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Facilitating our first online seminar

So we’ve reached the end of our two-week stint, running an online seminar for 14 of our fellow learners.  Across the three formal activities we provided, we had 45 contributions from the participants and we, as facilitators, made a whopping 61 posts.  Wow, what happened there?

This was indeed an unusual scenario in that that there was a low student-teacher ratio (3.5:1) and the delivery period was short so tutor energy levels were high, but this made me think; were we too noisy?

Why did we make more noise than the participants?

In the formal discussion spaces, as students arrived, we welcomed each participant; they were ‘seen’ and ‘heard’.  Good.

But what I noticed was that, after the initial interaction, our approach to moderating took two forms:

  1. A swift response to add more information and tutor’s own perspective, a bit like a participant post
  2. A pause for a while, (like a pause in a conversation, opportunity for other students to fill gap) then, where necessary, a response aiming to promote critical reflection, spark alternative perspectives, comment on participant response, direct to further resources, and encouraging a further response.

This prompted me to think about which approach is most helpful for the learner, or whether both have a place online.

Learning is noisy

One of the benefits of learning online over learning in a classroom, for me and for many other learners, is that it affords the luxury of time in which to engage and consider questions, resources and other student voices, before composing a response, without competition from louder or more reactive students.  Everyone gets a say; online gives everyone the ability engage with one another, generate knowledge and become a noisy learner (Nipper, 1989, cited in Pallof & Pratt, 2013 p135).

So how does the tutor’s approach to facilitating affect the online volume?

Palloff & Pratt suggest looking to traditional classroom practice for techniques to encourage online participation. For example, when facilitating a face to face workshop, I ask questions of the learners and encourage them to question each other, too, rather than providing all the answers.  I took this approach online, but it wasn’t easy.  Forming the right question takes practice, and in an online asynchronous environment without the social cues and physical presence there’s a real urge to overcompensate and it’s tempting to spoon-feed the learner.  But we know that this isn’t how learning works.

“The tutor is not only the content expert but the catalyst for online interaction.” Smyth & Mainka (2010)

Forming a balanced critical online community takes practice and possibly longer than the two weeks we had.  Garrison & Anderson (2003, p69) describe a successful online community to be one which is self sustaining, where students take responsibility for creating knowledge and confirming understanding.  I think we saw this in our seminar to some extent, but perhaps could have left more space for the cohort to talk to one another and have the opportunity to contribute to the teaching presence (Garrison & Anderson, 2003, p71).

An exemplar

In module 1 our module leader demonstrated moderating beautifully.  He gave us the space and trust to become independent learners, a gentle guide in the education process (Palloff & Pratt, 2013, p143) giving us responsibility for our own learning journey. Steering us on the right path, but not influencing the speed or route.

Example of moderating to promote more critical thinking

Example of moderating to promote critical thinking

So, were we too noisy?

There were valuable lessons learned here about online facilitation.  As a group, we presented a human, approachable face; an important factor online to encourage participation.  Our activities relied on learner contributions, and to support this it was important that tutors were visible online to provide support and feedback.  However, in a regular online course with a higher student-teacher ratio, it would not be possible to be as prolific as this group was and it’s important to enable learners to become mostly self-sufficient.

My thoughts are that if we’d focussed our energy on developing the right sort of questions for our learners (and it takes time, effort and familiarity with the subject to do this), perhaps the depth of thought and critical reflection around the topics could have been enhanced, collaboration between students increased and learning thereby improved.

Let the learners do the talking.


References

Garrison, D. R., & Anderson, T. (2003). E-learning in the 21st Century : A Framework for Research and Practice. London: Routledge.

Palloff, R.M. & Pratt, K. (2013) Lessons from the Virtual Classroom San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Smyth, K., Mainka, C. (2010) Pedagogy and learning technology: A practical guide. Napier University Press.  Available online: http://staff.napier.ac.uk/services/academicdevelopment/PALT/Documents/epegagogy_guide_UNIT04.pdf [Accessed 22 Feb 2016]

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