Focus On Thinking and Collaboration

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Delivery of education through computer networking alters the relationships among instructor, student, and course content. Unlike traditional classroom activity, in which the teacher directs the instruction, in the online classroom, learning is student centered and requires the teacher to act more as a facilitator than as a lecturer. The teacher still plans the activities, as always, but from that point forward he or she follows the flow of the conversation, offering guidance only as needed, rather than strictly adhering to the preplanned agenda or syllabus.

Harasim, et. al. Learning Networks, p. 174

In online learning, the primary focus should be on the participant’s own thinking processes and on collaboration among the participants.

At the start of an online course, the instructor introduces a mix of learning activities, structures, and sequencing.

Participants then undertake the tasks contained in this mix, search for their own approaches to fulfilling the learning objectives, self-evaluate the solutions they devise, and deepen what they are learning by sharing it with the other participants.

The Role of Teacher

The teacher, who is often also the course developer, acts primarily as a content expert, providing feedback and helping to introduce the students to the larger body of knowledge, of which the course material is only a small part.

The Role of Facilitator

The facilitator’s role is, first and foremost, to get out of the way. S/he observes the processes of learning by individual students and the group and interjects comments only when necessary to stimulate and enhance the learning process and keep the conversation on track.

Teacher and Facilitator Combined.

In an ideal world, separate individuals would serve as teacher and facilitator. Usually, however, limitations of time and/or budget require the same person to wear both hats.

Both roles hold big responsibilities and each has its own unique focus. When you must fill both roles, be mindful of which hat you are wearing at any given time, and which leadership tools best serve the role of the moment. Fortunately, you don’t need to maintain boundaries around the two roles if you are performing them both. What IS necessary, however, is clarity about how and when to intervene in the learning processes.

If you happen to be lucky enough to teach or facilitate a course with separate individuals in the two roles, there is a natural separation of responsibilities: The facilitator handles the process while the teacher focuses on the content. Even then, however, the roles cannot be rigidly separated.

For our purposes here, wherever we use the word “facilitator,” let us assume that we are talking only about the management of the learning process itself.

Facilitate the Learning Process

The nature of the online learning environment (anytime/anyplace and many to many) democratizes the learning process. Participants learn as much from their own mindful self-reflection and collaborative exchanges as they might from an instructor in a traditional classroom.

While the nature of the online medium requires that the entire set of learning activities and structures be designed in advance, it also allows for on-the-fly modifications of information and activities in response to what the teacher/facilitator observes. It is the teacher/facilitator’s job to determine when changes are appropriate and when they might interfere with the learning objectives.

People who are new to online learning often start out confused and apprehensive. Everything about the electronic classroom is unfamiliar. Hardware and software problems may occur. Some people will assume that such problems arise from their own shortcomings. Others will blame the technology itself. Still others will blame the teacher/facilitator.

Offer Support and Solutions

At first, the facilitator’s primary role is to provide reassurance and easy access to technical support. In the very beginning, this may require you to address confusion or frustration with the technology.

After the introductions, limit your comments as facilitator to: 1) ongoing help and guidance with the system, 2) presentation and clarification of assignments, 3) facilitation of the learning process itself, which may or may not include comments about additional content, but which should definitely focus on the learning process and its facilitation.

— Emphasize Clear Writing.

Because the online environment is essentially a written medium, most participants will need practice at developing a writing style that doesn’t require frequent prompting for clarification. In the first few weeks of an online course, the facilitator often has to spend considerable time requesting clarification and examples from participants.

— Don’t Talk Too Much or Too Little.

The ratio of facilitator-to-participant comments will vary according to the size of the group. In a large group of 50 or 60, the ratio may range from 10 or 20 to 1. In smaller groups of less than 12, it might increase to 1 in 5 or 1 in 2. However, experience has shown that, whatever the size of the group, the higher the proportion of participant comments, the more successful the learning experience is rated by participants, facilitators, and observers alike.

— Encourage Participant Interaction.

Another important job of the facilitator is to encourage and support participants in communicating among themselves. This is perhaps the most challenging part of the online facilitator’s job, especially since even the most experienced face-to-face instructor usually has only limited experience with this process. Even so, it is essential. Interaction among the learners is what contributes the most to the learning experience online.

— Point Out Shared Responsibility.

