Facilitating Online – First things First!

I’ve been wondering how to approach my reflections here. I could pick it from the student angle which I am in the course and simply report how the course progresses, but I decided to reflect from the facilitator’s point of view. Since I am training to be a facilitator in an online environment, looking at the early stages of this particular course provides me with a lot of tips on the ‘first-things-first’ of facilitating online!

So you’re one of the facilitators of that online course. The start date is drawing near and you want to begin to prepare for the arrival of the participants into the course. What points should you take note of at this very beginning? What tips are useful for an online facilitator at the early stage of a course? These are a few of the things I have learnt (from this course) and taken note of as best practices at the early weeks of a course in an online environment.

facilitating_online

Online Facilitation – Just before we begin guys!

1. Introduce a week 0.

This is the first time I am going to see an academic calendar with week 0, but it sincerely is very effective! Week 0 was named “Preparing” and as the name suggests, it’s that week before the official course begins where students become fully aware of the course and begin to prepare to be a part of it. Week 0 introduces the learning environment and gives participants an opportunity to look around and ensure they are set to begin. Here, arrival documents, course programme, technical information, pre-course briefings and emails are sent to the participants to get them familiar with how the course will run and what is expected of them at every stage.

2. A user-friendly learning environment.

This particular course uses the Vula environment and consists of several engaging platforms like Announcement (for current information), Forums (for weekly discussions), Blog (for shared reflections), Chat room (for interaction), Participants (to show a list of all participants), Library (housing all resources and documents) and the weekly activities. This is properly arranged and easy to navigate. Facilitators must as much as possible (where they have control) select a learning environment that is easy to navigate. This can affect student engagement either positively or negatively.

3. Encourage interaction among participants.

Participants could generally be ‘careful’ as to what is expected and to what degree they are permitted to do certain things and it is the responsibility of the facilitator to set the ground rules of interaction and encourage participants to interact. I found the use of questions help, in getting participants open up and feel a little more relaxed with others. In this course, a chat room was very effective in achieving this. In the first 2-3 days of week 0, the chat was already very active and lively with interaction and getting to know others, though seemingly in an ‘unofficial’ way. Incorporating videos can also be used to increase interaction among participants.

4. Encourage a personal reflection journal.

One good approach I found was the great encouragement to keep track of reflection and the use of journals in keeping them. Students should be encouraged to keep a private journal and blog about it (if they wish) so as to help them reflect on what they are learning. A good way as used in this course is to make it one of the early activities of week 0. This way, it gets some attention (it got mine for sure) and participants know they should do it. Weekly reflection points can be requested for just to ensure students are actively learning. This can also be a good way to find out students’ understanding of the course content.

5. Have a clear communication plan.

Proper communication is essential in learning in an online environment. It is important that facilitators have a plan for communicating with participants. What day and times will the weekly announcements be sent out? What time zone is been followed for the course? Participants must be clear about what is expected of them and where to go for whatever they need. I must publicly say here that the communication in this course has been very clear.

6. Test all navigation and resource links.

As simple as this tip is, it is very important. It can be very frustrating for a participant to be eagerly looking around and some links are broken down or are directing wrongly. Facilitators must take care to check all resource links, document downloads, and navigation tabs lead to where they were intended to lead to.

7. Technical support

Course facilitators must be willing, ready and patient enough to give technical support to students who may be less technical or just finding some difficulty in navigating around or performing an activity. A discussion thread in the forums could be dedicated and monitored for reporting technical issues and problems. Such a thread can grow into a crowd-sourced FAQ where other students also provide help for colleagues.

That’s it for now. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with these? What tips or best practices have you used as a facilitator during the early stages of your online course? As a student, what strategies have you seen facilitators use just before or during the early days of an online course? Do share in the comment section!

Image Source: Elearning Buzz
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