Facilitation is the art of leadership in group communication. A facilitator is one who fulfills this leadership role. In online settings, these terms are often employed interchangeably with “moderating” and “moderator.”
Facilitation in both online and face to face settings aims to promote a congenial social atmosphere and a lively exchange of views. The online facilitator resembles his or her face-to-face equivalent in important respects. Here is how facilitation is described in one classic account (Hiltz and Turoff: 1978, pp 23-24):
« In order for a computerized conference to be successful the moderator has to work very hard at both the ‘social host’ and the ‘meeting chairperson’ roles. As social host she/he has to issue warm invitations to people; send encouraging private messages to people complimenting them or at least commenting on their entries, or suggesting what they may be uniquely qualified to contribute. As meeting chairperson, she/he must prepare an enticing-sounding initial agenda; frequently summarize or clarify what has been going on; try to express the emerging consensus or call for a formal vote; sense and announce when it is time to move on to a new topic. Without this kind of active moderator role, a conference is not apt to get off the ground. »
Classifications of Facilitating Activities
One popular approach to classifying facilitation activities is to separate them into four categories: pedagogical, social, managerial, and technical. The pedagogical role concerns the teacher’s contribution of specialized knowledge and insights to the discussion, using questions and probes to encourage student responses, and to focus discussion on critical concepts. In addition, by modeling such behavior, the teacher prepares the students to lead the pedagogical activities themselves.
Successful online teaching requires a friendly social environment. The social role of the teacher includes promoting human relationships, affirming and recognizing students’ inputs, providing opportunities for students to develop a sense of group cohesiveness, maintaining the group as a unit, and helping students to work together in a mutual cause.
The managerial role concerns organizational, procedural, and administrative activities. This role involves providing objectives, setting timetables, setting procedural rules and decision-making norms. The technical role concerns responsibility for ensuring participants’ comfort and ease in using the network system and the conferencing software. It requires the facilitator to be proficient with the technology.
An issue of some importance in discussions of online pedagogy concerns what has been called “teaching presence.” Teaching presence is defined as the extent to which the participants, especially the teacher, are able to design educational experiences, provide direct instruction, and facilitate discourse. In this context, facilitation involves identifying areas of agreement and disagreement, seeking consensus, acknowledging student contributions and posing questions, prompting and summarizing discussions, establishing a netiquette, and diagnosing and dealing with misconceptions.
Like most of the large literature on the subject, these approaches describe online facilitation in terms of corresponding face-to-face activities. However, the correspondences are not exact. The subtle differences between online and face-to-face facilitation is due to the differences in the means of communication in the two settings.
A communication-theoretic approach to facilitation emphasizing the differences between online and face-to-face activities. This approach highlights the specific communicative activities belonging to the online facilitating role. These can be distinguished for analytic purposes from other activities of facilitators such as the social management of personal relationships in the group, technical support for participants with difficulties, and pedagogical practices such as asking questions and explaining concepts. Focusing on these communicative differences is helpful in gaining a fuller understanding of the online setting and the special demands it makes on facilitators. (For a full list of communicative functions, see the accompanying Table.)
Establishing a Communication Model
In face-to-face settings the facilitator’s most difficult challenge is insuring everyone a chance to speak through the skillful management of turn taking. Turn taking is not a problem in asynchronous online forums. Instead, the online facilitator is mainly engaged in compensating for the absence of the usual tacit cues that enable communication partners to understand and recognize each other when face-to-face. The online facilitator’s first and most basic task is to construct the social reality of the electronic encounter by choosing a communication model for the group. As soon as we enter a room, we orient ourselves more or less consciously in function of tacit cues we notice in the context of the communication process we are about to join. These contextual cues establish a shared communication model from which flows roles, norms, and expectations.
Since no tacit signs visible in the environment establish a communication model on-line, facilitators typically must make an explicit choice for the group they lead, reducing the strangeness of the medium by defining a familiar context with a system of roles and rules imitated from everyday life. The facilitator must outline the norms of online behavior early in the life of the group. These contextualizing functions are all-important in relieving some of the anxiety participants experience in a communication setting that is not defined in advance by tacit cues. Once a communication model has been established, the facilitator must play the specific leadership role it implies, such as chairperson, host, teacher, or entertainer. In part, this role will consist in monitoring conformity with the communication model and reassuring participants that their contributions to the discussion are appropriate, or where they are not, gently guiding them toward a better understanding of the model. To keep the conversation on track the facilitator must also occasionally offer explicit “meta-comments” which broach communication problems encountered by the group as a whole.
Sustaining Motivations to Participate
Members of an online forum often have extrinsic motivations to participate such as job requirements or grades. But the social cohesion of an online forum depends not only upon the extrinsic motives participants bring from their off-line lives, but also on the intrinsic motives that emerge in the course of the interaction. In this respect too, online forums resemble the face-to-face meetings and classes they imitate. Without skillful facilitation, concern for grades is usually insufficient to sustain an interesting classroom discussion. Similarly, facilitation is necessary to maintain participation in online classes.
