8 Tips for Successful Online Course Facilitation

Copyright 2009 Miguel Guhlin

Learning should be social…and in today’s world being social means being connected while you learn. Do we help create these social connections or are we to worried about the time students might waste being social and being connected?
Source: The Thinking Stick Blog

Easy access to course management systems like Moodle, Sakai, among others, make online learning possible for K-16 educational institutions. At a presentation at the recently held Texas Distance Learning Association (TxDLA) Conference, colleague Tonya Mills and I had the opportunity to share our thoughts on online course facilitation. We both had the opportunity to share the wisdom that comes from reflecting on past mistakes with online course facilitation with a state-wide audience. This article encapsulates 8 tips that we have learned, both as online facilitators ourselves and through the constant reading and reflection we have engaged in.

This online learning experience kept my interest and provided me with learning that I know will benefit me as an educator and, thus, will positively impact student learning. I especially enjoyed being able to login at my convenience and from multiple portals (home and work). The content was challenging and interesting and I found that the activities/projects were relevant and, thus, met my needs as an adult learner.
Source: San Antonio ISD Online Course Participant

Learning IS social…and online learning environments engage students in that way. But we have to be careful to avoid trying to engage students in online learning environments with face to face approaches. . .the effects of F2F engagement methods may be different than what we expect. We have discovered this through our own professional learning experiences online as students and facilitators. We often joke that we’d probably still be wandering in the desert of online course facilitation if we had not taken advantage of some course facilitation opportunities. Even though our efforts are still beginning in our school district, here are 8 tips:

Tip #1 - Address the logistics of the course in your course materials and make sure they are obvious and easily accessible rather than buried in a syllabus or other document. Logistics can include how often students should login and participate in the course, assessment rubrics, etc. For example, Tonya and I have found it helpful to craft a syllabus and an assignment checklist (that can also be printed) for course participants. This enables them--and us--to know exactly where they should be throughout the course. Another approach to streamline organization of the course is to place content in textbooks organized by topic. If you are familiar with Moodle, you know you can use the Book module to put text, audio and video organized as chapters in a book. This enables your virtual students to work their way through the content for a specific topic within the overall course of study. This organizational principle can save your students a lot of time and effort, as opposed to the traditional approach of organizing everything in resources at the end of the course. For example, here is one participant's introduction:

I too am a Middle School Math teacher. I teach 7th grade. What grade do you teach?
Is this your first technology course? I just finished the TILT course and it was an awesome experience.
It's nice to see other Math teachers getting involved beyond the classroom. We are so consumed with so much, with TAKS and all. I don't know about you, but I am glad TAKS testing is over with. We have a little time for freedom to incorporate the technology now.
It's nice to meet you and I look forward to working with you this week.
Source: Introduce Yourself Forum, SAISD Blogging Online Course

Tip #2 - Personalize your online learning environment with multimedia. You can accomplish this by including video testimonials from former students and course introductions by district facilitators. One of my favorite examples of this approach was, when designing a course for librarians being introduced to Web 2.0, to request audio introductions to the topics from well-known library advocates such as Doug Johnson and Joyce Valenza. The expectation was that they would provide a brief introduction from their "library" perspective for each topic. This kind of personalization helps build a real connection with course participants.

In one online class, participants had the opportunity to view videos that illustrated how to subscribe to education blogs using Google Reader. Some of the positive feedback from using the videos:

Before I took this class, I had no idea how blogging could be so helpful to myself and my class. I had wanted to create a classroom web page; however I see that a blogging site would be so much better. I think it will really help my class communicate with other classes and to gather ideas from other children their age. I can use it to reflect on lessons and classroom management. I can also use it to post special projects, lessons, homework as well as showcase their work. Subscribing to RSS feeds has made it easier to obtain information. By using google reader I will save so much time....

These videos and articles put so much more into place and answered many of my questions that I had concerning getting the blog and what I am supposed to do with it!
I am excited about the possibilities!
Source: SAISD Blogging Online Course

Obviously, the power of videos helped this participant better understand what is involved and to grasp the concept of blogging and RSS feeds, without the presence of a face to face presentation.

Tip #3 - Develop and share materials (e.g. brochures) with potential participants. Making course materials available online is important, but it's also necessary to share the print resources you are using to advertise the class online. Often, course participants request access to the flyer that enticed them to sign-up for the online course. By revisiting the flyer, they can visually remember what their purpose for registering for the course was.

Tip #4 - Set up forums that address the “social dimension” of introducing people and getting to know each other, as well as forums for dealing with technical aspects. If someone hasn’t logged in, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call them or send an email a day until they respond. In one instance, technical issues at the District level interfered with the class, resulting in this question from a participant in the Technical Support Forum:

Question from Learner #1: I just received and email saying that our district server was going to be down Friday through Saturday. Does this affect our internet course? Also I wanted to follow up on the blog request form. Is there still a problem with the setting up of our blogs? I submitted the request and still haven't heard anything. I'm just concerned about completing the assigments on time. I know that something was mentioned about an extension, but I wanted to know if that still applied and also how much longer we had. Thank you

Response from Learner #2: Yes, will we be allowed extra time to complete our assignments? With the blog site down and then the entire network down it will be hard to complete assignments on time.

