Top Tips for Online Facilitation
This feature article is contributed by Frankie Forsyth from Pelion Consulting, a small Tasmania-based RTO that provides support to other small RTOs going online. Frankie is involved in facilitating online learning both within Australia and internationally, through a range of programs and courses that she delivers.
Recently, in the "High and Low Lights of Online Facilitation" event held on the Australian Flexible Learning Community website, participants were invited to share their experience of 'Things to do and things to avoid' in online facilitation and were asked to vote in an online poll on 'things which motivate you online'. These "top tips" were developed from the outcomes of that event.
The role of the facilitator has been identified as crucial in successful online delivery, so the aim of this forum was to develop a list of tips for good practice in online facilitation. The poll had 107 total votes in response to the question "What motivates you online?" Click the START button below to see the results.
The discussion forum resulted in 40 top tips collated from 5 days of discussion and these have been sorted into three sections - bearing in mind that some responses could fit into more than one section. Please make use of this list as you wish, there's some great collective knowledge been built here. Scroll down the page to read them all, or click one of the headings below to go directly to that section.
Getting learners ready
- build a sense of connection between learners just as you would in a face-to-face environment
- move reasonably quickly from socialisation into the focus of the course
- establish online ground rules or guidelines to ensure people are posting to the right place, have an idea of netiquette, know how to disagree, not to shout, etc.
- offer an orientation package to clarify what an online course is all about, the hows, the who can help, etc.
- people may need help adapting to 'getting to know people' via a solely written medium
- allocate buddies initially.
Planning the session(s)
- Consider setting up an optional 'social space' within your course for those learners who need to socialise more before (and/or while) they contribute to the course. If they then have to do group work they may have formed alliances with other learners that will help them feel comfortable.
- Make discussion areas meaningful, ie build into some other objective, eg tied to assessment, part of research.
- Avoid non-facilitated, general areas - they often end up focusing purely on 'how do I do the assessment?'.
- Consider the 'what's in it for me' (WIIFM) factor from a learner perspective.
- Draw people in by setting the scene from a non-users perspective, to give a sense of ease and comfort. Avoid jargon and/or offer a glossary.
- Structure discussions to minimise too many conversation topics happening at once.
- Buddy system can be fun especially when combined with voice chat, web cams focusing on weekly problem solving activities with solutions submitted online.
- Use scenarios relevant to learners' experiences and knowledge - good springboards for creating new thought.
- Use games and provide options for learners to work collaboratively.
- Foster self-directed learners through presentation of problems.
- Bear in mind that the larger the group, the more difficult it can be for them to work collaboratively.
- When presenting a problem keep it authentic and not so familiar that learners slip into a comfortable, well-worn solution. It has to have significant shades of grey and preferably more than one feasible solution. Learners will approach the problem from within their usual problem solving strategies, which will most likely differ. The process of justifying, evaluating, considering solutions and points of view can be a good platform for knowledge construction.
- Create good reflection spaces to allow learners to explore their own WIIFM factor, and judge where to place their time and energy.
- Before you facilitate online, experience it from a learner perspective.
- Experiment with using 'modern' collaborative tools.
- Draw people into activities as early as possible, provide clear instructions re what learners should write about.
- Be ready for some resistance from learners, such as "Just tell us what we need to know".
- Provide quick feedback especially to early postings and encourage learners to respond to the contributions of others.
- Avoid clogging up course discussion areas with social banter, create specific socialising areas and skillfully manage the appropriateness of discussion in a particular place.
- Make the discussions specific.
- Use features like selective release, close them (discussions) off or summarise.
- Encourage learners to take some of the lead and facilitate the discussion (of course once they become comfortable in the environment). Ask them to summarise parts of the discussion - gives them another skill that will become a life skill rather than topic specific, helps their learning of the content too.
- Don't be overly demanding when the learners are novices, until they have had time to settle in to their new role.
- Acknowledge that people can take quite a bit of time to become comfortable with an online forum - posting one's ideas is not that easy for everyone. Some do not have time right now, some need more reflecting time and others are reluctant to post because they are not sure whether their ideas are posted on the right thread etc.
- Encourage learners to be "multitasker conversers", ie to be able to hold several conversations at once.
- Remember that 'blending' on and offline is ok and is great to help late starters. It's appropriate to make a phone call to bring them up to speed on discussion threads, who's who, the best way to approach starting late - that sort of thing.
- Encourage learner collaboration - this helps to contextualise content, allowing the learners to transfer knowledge to a multiplicity of applications.
- Be cautious with using humour, if in doubt focus on clear thinking, good grammar and unequivocal instructions.
- Check messages before posting for typos, or allow a few to 'humanise' the environment.
- Reread messages before posting from the perspective of a learner. Consider, how else could this message be interpreted, have I made my intent clear?
- Wherever possible, tap into issues springing from the learners' workplace/s or environment/s, things that learners are familiar with and in which they have some level of understanding, even expertise.
- Be clear and open to learners about your facilitation 'style' and explain how/when/if you change modes over time why you might be doing this.
- Encourage the interaction and problem solving skills of learners by "lurking" before jumping in with a response. Be aware of your timing. Try to encourage the group to come up with some solutions first, although you may need to refocus contributions if the discussion goes completely off track.
- Be aware that learners tend to either love or hate the use of emoticons, either the smiley face variety or the colon bracket variety.
Thanks for your contribution to In Focus this month, Frankie.
A big thank you also goes to Anne Vlaeminck, Alan Morrison, Jane Kerr, Robin Hardiman, Maureen Connors, Elisabeth Todd, Sarah Sutcliffe, Sue McShane, Jane Kerr, Helen Houston, and Margaret Cupitt for contributing to this list of tips during the online event.
Acknowledgement: Article authored by Frankie Forsyth. Originally published in the Australian Flexible Learning Community October 2003, and reproduced with permission.