Students bring some measure of curiosity and a desire to shine to the classroom. Facilitation works with these motivations. The teacher awakens the students’ curiosity and the suspense keeps the students attentive till it is satisfied. Surprising facts or concepts excite interest and provoke comments. Recognition for contributing stimulates the desire to contribute again. Every teacher is aware of these dynamics and plays on them in facilitating classroom discussion. Students online respond to the same stimuli; only the environment is different.
This difference is, however, considerable. Misunderstandings can be rapidly corrected in the classroom, leaving a far larger margin for ambiguity and error than in an online forum where confusion may take days to straighten out. Clarity of expression is thus required of everyone and of the facilitator above all. Sometimes this means writing far longer topic raisers and summary comments than would seem appropriate spoken in front of a class. Similarly, recognizing student contributions is a heavier burden online, where students do not see the tacit response of their comrades and so need more frequent reassurance from the teacher.
Despite these problems, students enjoy well facilitated online discussions and learn a great deal from the practice of writing about the concepts of their field of study. There is something exciting about the daily rhythm of signing on and looking for the next batch of messages, which may include responses to one’s own comments and new perspectives introduced by the teacher. Participation in an online discussion forum can acquire an “addictive” quality that keeps the students coming back for more day after day throughout the term.
Facilitation and Teaching
The ten communicative functions outlined in the Table maintain the flow of the online conversation regardless of its purpose and content. They will be performed one way or another in any successful online group. Sometimes responsibility for maintaining the flow is widely distributed among members of the group, each of whom occasionally performs one or another function, sometimes it is concentrated primarily in a single facilitator. There are strong reasons to prefer the latter pattern in the online class.
In online education, skillful facilitation is skillful teaching. There is no alternative pedagogy available. This is due to inherent limitations of the medium. Online lecturing, either in print or video, lacks the interactive qualities essential to good teaching. The problem is not with lecturing as such. In a small classroom the teacher can encourage interaction by remaining open to comments and questions, but this flexibility is lost when lectures are reproduced online. Online lectures thus differ little from ordinary reading assignments, which by themselves hardly constitute a classroom experience. Technically sophisticated solutions employing interactive video are still too complicated for most classroom instruction. In response to this limitation, most online educators employ discussion in asynchronous forums as the nearest practical equivalent to a familiar face-to-face classroom experience.
As in a face-to-face class, online facilitation of discussion offers the teacher many opportunities to advance students’ understanding. In this context, the communicative functions of facilitation are not purely social, distinct from the delivery of educational content. Many social and pedagogical activities are best carried out in the course of performing the communicative functions. For example, maintaining a friendly environment requires recognizing individual contributions promptly so that no one feels left out. Similarly, concepts are often explained in the context of opening discussions with topic raisers.
Weaving comments are of particular importance in the online pedagogy practiced by many teachers. As a communicative function, weaving enables the group to take stock of agreements and disagreements and to mark its place on its agenda. This is accomplished by grasping in one text the pattern found in a number of previous comments. To write weaving comments, it is necessary to review the discussion archive carefully, refreshing the memory of earlier contributions, clarifying confused expressions, identifying the themes, making connections.
In the context of an online course, these activities create pedagogical opportunities. The weaving comment can do more than just summarize the previous discussion in the language of that discussion. It can connect student contributions to the themes of the forum and apply higher level concepts from the teacher’s discipline to the students’ ideas and experiences. This is a particularly effective way of enhancing teaching presence in the online class.
Online education is scarcely more than 20 years old. In that short period, there have been many discussions of facilitation in the literature (see suggested reading) but the same themes reappear over and over. For the most part this literature is not based on elaborate research but on practical experience. Nevertheless, there is a well grounded consensus on the essential aspects of online facilitation. The different emphases of different commentators help to build a full picture of the art. No doubt further research on facilitation will contribute new elements to our understanding of this important activity, but enough is already known to inform the practice of teachers new to the field.
Originally published in Encyclopedia of Distributed Learning, Sage, 2004, pp. 163-166. Available in French.
For Further Reading:
Anderson, T., L. Rourke, Garrison, D. R, Archer, W. (2001). “Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing environment.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5(2).
Berge, Z. L. (1995). “Facilitating Computer Conferencing: Recommendations from the Field.” Educational Technology 15(1): 22-30.
Feenberg, A. (1989). The Written World. Mindweave: Communication, Computers, and Distance Education. R. Mason and A. Kaye (Eds.). Oxford: Pergamon Press: 22-39.
Hiltz, S. R. and M. Turoff (1978 & 1993). The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Paulsen, M. F. (1995). Moderating Educational Computer Conferences. Z. L. Berge & M. P. Collins (Eds.). Computer-mediated communication and the on-line classroom in Distance Education. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.