivate learners, and provide a safe and conducive environment for learning and communication exchange for all learners regardless of their prior experience and predisposition or otherwise towards online learning technologies. These criterion can form the basis of a framework for measuring the effectiveness of online facilitation.
Much of the writings about online facilitation is based on collaborative or group learning/participation rather than self-paced, autonomous learning. The terms 'online community' or 'learning community' are often used in these contexts. Collison et al. (2000, p. 77) claim healthy online groups have the following characteristics:
There is reasonable consensus within the literature about the changing and challenging role of the teacher in online learning. Kemshal-Bell (2001) gives good coverage on the collective views, categorising skills and attributes into three main areas - technical skills, facilitation skills, and managerial skills.
Facilitation skills include:
It is also seen as important for teachers to have a positive attitude to online teaching and an ability to be innovative and experimental (risk taking).
Different authors have concluded similarly but used different categories to describe the different aspects of facilitation. For example, Morten Flate Paulsen (1995) uses 'organizational', 'social' and 'intellectual' to describe facilitator functions. Collison et al. (2000) use the categories of 'guide on the side', 'instructor or project leader', and 'group process facilitator' (p. 43).
Whilst many of the facilitation tasks appear very similar to those required in face-to-face teaching, in an online setting some are quite unique (Ambrose 2001; Flexways). For example it requires special skills by the facilitator to progress conversations from trivial surface level discussion and social exchange to deeper level engagement (Ambrose 2001; Sherry,Tavalin & Billig 2001; Collison et al. 2000). These are skills that can be learnt (Collison 2000).
Collison et al. (2000, Chapter 5) divides skill sets for online facilitation into 'basic and general netiquette' to establish functional and effective online programs, and second level skills, that is the ability to employ 'advanced dialogue strategies' for deeper level learning and more effective outcomes.
The facilitator, can be, but is not always, the developer of online learning content, and does not necessarily have to be the content expert either (Collison et al. 2000).
The Australian Flexible Learning Framework Flexways Project has developed an online tool for VET teachers, professional development coordinators, and managers to assess skill development needs for online teaching and facilitation and other aspects of online delivery, and to construct a professional development plan accordingly for individuals or a group. See http://flexways.flexiblelearning.net.au/index.jsp
Some of the lessons learned about successful online facilitation:
There are various moderation models now being presented to assist teachers understand the fundamental concepts of facilitation and as a basis for theorising.
Some of the more notable are:
Salmon's fives stages are
Each stage calls for different e-moderating skills requiring participants to master certain technical skills and steps learners through a logical process of induction before deeper level interactions occur. Students learn through participation and engagement. Motivation is the key, and so is the provision of a conducive structure and environment.
Collison, Elbaum, Haavind and Tinker's model is based on techniques used by the moderator to guide and facilitate the learning. It is premised on the view that appropriate communication interventions by the moderator can move students forward and facilitate (but should not lead) their understandings.
Paulsen maintains that moderators should identify their preferred pedagogical style, based on their philosophical orientation, their chosen moderator roles, and their preferred facilitation techniques. Moderator roles can at times vary. Facilitation functions are classified under headings of organizational, social and intellectual facilitation.
Hootstein proposes a model in which the e-learning facilitator or moderator "wears 'four pairs of shoes' - acting as instructor, social director, program manager, and technical assistant". In the instructor role the instructor guides the learning in a problem-centred learning environment, offering insights and assisting learners. As a social director they create and foster a collaborative environment. A program manager directs the agenda. And as a technical director they "assist students to become comfortable with systems and software and prepare learners to resolve ... technical difficulties that may occur".
Each model presents a different way of conceptualising the learning and facilitation interactions and provides useful techniques, and each has made a significant contribution to the research fields of online learning and computer-mediated communication.
E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online
Book by Gilly Salmon, an experienced moderator, researcher, and online teacher of international acclaim. Salmon lays out in clear terms the qualities and competencies required for online teaching. Of particular note is the practical five step model to facilitate effective communication and interaction. The text is used by many as a professional development resource. It includes many practical resources that can be used by practitioners.
Facilitating On-line Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators
Book by G Collison, B Erlbaum, S Haavind, and R Tinker. Another principal text for practitioners wanting to learn basic or advanced techniques of online facilitation.
Teaching Online: A Guide for Teachers, Facilitators and Mentors
A guide for teachers, facilitators and mentors produced by RMIT.
Teaching on the Web - Exploring the Meanings of Silences
An article by G Benfield, provides explanation on why silence occurs in online conversations and provides practical advice on coping with them.
e-Moderation - Managing A New Language?
Paper presented by Michael Coghlan at the NET*Working 2001 Conference, discusses the various communication options available to support online teaching and learning (i.e. synchronous and asynchronous). Coghlan looks at 'what constitutes successful online facilitation and examines theoretical models that attempt to make explicit e-moderation strategies'. Provides links to a number of authoritative sites.
Wearing Four Pairs of Shoes: The Roles of E-Learning Facilitators
An article in Learning Circuits by Ed Hootstein on the roles of an e-learning facilitator and ways in which the facilitator guides learning.
