Practical guide for facilitating online courses
William Miller, Lorrinda Khan, Vivian Lynn, Doreen McGunagle
Academic Exch...
Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 2


post a short biography detailing, at a minimum, his or her professiona...
Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 3



The summarization of key points by the facilitator has two main purpo...
Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 4


conveying the requirements for any assignment and providing effective ...
Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 5


dependent upon how well he or she has kept abreast of new content and ...
Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 6


Gunawardena, C. & Zittle, F. (1997) Social presence as a predictor of ...
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Submission Academic Exhange Quarterly 2007, 11(4)

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Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses

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Submission Academic Exhange Quarterly 2007, 11(4)

  1. 1. Practical guide for facilitating online courses William Miller, Lorrinda Khan, Vivian Lynn, Doreen McGunagle Academic Exchange Quarterly: 2007 Winter; 11, 4 Doreen McGunagle, dmcgunagle@globalstrategicmgmt.com (561) 310 -7537 KEYWORDS - Distance Learning, Facilitating Online, Weaving Content, Online Community 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. Abstract 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. Introduction 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
  2. 2. 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. Weaving Content 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. (Garrison, 2006). 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.
  3. 3. 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. Facilitator Feedback 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
  4. 4. 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. Professional Development 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
  5. 5. 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 online medium. 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. Conclusion 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. References Clow, K.(1999) Interactive distance learning: Impact on student course evaluation. Journal of Marketing Evaluation, (2), 97-105 Deubel, P. (2003) Learning from reflections – issues in building quality online courses. Retrieved January 25, 2007 from http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/fall63/deubel3.htm Ebersole, S. & Woods, R. (2001) Virtual community: Koinonia or compromise? Theological implications of community in cyberspace. Christian Scholar’s Review, 31(2), 185-216 Garrison, D.R. (2006) Online collaboration principles. Retrieve January 25, 2007 from http://www.sloan-c.org/publications/jaln/v10n1/pdf/v10n1_3garrison.pdf
  6. 6. Practical Guide for Facilitating Online Courses 6 Gunawardena, C. & Zittle, F. (1997) Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction within a computer-mediated conferencing environment. The American Journal Distance Education, 11(3), 8-26. Hacker, K. & Wignal, D. (1997) Issues in predicting user acceptance of computer mediated communication in inter-university classroom discussions as an alternative to face-to-face interaction. Communications Reports, 10(1), 108-114 LaRose, R. & Whittler, P. (2000) Re-thinking instructional immediacy for web courses: A social cognitive exploration. Communication Education, 49, 320-338 Philips, M. & Peters, M. (1999) Targeting rural students with distance learning courses: A competitive study of determinant attributes and satisfaction levels. Journal of Education for Business, 74(6), 351-456 Roblyer, M. (1999) Student motives for taking internet-based courses at the high school and Community College levels. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 32(1), 157-171 Rovai, Alfred (2002). Building sense of community at a distance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1), 1-16 Shi, S., Mishra, P., Bonk, C.J., Tan, S. and Zhao, Y. (2006) Thread theory: A framework applied to content analysis of synchronous computer mediated communication data. Retrieved January 25, 2007 from http://www.itdl.org/Journal/Mar_06/article02.html Wegerif, Rupert (1998). The social dimensions of asynchronous learning networks. Retrieved October 7, 2006 http://www.sloan- c.org/publications/jaln/v2n1/pdf/v2n1_wegerif.pdf Wiesenberg, F. & Hutton, S. (1996) Teaching a graduate program using computer mediated and conferencing software. Journal of Distance Education, 11(1), 83- 100

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