Online facilitation techniques

Teaching in the online environment is quite different from teaching in a face-to-face environment. For instance, cues like eye contact, body language, facial expression and voice tones that are crucial to social interaction are absent. As such teaching online has a number of unique characteristics and limitations. Online facilitation is the technique of enabling and promoting learning in an online environment by means of encouraging interaction with and between students and supporting interactive online learning activities.

This activity is suitable for low-, medium- and high-impact approaches.

Roles of Online Facilitator

  Berge (1995) identified a number of roles for the Online Facilitator. These can help you consider what is required as an Online Facilitator.

  • Pedagogical Role - Create discussions that focus energy on critical concepts, principles, and skills.

  • Social Role - Foster a friendly, social environment to promote learning and sharing.

  • Managerial Role - Clarify discussion objectives, timelines, and procedural rules.

  • Technical Role - Make students comfortable with the learning management system, tools, and software.
Online Facilitation Checklist

To help you manage your different roles as an online facilitator you might find this checklist a useful starting point.

  • Check that all resources, activities and links work and are accessible by students.

  • Provide contact details for technical support and queries.

  • Make everyone feel welcome and heard; setting the initial mood or climate of the environment.

  • Establish clear goals and expectations at the outset by providing for example, learning outcomes for each topic/week, a schedule of activity deadlines, timetable of your availability.

  • Develop the widest possible range of learning resources and activities online that address a variety of learning styles.

  • Provide behind-the-scenes support, for example via email.

  • Foster communication between participants, encourage reflection.

  • Build motivation into online activities.

  • Keep discussions live, revive activity when postings are flagging.

  • Be a participant learner, express views and provide feedback as a member of the group.
 Online Facilitation Strategies

Salmon (2005) proposed a 5-Stage model of Teaching and Learning Online that can be a useful mechanism to use when designing and facilitating effective online activities.

  1. Online facilitator needs to ensure all students can access and are supported in using the online interactive learning environment. Activities should be designed to welcome and encourage students.

  2. Online facilitator needs to provide activities that help students to establish their online identities and provide opportunities to interact with others.

  3. Online facilitator develops activities that provide students with opportunities to share module relevant information and a form of co-operation occurs, i.e. support for each person’s goals.

  4. Group discussions occur and the interaction between students becomes more collaborative. The Online Facilitator acts as a guide. The communication depends on the establishment of common understandings.

  5. Participants look for more benefits from the online system to help them achieve personal goals, explore how to integrate learning into own context and work place and reflect on the learning processes.

  Salmon (2005) The Five Stage Model Salmon (2005) The Five Stage Model

Techniques to foster engagement in discussion forums

  • Post the first question to break the ice.
  • Ask questions that are more straightforward to start with. Sometimes this can help students become comfortable with responding in an online setting.
  • Use warm and friendly language tone to create a ‘low-risk’ environment.
  • Introduce team work to foster sense of community.
  •  Encourage participants to evaluate not just their own but their peers contributions to promote a learner-centred approach.
  • Create focus by offering short term goals and provide constructive feedback.
  • Craft online discussion questions, not essay topics. Examples include probing into case studies, discussing controversial statements and applying principles/theories in new scenarios.
  • Build the discussion by asking participants to expand on their responses based on their particular situations, needs, interests, and abilities.
  • Respond to students’ posts within a consistent and reasonable time frame so that students are aware of your presence and active participation.
  • Summarise ideas and conversations in order to refocus discussions, remind students of their learning journey, and imprint new information and knowledge.
  • Moderate when there are negative influences, such as bad netiquette, non-contributions and monopolies.
  • Consider assigning a grade for participation, or making use of the Activity Completion setting to restrict access to future learning resources on the condition of completion.
  • Archive outdated discussion, for example by setting expiration date in order to provide a focus to the live discussion boards.

Techniques for a live online session

  • Use a headset with a decent mic, not the computer’s default mic when using voice in a synchronous session.
  • Limit sessions to 90 minutes at most.
  • Break up the class into digestible sections, about 10 to 15 minutes each that focus on one concept or topic at a time. It helps retain concentration of your audience. In addition, in between sessions allows you time for a Q&A session or other interaction, giving your audience more opportunities to discuss the content or otherwise participate.
  • Keep information “push” to a minimum, and look for opportunities for sharing and interaction. Call for questions often.
  • With online sessions, more slides are probably required than you normally require in lectures where students can rely on your body language and activity to stay engaged, and therefore lets you spend several minutes per slide. The guideline is to have one new slide every one to two minutes for live sessions.
  • In live sessions, students need a visual cue that the slide has changed so that they know there's something new to pay attention to. Avoid having every slide look the same. Use images effectively to support the text. A splash of color can brighten your slides. Most importantly, use less text. Limit yourself to only one concept or point per slide.
  • Learn the technology and anticipate any difficulties with the online software you use, like Adobe Connect or Skype. Have the guidance and support to hand in preparation for the session.
  • Practice giving your presentation, of course, timing yourself.
  • See: How to use your voice brilliantly in online sessions for tips on how to prepare for synchronous sessions.

Top 10 tips to be a successful online facilitator

  1. Get familiarised with all the resources and activities within the module. Allocate time on a trial run and participation on each activity in the course.
  2. Build a sense of community by using warm and personal language, a self-introduction video, photo profile and/or introducing team work.
  3. Send meaningful communication to students on a regular basis, but don’t overwhelm students. This may be a summary of key points covered and signpost to the following week’s activities.
  4. Provide a schedule for activity deadlines. Give as much notice as possible. Assign an estimated time required for each task.
  5. Role model participation and discussion techniques for participants.
  6. Respond to student’s communication within a consistent and reasonable time frame so that students are aware of your presence and active participation.
  7. Relate to student experiences and ask thought provoking questions.
  8. Intervene when the rule of netiquette is broken, or the discussion is veering off in the wrong direction, and help move the discussion back on track.
  9. Bring closure to each topic/week before moving on to the next topic/week.
  10. Monitor student learning progress, participation and/or completion of activities. Follow up as required.

Some considerations for online facilitation…

  • Schedule regular time slots in your diary for facilitating asynchronous online activities. This will not be counted as contact hours for teaching.
  • Be aware of the benefits and technical limitations regarding all the online tools in your module. Seek early advice and guidance from the Educational Technology Team via ServiceNow.
  • Get familiarised with any asynchronous activities. Plan and time manage well so that you have enough time to cover all of the material. A trial run is recommended.
  • Note the timing difference when scheduling synchronous communication for international students.


Blended learning home

Using Moodle reports to support students

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