Facilitating Online Learning: Tip and Suggestions
You can't get any more dynamic than the last three months. I feel that I'm ending this class having a sense of where I am as a scientific learner and teacher. I also know that where I am now is only part of the journal I'm on to become the scientific learner and teacher I aspire to be. This journey can only move forward if I continue to be questioned and ask questions, so I say bring on the next challenge--I'm ready for it!
Try Science has been a wonderful learning experience. I've learned about teaching, about myself, and about how the selflessness of others allows me to grow. Most importantly, you have helped me to feel like a valued community member. Wouldn't it be nice for all of our students to have that feeling?!?
When you facilitate online conversations, you should keep the following guidelines in mind:
1. Establish Informed Expectations
Let course participants know
- when (days/times) you will be "present" in the discussions
- what kind of interaction they can expect from you
- how you would like them to interact with each other
You should check the discussion areas at least three times a week. Remember to check the "Help!" forum in addition to your discussion area -- sometimes course participants post requests for clarification from the instructor in that forum.
If you are going to be away for more than two days, send a message to each group so that they will know not to expect interaction with you. You should probably also give them the email address of another staff member so that they will know whom they can contact for help while you are offline.
2. Front End Vigilance
The first week is the most important time in terms of establishing healthy rapport, group trust, and confidence in being able to master new technical skills. Try to check the site frequently during this time (several times a day). Respond to requests for assistance as soon as possible (within 24 hours).
If a request is beyond your technical expertise, contact the designated technology support staff member for help. If you feel overwhelmed by questions at the beginning of the course, take heart in the fact that after the first week most technical problems are resolved!
3. Establish a Human Presence
As you write your staff biography and discussion posts, try to find a way to convey who you are in writing. It is important that participants get a sense of your uniqueness and personality.
- Let participants know what attracted you to this program -- what life events led you to want to teach this way?
- When appropriate, weave in information about yourself and anecdotes about your own science journey. Some of the "personalization" can also take place as you participate in Charlie's Café.
- Gentle humor goes a long way in establishing an atmosphere of collegiality. Note that the operative term is gentle -- do not say things that are potentially offensive.
- When offline, become more aware of how you talk to people. What does your "voice" sound like? Try to weave this conversational tone into your online writing style.
- Before postingf try reading your messages out loud -- do they sound like you? Imagine that you are a course participant who is reading the message with little information about who you are.
- Pick up the phone and give a call if you think an individual would benefit from the sound of someone's voice.
4. Visible and Predicable Rhythms of Communication
Develop a Schedule: Look at your typical daily patterns and find a spot for this new routine. In the article "Face to Face in the Online Classroom," author Ken White writes that
Interestingly, instructors who upload feedback to students on a regular schedule ... tend to get better student evaluations than do those who get feedback to students more quickly, but who are also inconsistent. (p. 19 The Online Teaching Guide)
At a minimum, you should read messages and write something for your groups twice a week. Take heart in the idea that if you check in on the discussions mid-week and on Fridays, messages won't pile up and you will maintain a level of visibility in your courses.
Write a Mid-week and Friday Post: Remember that participants don't know if/when you've read their messages, so it's important to chime in to let them know you're there and to focus the group work.
On Friday afternoons you should do three things:
- check participation -- if any person has been "absent," contact him or her via email to find out why,
- archive the previous week's messages, and
- post a new message in each group's forum that bridges the past and current assignments.
In your Friday message to your groups, draw connections between the work the participants did in the previous week and the work they will do in the coming week. Also remind them of what they should be writing about that week so that the conversation stays on track.
In your Tuesday evening message, help group members gain perspective on how the week's discussion is evolving. Provide an overview of emerging themes and patterns, or even point out discrepancies and differences that you've noted in their reports. Your messages should accurately recap the discussions and avoid getting into your own analysis--this neutrual stance helps the groups focus on their own conversations. Conclude with an open-ended question that encourages each group to deepen its discussion.
When appropriate, you may want to contribute to the groups at other times, but be careful not to take over the conversation. Remember, you want participants to rely on each other--this is a study group and should operate like one.
Keep Discussion in the Forum: If much of your communication with participants takes place with individuals through email, others won't be aware of those conversations. Whenever possible/appropriate, encourage individuals to share thoughts, comments, and questions that are directed toward you with the whole group -- that way you will be more visible and everyone will benefit from your response. Model the level of engagement that you want course participants to demonstrate.
5. Optimize Your Messages
Keep Messages Concise: Long messages (and messages that have long paragraphs) are overwhelming for many online readers -- so are messages with more than one topic. Try to keep messages short. If you want to say/ask several things, consider breaking the message up into more than one post.
Carefully Craft Your Posts: Even though your mesages should be concise, think carefully about its content, intent, and tone. We recommend the following four-stage process for writing your messages:
Steps for Composing a Good Facilitating Message
1. What are the learners' ideas?
Read the group's discussion messages carefully. Look for themes, discrepancies, and unresolved concerns. Make a note of things you want to follow up on in your message.
