The Importance of Facilitating Online Learning

You have an online course and wonder whether you need to facilitate it. And you wonder about the best way to do that and how much of your time needs to be invested.

In this blog post, I discuss the following 4 important items about online facilitation:

  1. Importance of facilitating
  2. Best facilitation practices
  3. Time consideration for everyone
  4. Supportive technology


The Importance of Facilitating Online Learning

I am going to drop the bomb here – learning without instructor facilitation or dynamic discussions is considered ineffective in an online course. There needs to be guided interaction from the instructor (or trained team) and between students to make a course. Otherwise, it’s a one-way transmission of information, like a book.

As such, “an online discussion strategy is imperative for student learning [as] distance learning courses experience high attrition [drop out] rates resulting from factors such as students feeling isolated, unmotivated, overwhelmed or unchallenged” (Du et al, 2005.)  

To add, “learning is a social activity that is strengthened when instruction is carefully facilitated by an instructor” whose roles and responsibilities include attempting to involve all learners, carefully designing written communication, providing feedback, motivating learners to stay on track, and helping them make meaningful connection to the content (Young, 2006.)

As an example, through my E-Course Check-Up service I helped Racheal Cook devise ways to enhance individual and group facilitation in her online course, Conscious Business Design. She was finding enrolment was increasing in her rich program and in turn, she was being spread too thin as the main facilitator. Yet, Racheal was very clear she wanted to continue providing personal support and service to her students.

I proposed the following: To have themed groups work together to create small learning communities; assign coaches to each themed groups to create focus and contextualization; facilitate deep discussions within and across groups via a forum; post personal recorded messages from Racheal addressing current student questions, etc.

The results showed that Racheal’s students loved the attention and ‘presence’ of the teaching staff and the peer connections making them feel supported, guided and interacting with human beings.

I can’t count the number of research papers (hundreds) I have read that report over and over student facilitation and communication are imperative for online courses. Whereas, large canned/pre-recorded e-courses are missing important elements that enhance learning – in fact, they detract from it.


Levels of Facilitation

However, not all online courses need rigorous facilitation and in turn, could drain the instructor, students and resources. I outline 3 levels of course intensities with suggestions for facilitation approaches.


Best Practices for Online Facilitation

Below are suggested best practices for online facilitation from Stephen Brookfield, Malcolm Knowles and Joseph Levine – all highly regarded adult and online learning researchers. Try to apply these to your course.

Preparing for facilitation before the course starts

  • Plan your involvement (or your teams) and schedule and honour that time
  • List the discussion topics and rich questions you plan to post at certain times
  • Set up separate themed posts for students to respond to (vs one long page of replies)
  • Determine and post the rules of conduct in discussion forums to create safety
  • Choose 2 or 3 modes of communication for diverse learning styles (see last section)

Facilitating discussions during the course

  • Set the tone at the beginning for a safe and supportive learning environment
  • Warm up with personal introductions, how to use technology and interact, and encourage sharing of ideas and questions
  • Guide discussion using a diversity of approaches to promote discussion (i.e. problems to solve; case study with deep questions; contextualized reflective question; students summarizing their learning  vs posting simple, factual questions)
  • Be flexible as discussions unfold in different directions driven by student queries
  • Attend to emotional discussions by not stopping but rather cooling it down with assigned journal reflections afterwards
  • Use your own personality and build on your strengths as a facilitator
  • Value student participation and individual views in unique ways (i.e. praise, rewards/points, sharing, affirming feedback)
  • At end of specific discussions, summarize key points made (a form of feedback) and close the discussion thread

Time Consideration for Everyone

Discussions, interacting and facilitating take time. It may seem no one is showing up, participation is low or you’re spending too many hours interacting online. Consider the following points.

Student Time

Online learners who take a course by choice (i.e. informal or continuous learning) don’t have the same pressure to complete a course as with a college student. With your learners, sometimes life gets in the way, they burn out, lose interest or plan to pick it up later. That’s normal.

I use a 30-40-30 rule when describing the typical participation of online learners. Expecting this type of interaction will ease your mind about student involvement and perhaps, find different ways to reach them.

online participation

Probable hours of student participation per week: 2

Instructor Time

First, the less you are facilitating in a course the more content you have to create to replace you. Adversely, the more you are involved (i.e. posting comments, providing live calls, giving individual or group feedback) the less you need to construct online. You can see the shift in facilitator involvement with the intensity of a course, whereas a light course should have complete instructions, lessons and learning resources as the facilitator might be absent.

Second, and listen very carefully … you will burn out if you attempt to answer every post or comment by your students (assuming there are 25+ students.) To avoid this, try the following:

  1. Every day or 3 times a week, quickly review the posts by students
  2. Immediately address those needing help (i.e. tech glitch, very confused, missing learning materials)
  3. Find a few key posts that seem to be stating or asking the same as others and post your answer where everyone can see it. Mention the name of the posters and that you see others have the same ideas/comments/questions
  4. Give space for peers to help each other as they might have great ideas to share
  5. Summarize the discussion adding the odd name of posters to show you have been reading their work. Dispel any misunderstandings of the content, at this time.

Expected hours of instructor participation per week:

  • Light intensity course: 2
  • Medium intensity course: 7
  • High intensity course: 15

Supportive Technology for Facilitation

There are two terms to how people interact and communicate online: Asynchronously or synchronously.

  1. Asynchronous communication is delayed, such as posting a comment in a Facebook group when you are ready.
  2. Synchronous communication is in the moment and live, such as with a webinar.

Best practices: Try to use a mix of asynch and synch communication throughout your course; however, live communication is not really necessary for light intensity courses.

Consider the following types of communication/interaction to enhance a course. Ensure to consider the amount of time you and your students will be required to invest and select the right combo.



So should you facilitate your course or send out a self-directed version?

I suggest ‘you’ show up in some capacity as your learners actually purchased the course because of your lovely self and they really want human contact.

Wouldn’t you?


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