- Plan your online time, presence, role and feedback
- engaging the learner in the learning process, particularly at the beginning,
- appropriate questioning, listening and feedback skills,
- the ability to provide direction and support to learners,
- skills in managing online discussion,
- ability to build online teams,
- a capacity for relationship building,
- motivational skills.
From an online learning facilitation standpoint, there are two key areas for focus:
- the move from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” which emphasizes learner-led, experiential learning and
- the shift in emphasis from “pushing content” to “interaction” and learning in conversational settings.
Basic Strategies to Facilitate Online Discussions
- Give students clear expectations about online discussion requirements, deadlines, and grading procedures.
- Assess the quality as well as the quantity of the students’ online posts.
- Use rubrics to allow students to have a clear guideline of your expectations for the quality of their posts.
- Provide a schedule for discussion board deadlines.
- Give as much notice as possible.
- Provide structure for students to post to threads. A good structure lessens the frustration of what to write.
- Make yourself visible in the discussion. Students will be more likely to engage in the discussion if they see you as being a part of it.
- Do not allow domination of the discussion. If students are dominating the discussion, privately ask them to slow down a little.
Give Timely, Targeted Feedback
One of the advantages of online assessment is the capability to give students timely, targeted feedback as they work through content and related assessment questions. Many studies have shown that feedback improves students’ learning and deepens their understanding.Feedback refers to corrections, suggestions, cues, and explanations that are tailored to the individual’s responses. Errors are viewed not so much as mistakes but as a source of information about students’ cognitive processes.
Feedback is most effective when it
- explicitly relates students’ performance to the criteria by which they are being evaluated,
- is timely, frequent, and constructive, and
- provides opportunities for students to incorporate that feedback into further practice.
Feedback helps learners determine performance expectations, judge their level of understanding, and become aware of misconceptions. It also provides clues about the best approaches for correcting mistakes and improving performance.
Just Right Facilitation
Facilitating discussions is a skill that is learned with experience. You have to actively facilitate discussions to improve. Most novice facilitators are either overly controlling or “not actively present” in the discussions.
A controlling facilitator is one that:
- Doesn’t trust his/her designed discussion questions to elicit useful responses
- Controls the discussion
- Enters too quickly and/or too often into the discussions
If you aren’t sure, or haven’t designed interesting applicable questions, those that ask for more than the “facts”, you may have a tendency to want to control the discussions. You may not trust your design. This often leads a facilitator to jump into a discussion too quickly, before classmates have a chance to respond.
Numerous instructor postings result in ineffective discussions. Why? Learners are typically conditioned to believe in the “sage on the stage” theory of education. They open their heads and the teacher pours in the knowledge. Once the teacher has given them the “right answer” they assume there is no need to continue any discussion unless they are confused. The discussion then dies or becomes a series of mini-lectures from teacher to student. This is not student-centered and results in little higher order thinking by the student.
Additionally, the controlling facilitator has a tendency to enter the discussion when a posting elicits a response they did not expect. This is a behavior that reinforces the “sage on the stage” theory. There is only one right answer and it is what the teacher says!
A “not actively present” facilitator is one that:
- Believes that discussions aren’t significant or an effective way to learn.
- Believes he/she has designed questions that should result in active discussions without further interaction on his/her part.
- Initially has very active and productive discussion forums without “stepping in”
If you don’t believe that interaction among students is a significant learning tool, you’ll reinforce students’ common initial reaction to them – it’s just busy work and busy work doesn’t elicit critical thinking. Work gets done quickly and without much thought, therefore fulfilling the course requirements.
The “not actively present” facilitator often subscribes to the “Field of Dreams” mentality that “if you build it, they will come”. Hopefully this is true; a good design is 50% of the solution. However, most community college students will need some type of guidance and support,especiallyduringtheinitial discussion assignments.
This type of facilitator may appear to be blessed. His or her first discussion questions result in well thought-out postings and a flurry of replies that stimulate additional discussion. The problem begins when there are a decreasing number of postings, with less thought, as the course progresses.