2. What do I think the group needs to pursue in more depth?
Identify the core content of your message. Jot down the basics of to what you want to say (e.g., a paragraph about the 3-4 most important issues raised by the group thus far, a sentence about one area you'd like them to explore in more depth, and an open-ended question to encourage more discussion).
3. What behaviors doI want to model and/or encourage?
Revise your message, checking to make sure that what you say is aligned with goals for the program, course, and week (e.g., listening to students, learning through inquiry, rooting ideas in evidence).
4. How do I think my readers will perceive the post?
Reread/revise message again, this time adding finishing touches such as a greeting-like opening sentence.
Imagine that you are one of the course participants. Read the message aloud to check your tone. Does it foster a spirit of community building, co-learning, etc.? Does it "sound" like the way you talk?
Check for spelling and grammatical errors.
6. Give Constructive Feedback
In the online world, it is very easy for your tone to be misconstrued. In general, you should write your messages offline, take a break, and then come back to re-read it with fresh eyes (imagining yourself as the recipient) before sending it off. If a message involves critical feedback intended for only for one person, send it via email instead of posting it to the whole group.
When composing your feedback, think of the recipient as a co-learner -- try to avoid messages that come across as "teaching" or lecturing to the person. Whenever possible, write with a first person voice (e.g., I wonder what would happen if ...
Look for something positive to say in the beginning of your message -- something you genuinely feel, because otherwise you will seem insincere or even condescending. Then work your way into the critical feedback portion of the message.
Consider how each individual message will be interpreted in the larger context of all messages you have sent to the individual and/or group. For example, if you send several feedback-type messages in a row without noting the progress the group has made, the cumulative impression may be a "judgmental" tone that you do not intend. Conversely, a series of encouraging messages that model deep inquiry, reflection, and collaboration can have a very powerful positive effect on the group dynamic.
You may also want to involve participants in constructing the framework for their feedback, asking if there's any particular aspect of their work they would like to get feedback about.
Sometimes individuals will write passages that are scientifically incorrect and rooted in misconception. Instead of correcting the individual, you may want to keep a list of these problems and wait -- giving other group members a chance to discover and address these concerns. Before writing your mid-week post, review your list. Identify misconceptions that should be called into question and formulate prompt-type questions to help participants revisit topics that have not been adequately explored.
7. Ask Yourself, "What Does the Group/Individual Need to Move Forward?"
As a discussion facilitator, the way you decide to relate to your group may change from day to day (or message to message), depending on what seems to be needed. Sometimes -- especially regarding technical issues -- an individual may need hand-holding. Other times the group may need you to cheer them on, or perhaps help them focus in on one idea instead of dissipating their energy on too many ideas at once.
Should you respond, or should you allow more time for the group to interact? How should you respond? When is it best to forgo online communication and pick up the phone to call an individual? Remember that facilitation involves lots of judgement calls and no one response is "right." Feel free to discuss your options with past and present Try Science faculty.
The following list outlines and illustrates the range of actions you may want to take as a facilitator:
It is essential that these problems are addressed expeditiously and in a way that saves face for all group members. While an email message may be sufficient, sometimes it really pays to pick up the phone and talk with the person individually.
If personalities continue to clash and the group discussion erupts into a "flame war," you may also want to write a message to the whole group. Remind them of their signed agreement to our netiquette policy and advocate a return to civility. In the unlikely event that one message is particularly abusive or offensive, you do have the option to delete that message, but use this power only as a last resort.
In extremely rare instances, an individual may have so many personal
problems that you may need to ask that person to withdraw from the course.
In this instance, consult with your faculty colleagues about the best
course of action.
Rest assured that very little of a facilitator's time is spent mediating conflict. Most of your interactions with course participants will involve energizing dialogue.
As a facilitator, you will get to know dozens of interesting people -- educators who you may never meet face-to-face. And you will have the opportunity to play an important role in their growth as inquirers and professionals.
The wonderful part is, all these learning relationships will develop online. Because all interactions are written down, you can read (and re-read) what course participants have to say, experience the luxury of time to reflect before you respond, and get to know your students in a way that you've probably never experienced in your face-to-face classrooms.
This document is a work-in-progress. As you become more experienced as
a facilitator, we welcome your suggestions for additions and/or revisions.
Please send comments to Gail Matthews-DeNatale at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(2000) "I Can't Define a Great Online Course ... But I Know When I See One" Presentation delivered in Nashville, TN at Educause 2000.
Collison, George, with Bonnie Elbaum, Sarah Haavind, and Robert Tinker
(2000) Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators, Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
(2000) "Making the Transfer: Helping Faculty to Teach Online," Presentation delivered in Nashville, TIN at Educause 2000. http://xroadservices.com/home/pedagogy.ppt
Palloff, Rena and Keith Pratt
(1999) Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom, San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
White, Ken, with Bob Weight et al
(2000) The Online Teaching Guide: A Handbook of Attitudes, Strategies, and Techniques for the Virtual Classroom, Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Copyright (c) 2000 by TERC (Cambridge, MA) and Lesley University (Cambridge, MA)
Permission for use of these materials is granted for non-profit
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