The Role of the Online Instructor/Facilitator
This article by Zane Berge published in Educational Technology describes the role and functions associated with online facilitation. A dated but much quoted article.
Virtual Games for Real Learning: Fast, Cheap, Effective
A paper presented at NET*Working 2000 by Marie Jasinski and Sivasailam Thiagarajan who are researching email games as a way of facilitating dialogue for the construction and sharing of new knowledge, understanding perspectives and insights. Email games are templates (or frames) that can be adapted to the learning and learner requirements. This paper discusses issues and considerations when designing and facilitating games, and describes three of them.
This website developed by the Flexways project (also known as Staff Capability Review Models; Capability Review - Closing the Gap) provides a practical online tool to help people identify skills, actions and professional development resources required to achieve identified scenarios based around online course development or teaching objectives.
LearnScope Virtual Learning Community
The LearnScope VLC website is a professional development space that aims to
promote discussion and sharing on online teaching and learning issues. It links
to relevant articles and resources, LearnScope projects and general discussion
forums, and is a dynamic site providing lots of support for online practitioners.
EdNA VET Online
A major portal serving the VET, higher education and school communities. The EdNA VET section provides annotated links to resources, many of which relate to online teaching and learning, and a wide range of services. Useful browse categories to explore are 'Project, Research, Development/delivery modes/online, computer-based learning'; and 'teaching with new technologies' categories. The EdNA site also has communication services, including online forums for discussion available from the 'Communicate' menu.
Online Short course by Learnlinks on online facilitation skills.
Online Communication - Let's Get Connected
A William Angliss short course (fully online) facilitated by Pam Wright, for
TAFE and ACE practitioners to develop basic online facilitation skills.
Phone: (03) 9606 211 (Information Centre)
Email: Pam Wright email@example.com
Online Facilitation (Teaching and Communicating Online)
A Central Gippsland short course (fully online), facilitated by Brad Beach and Vanessa Marsh.
Phone: (03) 5120 4577 (Brad Beach)
Ambrose, L 2001, Learning Online Facilitation Online, Moving
Online Conference II, 2-4 September, Gold Coast, Australia.
Benfield, G 2000, Teaching on the Web - Exploring the
Meanings of Silence, UltiBase Online Journal, Melbourne.
Berge, ZL 1995, 'The Role of the Online Instructor/Facilitator',
in Facilitating Computer Conferencing: Recommendations from the Field,
Educational Technology 35 (1) 22-30.
Coghlan, M 2001, eModeration - Managing a New Language?
Paper presented at NET*Working 2001 Conference.
Collison, G, Erlbaum, B, Haavind, S & Tinker, R (eds) 2000, Facilitating On-line Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators, Atwood Publishing, Madison. ISBN 1 89 1859 33 1
De Cicco, E 2002, The Role of the Facilitator Within
Online Discussion Groups - A Case Study, Global Summit Conference, Adelaide.
Guzdial, M & Carroll, K n.d., Explaining the Lack
of Dialogue in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning
Hootstein, E 2002, Wearing Four Pairs of Shoes: The
Roles of E-Learning Facilitators, Learning Circuits, ASTD Online Magazine.
Jasinski, M & Thiagarajan, S 2000, Virtual Games
for Real Learning: Fast, Cheap, Effective, NET*Working 2000.
Jasinski, M 2001, E-games: Improvisation Through Open
Platform Design, Paper presented at NET*Working 2001 Conference.
Kempe, A and team 2001, Putting the Teacher Online -
TEC's Learnscope Project, paper presented at NET*Working 2001 Conference.
Kemshal-Bell, G 2001, The Online Teacher, Final
report prepared for the Project Steering Committee of the VET Teachers and Online
learning Project, ITAM ESD, TAFENSW.
Paulsen, MF 1995, 'Moderating Educational Computer Conferences',
in ZL Berge & MP Collins (eds) Computer-mediated Communication and the
On-line Classroom in Distance Education, Hampton Press, Cresskill, NJ.
Salmon, G 2000a, Learning Submarines: Raising the Periscopes,
keynote presentation NET*Working 2000.
Salmon, G (ed) 2000b, E-moderating: The Key to Teaching
and Learning Online, Kogan, London.
ISBN 0 7494 3110 5
Sherry, L, Tavalin, F & Billig, SH 2001, Good Online
Conversation: Building on Research to Inform Practice, Journal of Interactive
Learning Research. Vol 11 (1).
Wheeler, L, Reynolds, T & Russell, J 2000, Teaching
Online: A guide for Teachers, Facilitators and Mentors, RMIT.
* Social in this sense refers to comfort and personal requirements associated with learning. (back)
Backroad Connections Pty Ltd 2002, Effective Online Facilitation
(Version 1.01), Australian Flexible Learning Framework Quick Guides series,
Australian National Training Authority.
This guide was produced by the Sharing Knowledge project, an initiative within the Australian Flexible Learning Framework for the National Vocational Education and Training System 2000-2004.
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Last updated: 21 February 2003
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