The “not actively present” facilitator provides too little involvement in the actual discussion forums. This situation leads to a belief by students that the instructor isn’t paying attention, so the assignment isn’t important. They may even assume the instructor isn’t attending class (logging on) regularly, so why should they! Remember learners can’t determine if you read every posting and are following the discussions evolving. You may also need to communicate privately with students to encourage more participation or critical thoughts and replies. Facilitating discussions is a balancing act.
The “just right” approach typically results in outcomes that discussions were designed to accomplish. They help students learn, they develop community, and they create a student-centered classroom where students often “teach” the class very effectively. These types of discussions are generated by a facilitator who:
- Makes his/her presence felt but doesn’t dominate.
- Enters discussions when asked a question directed specifically to him/her.
- Redirects by asking questions only when information is incorrect, or has drifted out of the realm of the question asked and is off-topic.
- Allows time for students to respond to each other, before commenting by asking questions..
- Immediately stops inappropriate, rude or hostile postings.
- Promotes critical thinking through Socratic questioning.
Bring the diverging discussion back on track. Allow for individual exploration of a topic, but be sure it is meeting the learning goals you establish.
- Student Post: I read an article that said electronic health records are a way for the government to keep track of citizens. – Suzy
- Instructor Response: Hi Suzy, thanks for your input. As you note, there are many opinions on the subject of electronic health records (EHRs). However, right now we’re discussing the implementation of EHRs and the problems faced by administrators and IT staff. Perhaps you could find an article that addresses how an EHR has been successfully implemented?
Connect together ideas from across multiple posts, multiple groups, or multiple forums. Make connections to course material. Use the discussions to reinforce key concepts or foreshadow upcoming information.
- Student Post: I think this week’s reading did a good job of outlining the conservative perception of the Affordable Care Act – Bart
- Instructor response: Thanks for your input, Bart. How does the conservative argument relate to the liberal one we discussed last week? What do you see as the primary differentiators? Sally wrote that the readings this week presented a biased perspective of the argument. Do you agree with that?
Encourage students to defend their position or explain how they came to a conclusion. Suggest to students that they bring in outside readings to deepen the conversation, but also that they need to be specific about their evidence.
- Student Post: World population is declining based on a number of studies I read – Wally
- Instructor Response: Wally, it’s interesting that the studies you read indicated that world population is declining. What studies did you read and where did you find them? Can you please post some of the details about those articles so your classmates can also review them?
Use questions to probe for deepened reflection and question assumptions. Encourage students to go beyond the questions and bring in outside readings or experiences.
- Student post: I think the implementation of electronic health records at an institution is the most challenging issue regarding wide-scale adoption. – Bertha
- Instructor response: Thanks for your post, Bertha. Can you expand on what you said? What is it about implementation that you think is particularly challenging? Why do you think that is? Do you have experience in implementing an EHR system at your institution? Are there any other experiences you’ve read about that indicate the challenges involved with implementation? Please expand; I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this.
Summarize the conversation. Provide a meaningful end to the discussion forum that ties the threads together and signals a formal close. These are often called “landscape” posts since they survey the entire landscape of the discussion. An extension of this strategy is to have a student post a summary post.
- Instructor response: Thanks everyone for a lively discussion. It sounds like the consensus was that the positive benefits of electronic health records (EHR) outweigh the negatives, but there were more than a few strong concerns raised by the group. Suzy reminded us to pay close attention to privacy in any internet-based application. Jane also referenced the recent NY Times article regarding patient rights of ownership of EHRs. And finally, Jim brought us back to the main point of the discussion; namely, that while there are significant concerns, they are not insurmountable if there is consensus within the industry.
Online discussions seldom follow a simple path.
There are disagreements, differences of perspective and often there are multiple branches. As the number of messages increases, it may become difficult for participants and the online facilitator to keep a big-picture view of where the discussion is going. This creates the need for facilitators to harvest information, gems, unanswered questions, action items and decisions.
This “harvester” role falls to the facilitator. It can be a LOT of work! The flip side is that harvesting and creating summaries provides a rich learning experience for the harvester. Reading through entire threads at once can provide a whole new lens on the conversation.
Before you start to harvest, think about the following questions:
- Who will use the summaries?
- How will they use the summaries?
- What is the desired action outcome from summaries?
- Are they open to critique and discussion?
- Will it be used to check agreement and understanding?
- Will it be a collection of ideas or a synthesis and reflection of the discussion?
