Practical guide for facilitating online courses
William Miller, Lorrinda Khan, Vivian Lynn, Doreen McGunagle
Academic Exchange Quarterly: 2007 Winter; 11, 4
Doreen McGunagle, firstname.lastname@example.org (561) 310 -7537
KEYWORDS - Distance Learning, Facilitating Online, Weaving Content, Online
PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR FACILITATING ONLINE COURSES
William Miller, Pioneer Analytics LLC
Lorrinda Khan, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Vivian Lynn, Kean University
Doreen McGunagle, Global Strategic Management Solutions
Miller, Ph.D. is Founder and Director; Khan, is Senior Instructional Design Specialist; Lynn, is Associate
Professor in the College of Visual & Performing Arts, Adjunct Faculty at DeVry University; and
McGunagle, Ph.D. is CEO. Professor McGunagle is Adjunct Faculty for several Universities.
This paper discusses the importance of the facilitator’s interaction with the student in an
online course. An essential piece to the success of the class in a distance learning
environment is the ability of the facilitator to create a community of learners linked
through a supportive social climate. This allows students to engage effectively in
learning-oriented discussions. The key component of an online course is the
collaboration in the online community between the facilitator and the learner.
A strong predictor of a student's success in an online course is the ability for faculty to
create an online community. The facilitator should initiate actions that will create a
social climate among students that supports the group learning process. Collaboration is
a key component in an online community. It is necessary for students to become fully
engaged in interaction and collaboration to deepen the student’s knowledge of the subject
(Wisenberg & Hutton, 1996; Hacker & Wighall, 1997; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997;
Clow, 1999; Phillips & Peters, 1999; Roblyer, 1999;LaRosa & Whittle, 2000; Ebersole
& Woods, 2001; Garrison, 2006).
Fulfilling both objectives is important in assisting students to make a successful transition
to the online learning format. Although many students can be expected to have
experience in this medium, undoubtedly some will not. Therefore, in some respects, the
facilitator’s role during start-up is to “level the playing field” so that all students feel
comfortable and contribute effectively to the group learning process as time unfolds.
Community building exercises are also essential during this first week so that effective
interactive learning becomes possible. For example, each student should be required to
Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 2
post a short biography detailing, at a minimum, his or her professional background and
interests. Each student should also be required to post responses to two or more of these
introductions. A discussion thread should be set aside for special use during the first
week to facilitate spontaneous conversations. Apart from building the necessary social
fabric essential for later student success, these messages can help students uncover
common interests and backgrounds useful for later responses within content oriented
discussion threads and for later team building for group-oriented exercises.
Online courses are learner centered and as facilitators we should be there to guide
students and direct their activities along productive paths that are consistent with course
objectives and personal goals. The key component of an online course is the
collaboration that occurs among students and the facilitator in understanding and building
upon course content in personally relevant ways. For this type of collaboration to be
successful in the course, it should include communication that is purposeful and
reflective of the material (content). Each student should be stimulated and motivated to
analyze the material and translate it into knowledge that has personal meaning and that
can be shared with other students at the same time.
Successful facilitation of a course ensures that students are effectively engaged along
positive and purposeful pathways to knowledge. It recognizes that a successful,
knowledge driven community is framed by three core elements: social presence,
cognitive presence, and teaching presence. Therefore a main task for the facilitator is to
enhance the cognitive presence of the community by effectively weaving course content
into the spontaneous social fabric that has been created through the on-line format.
As a practical matter, this task requires that the facilitator guide students by effectively
weaving or relating content to discussion threads in order to deepen a student’s
knowledge of the subject matter. Effectively relating course content to student
assignment postings and responses to such postings increases the student’s practical
understanding gained from the course. It also establishes a sense of accomplishment and
direction among students by connecting loose ends and strengthening conceptual linkages
brought out by student comments. When weaving is done correctly, it summarizes the
major points of the on-going discussion by pulling together the disjointed threads, and
integrating the contributions of all participants (Shi et al, 2006).
Effective weaving can be accomplished through various methods. It also requires a sense
of timing on the part of the facilitator. When conversations within threads are going well,
it is usually better for the facilitator to wait until one or more common themes relating to
the course content are being discussed collectively by students. When appropriate, the
instructor can then intervene by summarizing key points brought out by students and then
asking other prompting questions to move the discussion along a path intended by the
assignments (Deubel, 2003). However, when it is clear to the instructor that discussions
are not preceding along the intended paths, then he or she should intervene, in an
inclusive manner, to bring the discussion back to where it should be.
Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 3
The summarization of key points by the facilitator has two main purposes. First it should
reinforce student perceptions of how widely accepted content or theory applies in diverse
situations. Second, it should provide a means for students to personalize course
information (content) into practical knowledge that they can use at work or in their
everyday lives. Once key points have been summarized, leading questions asked by the
instructor should then encourage students to further investigate the practical applications
of course content that have personal meaning.
Although almost any content can be uploaded onto the web, the real learning associated
with on-line courses occurs when the instructors and students engage in meaningful,
content-oriented interaction. Effective on-line learning requires the instructor and
students to interact on a variety of levels. The interaction requirements placed on the
facilitator require an intense personal commitment. No amount of technology can
substitute for an unresponsive instructor who does not consider his or her class as
important as other activities.
