Facilitating online communities/resources/facilitating online communities for education

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By the end of this topic you will be able to:

  • Understand the skills required by the facilitator to impart the skills required in the participants in an online learning community.
  • Discuss appropriate methods of fostering online learning communities.
  • Plan to facilitate an online class.
  • Plan opportunities to participate.
  • Understand what an engaging activity is.
  • Write a draft online discussion plan with a partner.

Introduction to learning communities

In this module we will explore facilitating online learning communities in more depth. In particular, we will ask these questions:

  • What is a learning community?
  • How do I know if I have formed a learning community?
  • How will I know when I'm doing a good job?
  • How will I know if I need to do more?
  • What will I do to fix it?
  • What is a learning community?

Howard Rheingold (1998) described a virtual community as 'cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace' The virtual community. Learning communities are about interactions and interrelationships. You have already experienced a range of mediums that could be used to support a learning community. Some will fulfil this role better than others. You have participated in a range of learning communities, but should realise that creating a true community takes time. Although a learning community has learning as its reason for being, it is still a community with the same needs as any other community.

The words communicate, commune and community derive from the same Latin root of 'communicare' which means 'to share'. Your class should now be in the early stages of becoming a learning community. It is appropriate, therefore, prior to planning your assessed facilitation, to ask you to share your views and experiences as a class on which media best support the development of online learning communities, justifying those reasons with your experiences and from literature. (Experiences are valid in this context, but it is hoped that you will be able to back up those experiences with quotes from the literature.)

You should build this discussion, including the responses you receive, into your blog and consider any feedback when writing your facilitation plan for the third assessment.

How do I know if I have formed a learning community?

It is difficult to determine when and if a community has formed. All you can hope to do is spot some of the tell-tale signs. These will include one or more of the following occurring with students:

  • Recognition of other students both in the home classroom and as guests in other virtual venues — that is, recognition by name or user name
  • Referring to mutual 'history' in the community
  • Using terms specific to the community, in-jokes and so on
  • Talking to each other rather than with the lecturer
  • Asking other members of the group for help
  • Receiving help without prompting
  • Exchanging information
  • Sharing and supporting emotional states

Group consensus rather than individual grandstanding

It is even more difficult to determine if learning is taking place symbiotically (literal meaning 'living together') within a community, rather than by individuals working commensally (literally meaning 'the same table', or in parallel). Some tell-tale signs of symbiotic learning might be:

  • Learners working interdependently with others, such as cooperating on coursework.
  • Students commenting on others' work.
  • Specialisation — that is, students carrying out specialised tasks for the group.
  • Division of labour — that is, students carrying out non-specialised tasks for the group.
  • Peer coaching and peer support.
  • Students working on behalf of others in the group.

How will I know when I'm doing a good job?

You will know you have done a good job when you find you have very little to do! You'll probably find yourself skimming through the students' discussions hoping to find a question for you! The students will be working together in the groups created by you on tasks created by you, in the manner described in the bullet points above. You will only be called upon infrequently. This is not easily achieved and requires a determined establishment of 'the rules' at an early stage.

How will I know if I need to do more?

You will quickly realise when you have done a bad job by the fact that students are continually coming to you for clarification and support and ignoring the other students. They will imply that the lecturer is the only person who knows what they are talking about and see you as the font of all wisdom. This is a sign of dependency and requires careful guidance. If such behaviour is widespread then you will have failed. You will need to ask yourself whether or not you have subconsciously created their need yourself. Many teachers enjoy the attention that the classroom provides. Facilitation is not like teaching.

Observation has shown many examples of the 'helpful' teacher who dominates every discussion, or those who indulge students in prolonged individual email exchanges and then complain about a high workload.

Setting some ground rules

The training/retraining/rule setting/forming-norming/expectation-setting phase takes place at the very beginning of the course as the student enters. It is essential that the tutor is available at this time, to firmly and clearly establish the rules and to adjust students' expectations about the way the course will be run.

It is essential that the facilitator's rule set be imprinted upon the students and not vice versa. Facilitators are there to facilitate independent and interdependent learning, not necessarily to do what the students want! Failure to achieve this in the first three weeks or so will result in a class of individuals, each with their own set of rules and expectations. It may not be possible to change these rules and expectations at a later date. No learning community will be developed in this case.

What will I do to fix it?

'Fixing' a failed learning community is a very difficult and time-consuming chore, which may even be impossible in view of the length of time many online courses run for. It is much better to prevent the community failing in the first place. The issue is not technological but sociological.

A learning community requires additional facilitator time and input in the first three weeks of the course and preferably a couple of weeks before the start of the course. If students are not encouraged and motivated in this forming and norming period the resulting group may be insecure and uncertain and post very little. This can result in angry, frustrated students in courses set up for participative learning in a constructivist context. (In an instructivist course the students will focus on the tutor.)