- Where will they reside? (website, summary page, etc.)
- What format will be most useful to the users (lists, action plan, narrative, story, images, mind map, etc.)
Harvesting – Extracting information from conversations. This might be harvesting tasks, specific information or even responses to questions. It is straight collection of information (vs. synthesis).
Weaving – Looking for and linking relevant information, thoughts or comments between different conversations. This helps build coherence when there are multiple conversations and helps connect subgroups at opportune moments. Links between relevant threads support connection.
Summarizing – Regular recaps done during online interactions, which provide overviews and synthesis of conversations. These help reinforce work, ideas and processes and help to build stronger groups. They allow people to ‘catch up’ if they have fallen behind without reading ‘everything’!Summarization forms include the following:
Summaries are often text-based, but you have other options. Visual forms such as mind-maps, electronic files of graphic recording summaries or even conceptual sketches can be very useful. The expression of ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is often true online.
Determine your participation strategy and stick to it. It is advisable to log on daily to monitor the discussion and participate occasionally as needed to redirect the conversation or answer specific questions. You may wish to provide significant guidance and modeling early in the semester, and then gradually decrease your presence. Alternatively, you may wish to reserve your substantial involvement for particular times (end of the discussion period, for example) to wrap up and provide feedback.
Too much participation can stymie the students’ discussion; too little can add to the students’ sense of isolation. The level of your presence depends somewhat on the goals for the discussion. If the goal is for students to work collectively to determine an outcome, then you should only monitor the discussion. If the goal is for students to generate multiple scenarios and posit alternatives, then you should be more present to critique the responses.
Choose your tone
In an online discussion forum, you facilitate the conversation through encouragement and support. Your tone should be encouraging and supportive. Avoid criticizing a student’s post or playing devil’s advocate. An inquisitive tone can often help further the conversation.
Deal with unacceptable behavior privately and promptly
Students who are new to online learning may not understand how their tone comes across asynchronously. Without physical presence and the benefit of body language, a student may unknowingly make an inappropriate comment. If this happens, quickly address it through personal communication with the student. Create and share discussion protocols and expectations with students at the beginning of the course.
Carefully review your post before submitting
You should model an effective discussion post when posting to the discussion. Careful attention should be paid to spelling, grammar, and tone. Also, guidelines for posts, including length, should be adhered to. It is suggested that you should first draft the post in a word-processing application (such as MS Word) for easier review, and to ensure a backup is saved.
Change the role of the discussion leader over time
Provide detailed personal feedback early in the semester when students may feel more uncomfortable communicating in this medium. As the students become more independent and build their community, consider gradually decreasing your role in the discussions to encourage the students to increase their responsibility for the discussion.
Consider assigning one student from each group or two students in a whole-class forum to lead the discussion. Provide expectations for facilitation for the discussion leaders and a separate grade. Give specific feedback to the discussion leaders outside of the discussion forum.
Consider assigning a student from each group or two students in a whole-class forum to provide the summary of the discussion. Model the summary process in the first week or two of the course and then provide general guidelines for the summation. If the discussion forum is a small-group activity, consider having each group post its summary to a large-group forum.
Consider bringing in professionals in the field to participate in a relevant online discussion. Students can draft questions in advance for the guest speaker to address or the guest speaker can help guide the discussion based on questions created by you.
Excellent Resources by Sarah Haavind to download and use
- Facilitating Online Discussions with Sarah Haavind
- Three Steps to Fostering Collaborative Learning Online-Haavind
- Facilitating Task and Action
- Critical Thinking in Asynchronous Discussions
- Scoring Guide for Participation in Weekly Discussions-Haavind
- Online Learning Research-Haavind
- Landscape Samples-Haavind
- Creating effective summaries
Faculty Focus examines new, proven collaborative learning techniques you can use in the online classroom to promote social interaction and have a positive influence on learning, motivation, and problem-solving.
- Asynchronous Learning and Trends
- Threaded discussions
- asynchronous discussion forums
- Facilitating Students’ Critical Thinking in Online Discussion:
- An Instructor’s Experience
- Using Discussions to Promote Critical Thinking in an Online Environment
- Using Online Reflection and Conversation to Build Community.
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Step 4 – Be an Active Facilitator