It is through a diversity of interactive activities that the students and instructor have the
opportunity to form a learning community. This idea is supported by Rovai (2002):
A second factor is social presence. Some instructors feel that once they design
their course and place it online their job is mostly done, that the community of
learners will take care of itself and thrive, and learning will occur. What is likely
to happen in such situations is that the sense of community will wither unless the
community is nurtured and support is provided in the form of heightened
awareness of social presence (p.9).
Clearly, a model of timely, concise, and relevant feedback by the facilitator supports and
accelerates this awareness. To this end, an instructor should strive to interact with each
and every student by giving them individualized feedback within the discussion threads
and graded assignments.
It is through successful facilitation within discussion threads that the students are able to
form a proper cohort which allows the students to feel ‘safe’ in their work environment.
By monitoring a discussion as it unfolds, the instructor gives students timely feedback
and ensures a safe learning community by maintaining a high standard of discussion.
Also, by participating in the discussion as it is occurs, the instructor can correct the
direction of a discussion when necessary. Timely instructor participation also ensures
that learners know that their instructor is present, active, and aware of what is happening
within the shell. Additionally, this sense of continuous instructor presence can prevent
many behavioral problems within the discussion threads which might otherwise occur.
Effective instructor feedback is also an important element of the grading process.
However the effectiveness of the feedback depends in large part on use of a grading
rubric to: a) communicate what is expected of the student and b) provide a framework by
which the facilitator can judge the quality of student work. The rubric is essential in
Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 4
conveying the requirements for any assignment and providing effective qualitative
feedback to students. By closely aligning the instructor’s response to the student’s work
based on the criteria that have been set forth in the rubric, areas that meet expectations
and those needing improvement can be clearly conveyed to students. A numerical score
without good, specific feedback does not help the student to improve future work.
Creating a Sense of Community
Cohorts of learning communities give the student in the virtual environment a sense of
connectedness. Ultimately it is the instructor’s presence that supports this kind of
interaction. Wegerif (1998) defines this experience as the “threshold experience” in
which students either feel that they are a part of the community or distinguish themselves
by feeling that they are outsiders observing the community.
This leads to the following question that we can ask ourselves as facilitators. How is it
that we can make students feel included in the virtual classroom thereby bringing them
across Wegerif’s threshold and into the community? In developing our answers we
should be aware that developing a greater sense of inclusion among students has the
added benefit of encouraging more of them to participate in discussions and projects. A
community of learners ideally represents a safe haven in which each individual can
explore ideas and hopefully use new concepts at work.
Developing this sense of inclusion among students is most difficult at the beginning of an
online course. Some groups have a difficult time getting off the ground. When this
happens, the instructor’s effectiveness at the start of the course is particularly crucial. In
such cases, it is important that the instructor send out the appropriate prompts to start the
group along a path leading to a successful team experience. The benefits are clearer for
all involved when a sense of community is established as early as possible because
students have the opportunity to work effectively and learn from one another over a
longer period of time.
Clearly, we all wish that the students enrolled in our courses exit the class with a
foundation based on a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. We also hope
that we are producing good critical thinkers that have not only strong problem solving
skills but also the ability to work as a part of a team. We should also realize that these
objectives are all achievable through the establishment of effective learning communities.
Such communities offer students the opportunity to work as a collaborative group,
improve their communication skills, promote understanding and tolerance of a diversity
of viewpoints and thereby achieve more than would otherwise be possible. If we are
successful as facilitators, we will have helped our students reach these goals.
Throughout the course, the effectiveness by which facilitators guide students towards the
creation of personally useful knowledge should be viewed as an-going process. If viewed
over the long term, any facilitator’s effectiveness in a particular course is largely
Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 5
dependent upon how well he or she has kept abreast of new content and supportive
technologies which facilitate communication among all course participants. Therefore
once hired by an institution, all facilitators need to continuously seek out new and useful
knowledge pertinent to their particular roles as online educators. In practical terms, this
means systematically dedicating a portion of their times to staying current with new
research in their content areas and the latest trends and innovations in facilitating
technologies. Moreover because of today’s complex and technologically changing world,
this type of commitment on the part of facilitators is no longer optional. It is a
responsibility which facilitators need to recognize when choosing to instruct through the
Apart from committing time to such efforts, facilitators should be open to new
developments and be willing to include or adopt them as situations warrant. This might
be particularly stressing at times. In particular, the willingness to adopt new methods and
technologies is largely dependent on capabilities to adapt rapidly to new situations.
Further strains can be expected because facilitators often times have busy schedules
requiring well developed time management skills. However with proper tools and a
purposeful commitment, continuing success is always within reach.
To ensure the success of a student in an online course, the facilator must create a sense of
community where the learner is fully engaged in interactive discussions. The key
component of an online course is the collaboration among students and the facilitator and
a sense of community is created through this. Timely feedback by the facilitator is a
critical element to the success of the online course. As we all know, teaching any course
is a complex task. Instructors require substantial time to test new ideas, assess their
effects and adjust strategies or approaches for the betterment of students. However this
“searching out” process is essential for continual improvement of the online learning
environment in personally relevant ways. It should help facilitators reach students more
effectively by guiding the online learning experience continually along more practical
and therefore meaningful paths.
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