Introduction to Digital Facilitation

What is Facilitation?

As educational philosophies developed and a growing number of adults began to participate in higher education, beliefs and pedagogical practices changed to accommodate the richer experience and knowledge that learners brought to the classroom.

Adult learning theory had a profound impact on the way courses were designed and delivered, and the developing ideas around social constructivist learning and humanist teaching approaches influenced many instructors to move from acting as the “sage on the stage” and instead, to begin supporting or scaffolding the learning that was meaningful for each student (e.g., acting as the “guide on the side”).

A concurrent shift in teaching practice occurred as educators recognized that traditional approaches were not successful in developing the 21st-century skills that learners needed (e.g., critical thinking and the ability to communicate effectively, innovate, and solve problems through negotiation and collaboration). Research consistently suggested that collaborative learning and personalized learning strategies were successful in supporting the deeper learning needed.[1]

Many teachers began to modify their practices to include facilitative teaching rather than direct teaching. While teaching methods will still vary depending on the subject, level of learning or intended outcomes, the focus is generally on helping learners understand course content through questioning and suggestions while providing rich cases, complex problems, and opportunities to apply new knowledge in different contexts.

Just as the new pedagogical practice of facilitation was making its mark in the classroom, the internet and World Wide Web arrived and as educators began utilizing these new technologies for teaching and learning. However, it became clear early on that facilitating learning online was not simply a matter of replicating what worked in the classroom, but required a different approach to facilitation

One of the first theories with respect to distance education was the theory of transactional distance put forward by Moore (1991) which highlighted the importance of dialogue and interaction to mitigate against the separation of the student and the educator. Promoting interactions between students and educators has a positive impact on student outcomes (Walters, Grover, Turner, & Alexander, 2017). Facilitating online courses is mainly concerned with supporting these interactions.

Martin et al. (2019) put forward an interpretation of online course facilitation which “.. broadly refers to how, what, when, and why an online faculty member makes decisions and takes actions to help students meet the learning outcomes” (Martin et al., 2019, p. 36).

Online Course Design

Clear, consistent and systematic online course design is a very important for effective teaching online. Student engagement can be supported by a well-designed online course which promotes interaction, presence and creates a clear, purposeful learning journey (Farrell & Brunton, 2020). Organising the course into weekly topics or assignments, chunking content and providing clear signposting are elements of course design that facilitate student learning (Martin et al., 2019; Meyer & McNeal, 2011; Peacock & Cowan, 2019). Consistency in structure from week to week allows students to know where they are within the learning process (Martin et al., 2019; Trammell & LaForge, 2017).

In order to engage students, and “make the materials alive” (Martin et al., 2019, p. 39) in the online environment it is recommended that consideration is given to the type and variety of the learning activities and to include experiential learning, real word or job related experiences, and online scenarios (Gómez-Rey et al., 2018; Martin et al., 2019; Meyer & McNeal, 2011; Shattuck et al., 2011; Trammell & LaForge, 2017).  The selection and use of a variety of tools, approaches and media such as providing audio and visual resources or using discussion forums, blogs or wikis for discourse will also influence how effective the learning activities are. Further, integrating online collaborative activities and opportunities for reflection will enhance the student learning experience.

Online course design approaches vary considerably, but most fully online courses use a combination of:

  1. Asynchronous activities such as quizzes,  interactive content, and short videos
  2. Asynchronous communication channels such as discussion forums and chat groups
  3. Online collaborative activities like wikis, blogs, glossaries and web quests
  4. Synchronous classes using platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft teams

Starting the course off right

One of the important aspects to emerge from the literature is the requirement for the online educator to present the nature of the interaction required in the online course to students. Clarification of expected participation, standards of contributions and interactions and deadlines need to be explicit. (Abdous, 2011; Peacock & Cowan, 2019; Trammell & LaForge, 2017). Using an introductory video, getting in early in discussions and having icebreaker activities are all key to success (Coker, 2018; Peacock & Cowan, 2019). Award winning online educators use weekly announcements with reminders of the learning activities for the coming week (Martin et al., 2019).

Chapter Attribution

This page is a remix of multiple adapted articles

1) How to Facilitate an Online Course by Farrell, O., Brunton, J., Ní Shé, C., Costello, E. CC-BY

2) FLO Facilitation Guide by Sylvia Currie, Sylvia Riessner, Gina Bennett, and Beth Cougler Blom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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