This lack of facilitator time may be due to perceived workload issues. However, all that is really required are some friendly, carefully focused bulk emails to set the stage, to create a momentum and to prompt the student to engage with the course. This is true of both print-based courses with online support and fully online courses. In a blended learning approach a contact introductory class in the first week of the course is ideal. Do not assume that students will automatically rush to open their online course or printed materials!

Community failure may infrequently result from a clash of personalities in the norming phase, resulting in a flame war (an exchange of heated messages), if postings are not carefully monitored and sensitively controlled. This is most often dealt with by private email to the individuals concerned rather than allowing the argument to escalate within the forum. The problem is most often due to miscommunication and misunderstanding because of the lack of non-verbal cues, but could also be caused by 'pecking order' issues. Thankfully this is a rarely occurring phenomenon.

Discussion questions

What do the participants in a forming learning community need to do to form a community?

The needs of online students include:

  • A 'safe' environment
  • Clear guidance
  • User-friendly technology
  • An enthusiastic facilitator.

What other factors can you identify that participants need before they are willing to / are able to form an online learning community?


The virtual community by Howard Rheingold (1998).

Introduction to planning to facilitate an online class

By this point in the course you should have participated in several online discussions and had the opportunity to facilitate one of more of these discussions. Facilitation is as much of an art form as it is a science. While the literature can provide many mechanistic examples of techniques that work online, it is the practice of these techniques and their correct application that makes for a good facilitator.

When you have a lesson to present, whether it is contact or online, planning is required. Given time, such a lesson will become second nature and the skills used readily transferable to other lessons. But in the beginning there must be planning, which will include an introduction, the number and duration of different activities, the equipment or information that needs to be organised in advance, expectations of the result of each activity including any links, and finally a closing summary which may include some 'homework'.

This section will provide you with some experience in planning for facilitating (Assessment 3). It will also guide you towards Assessment 4 where you facilitate an online event and reflect on it.

How do I plan opportunities to participate?

Participation implies working actively in a group. It is the responsibility of the facilitator to create engaging activities that promote this behaviour. Before students will work with each other there must be a period where they get to know and trust each other.

What is an engaging activity?

In the context of a constructivist course, an engaging activity is one that can only be completed in a group context. The construction of the activity defines the way it can be successfully completed. On the other hand, allocating marks for the number of postings in a forum can produce simplistic postings or postings without purpose. Giving the postings a function ensures that they are meaningful and purposeful for the student.

Five stages of online facilitation

Gilly Salmon is a world-renowned speaker on e-learning. She proposes a 5-stage model for facilitating a course from beginning to end using the following steps:

  • Level 1 Access and motivation (welcome)
  • Level 2 Socialisation (induction)
  • Level 3 Information exchange (teaching)
  • Level 4 Knowledge construction
  • Level 5 Development

Levels 1 and 2 would occur only once, and are equivalent to the forming and norming stages previously described. In a typical course levels 3 to 4 are iterative/cyclical as each section of the syllabus is presented and explored via activities. Level 5 is seen as the maturation of the course participants into a stage of independence.

Levels 3 and 4

Level three involves the giving and receipt of information. This will usually be prompted by information on the course website or an initial posting by the facilitator. All activities require a starting point/energiser plus instructions to get the activity going. This starting point needs to provide background information, links to previous study and a question(s) or a problem(s) for the student to answer or discuss. There may follow a period where the student works alone, either considering the question, carrying out calculations, reading around the area, or gathering information, before proceeding to the discussion on this topic. This is when level four - knowledge construction is likely to occur. In Salmon's terms these activities would be regarded as a sub-conference.

At the discussion the information is effectively thrown into the pot and becomes common property. Duplicate information is removed. Incorrect or irrelevant information is questioned, corrected or discarded. The information may now be summarised, woven or summarised by the facilitator (or a member of the group). The group now moves forward to solve the problem or answer the question using this information.

A note about level 5 Salmon describes this stage as where 'participants become responsible for their own learning through computer-mediated opportunities and need little support beyond that already available.' (Salmon, 2000, p35.) The course has then reached maturity.

This author gives participants the expectation of this constructivist behaviour from the outset of the course, while promoting interdependent peer support and peer tutoring. At no time is the facilitator presented as being at the centre of the class, but rather as a monitor of the proceedings.

Before proceeding to plan your facilitation read Table II.2 p127 of Salmon's book and consider which techniques you will use for your computer mediated conference.


Salmon, Gilly (2000). E-moderating - the key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Page.

Salmon, Gilly (2002). e-tivities - the key to active online learning. London: Kogan Page.