The power of Support Forums is that when your online learners start to come together as a community of learners, they start to help each other out and respond. As facilitator, I did not get a chance to respond quickly enough but another participant stepped up...and stepping up to help others learn fundamentally changes--in a positive way--the teaching and learning dynamic.

Tip #5 - Remember to scaffold and support learning conversations rather than dominate them. Part of your scaffolding and support is providing regular feedback and interacting with participants online. This is especially important up front since your level of activity serves as a model for the level of interaction students will exhibit when you are present but not as active.

This initial high interactivity sloping down to omni-presence enables participants to learn to rely on each other for answers, rather than you. Consider this exchange between participants in their first attempts to create a podcast using a free online service that, unfortunately, was blocked within the District (unblocked later):

Learner #1: After trying repeatedly at school to create a podcast without succes I was very determined to accomplish this task. Finally, at home I had success.
I find it very rewarding to achieve this. It was actually very simple once I was blocked by school servers. The possibilities are endless for this. I can envision student comments as they work on a project or go on a field trip as Ms Farias suggested. If I was undertaking a project on butterflies I would have my students comment on each life stage we observe. Once it was uploaded onto a blog it would be there for review. Pictures could be added to go with the dialogue.

Learner #2: Great to hear of your success - I listened to your podcast and was inspired to give it a try - I too was successful and you're correct - despite the multi-steps, not too difficult.

Learner #3: I like your idea about the butterfly, Jenny! As you already know since we work at the same school next year our campus will incorporate a gallery walk. The purpose of the gallery walk is to showcase student learning. Podcasting would be a great way to showcase a theme while incorporating technology. The students would showcase their expertise on the life cycles of the butterfly. Maybe each student could comment on a different stage of the butterfly and so forth. You could also discuss habitat and food. Great ideas, Thanks

Tip #6 - Don’t be afraid to summarize–also known as landscape–the ongoing conversations periodically, as well as remind everyone what expectations are at regular intervals (such as at the start point, mid-point, and end-points). This help everyone stay on focus.

Tip #7 - Avoid long discussion posts, as well as posts that feature a lot of questions. Focus discussions around ONE central question that resembles an ill-structured problem. For example, consider how many questions are introduced in this discussion prompt. Each question achieves equal status for the participant; how could one question or scenario help participants focus?

Discuss the solutions to the following questions:
  1. A teacher entered a “T” for tardy in the gradebook for the wrong student How can this be corrected?
  2. Who marks attendance when the teacher is absent and there is a substitute in the classroom?
  3. What happens when a student is withdrawn from Teacher A and moved to Teacher B? Why does their name no longer show on the attendance report?
  4. Can teachers change/edit attendance in the electronic gradebook once it is entered?
  5. What are the steps for running an Attendance Totals Report?

A possible alternative way to introduce these topics for discussion:

"Ms. Jones," began Teri the new assistant principal in conversation with the principal, "Mr. Cervantez was absent from work yesterday and the substitute teacher marked attendance wrong in the electronic gradebook. What we think happened is that the substitute marked Ramon Johnson tardy, but it was really Ramon Jimenez that was absent. Ramon Johnson actually transferred from Mr. Cervantez' class to Ms. Derrick's class. What should I tell Mr. Cervantez about changing his gradebook? And, is there any way we can run a report on attendance totals to see what other issues there may be?"

While this is one attempt to weave in various questions and issues into a real life scenario, it's critical to engage course participants with ill-structured problems. Ill-structured problems can be an effective way of engaging students with experiences that scaffold higher order thinking. Such problems need to achieve curriculum objectives, be engaging but not frustrating, and be developmentally appropriate for the learner.

Tip #8 - Encourage people to discover each other’s strengths and what they each have to bring to the table. One of the most rewarding aspects of online learning conversations is that people discover each other--and themselves--online. Some of the feedback that can result includes the following:

I have found that this course has made sharing information with my students and their families. Online professional learning/development for work-related purposes is a great experience. It allows for you to learn at your own pace and still offers support for those who need support. I enjoy trying to solve each task set forth independently and only seek assistance when needed...I got many ideas and helpful suggestions from the other participants.

Online courses make it easy to obtain professional development in different areas of need...This online learning experience kept my interest and provided me with learning that I know will benefit me as an educator and, thus, will positively impact student learning. I especially enjoyed being able to login at my convenience and from multiple portals (home and work). The content was challenging and interesting and I found that the activities/projects were relevant and, thus, met my needs as an adult learner.

Finally, as online learners discover the benefits of learning online for themselves--especially when they work with other people--that positive reaction will encompass your online professional learning program. I encourage you to employ these 8 tips for successful online course facilitation. Be sure to share back other tips you learn along the way!