Learners must understand that they share responsibility for the effectiveness of the learning process. Remind them more than once that they will get out of the online course what they put into it. In other words, if every learner demonstrates a high level of self-reflection, commentary, and discussion, everyone in the group will report a richer, more rewarding experience.

— Guide the Flow.

Without active participation, there is little learning. Any course in which there is a low level of participant interaction is doomed to failure. Apply facilitation techniques to assure as high a level of participation as possible. Pioneers in the field of online learning offer the following tips for effective facilitation:

— Create a casual, warm, welcoming, and supportive atmosphere.

Many people have a fear of presenting something in writing that is not perfect. Be explicit that the conference is private and that outside readers will be admitted only by unanimous class consensus. Be clear that contributions other than formal assignments may be seen as written “conversations,” not formal publications, and that spelling and grammar need not, therefore, be perfect. Consider having participants read and electronically sign a sort of contract with one another. This might read as follows:

“To create a safe, supportive, and vital learning community together . . . we agree to keep one another’s postings entirely confidential, to participate regularly, and to inform our group whenever we expect to be absent. We also agree . . . to listen with care and compassion to one another.”

— Be explicit about expectations for participation.

Ask for a minimum number of log-ins per week (two or three is usual) and a minimum number of postings (e.g., three to four messages per week). Think of creative ways to reward or require participation.

— Do not lecture.

An elaborate, long, text-based presentation is likely to inspire nothing but silence from participants. Keep e-lectures short and focused, with open-ended remarks and questions that stimulate discussion. A question might involve a scenario, some facts related to the readings, or a brief summary of some issue or theme treated in the readings. You might raise a controversial subject. Or present an example that illustrates several perspectives. Student-led discussions can be very effective.

— Model responsiveness.

Especially for the first assignment, acknowledge each participant’s contribution within 24 hours, perhaps with an individual response or a “weaving” (integrative) comment. At the same time, be careful to avoid jumping in with your own responses before other participants have had a chance to say something. This will set the stage for equality of participation and discussions that are student-centered. After the first week, wait a day or two before responding to any comments. This will encourage others to respond first. Contribute only every few days, unless you see that no one is taking the initiative.

— Encourage students to respond to one another in a positive way.

You might, for example, redirect a question from one student to another, specified by name. For example, “John, your question is a very important one. Jane and Ed, what are your thoughts on this issue?” In either a group conference or private messages, ask individuals to respond to particular topics or items, based on what you know from their biographies and past interactions about their interests and experiences.

— Positively reinforce discussion contributions.

Especially in the early weeks, follow up on student contributions in the conference (e.g., “Jane, that is a very good point. I had not thought of that before.” Or, send private messages commending especially good entries, including references to other resources for follow-up or a suggestion of how to develop the contributions further.

— Discourage silence.

In a face-to-face classroom, you might make a point of calling on the student who slouches at the back of the room hoping to be invisible. In cyberspace, it’s appropriate to send private messages to participants who have been lax in their postings, noting that they have not contributed recently and reminding them to take an active part.

— Close each discussion with a weaving and/or harvesting that synthesizes the topic.

You may write these yourself or ask students to do so. Modify or clarify any question that is not working. If the overall discussion is not working, look closely at the transcript to try to determine the problem. Did the students misunderstand the question? Was it simply not of interest or too narrow in scope? A follow-up note clarifying or modifying the question, or requesting suggestions, might be in order. In general, it is better to have many assorted discussions than to try to get too much mileage out of a single discussion question. If the discussion seems finished, enter a summary or closing remark and encourage participants to move on to new topics.

Request meta-communication.

As part of the discussion, ask participants to tell how they feel about the course and the suggested norms and procedures. If appropriate, seek a consensus. Make whatever adjustments are feasible.

— Use email or web conferencing to make sure that activities are well coordinated.

Avoid messaging or SMS as it doesn’t provide enough space for details and it is difficult to back it up as part of a course record.

That said, you need not exclude all other methods of communication simply because you are online. Phone and even fax can be of great use. By exploring the options, you will come to learn which medium is best for each purpose.

— Post frequent reminders about basic procedures.

This is especially important when some or all of the participants are inexperienced with the software. For example, remind participants to place their postings in the most appropriate forum (i.e., technical questions are best posted in a separate tech-support forum) and to change the subject line in their message only if they are changing the thread of the discussion.

Academic Version, Release 3.0