What skills are required for the maintenance of a successful online learning community? After a review of my experience so far, I have come up with a list of five skills that I believe are important.

  1. Ensuring a shared vision
  2. Removing barriers to participation
  3. Encouraging participation
  4. Facilitating social interaction
  5. Sensitivity to group dynamics

 

Ensuring there is a shared vision

In a dynamic community, the members of the group will continually change over time as some members leave and others join. The vision of the community, it’s objectives and expectations of both the group as a whole and individuals within that group should be revisited regularly to ensure that they remain coherent with the vision of the community’s participants (

In the educational context the vision and objections are defined to some degree by the course learning outcomes, but within this structure there is still room for individual interpretation. It’s advisable to take time to ensure that the expectations of staff and students remain coherent.

According to )

“healthy communities are self-managing and self-governing. Members have a sense of ownership.”

How do we encourage ownership of the community?

Two ways in which a sense of ownership may be promoted are through encouraging involvement in the process of vision and expectation setting and through encouraging participation in group processes.

Removing barriers to participation

In the online environment, one of the greatest barriers to participation is a lack of computer literacy. This is often more of a psychological barrier than a technical barrier, but nonetheless can have a dramatic effect on the perceived ability (or efficacy) of participants to engage with the online environment.

“One’s personal sense of efficacy is the strongest attitudinal predictor of participation. The more people feel like they can make a difference in solving problems, the more likely they are to be involved in community activities and issues.” (Simons, 2006)

The online facilitator should have some familiarity and competence in the use of a range of communication technologies. This is important so that the facilitator can make informed choices regarding the optimal mix of communication channels (number of communication channels, synchronous vs. asynchronous, text-based vs. voice-based, etc.) and so that the facilitator can provide troubleshooting support to the participants.

Participants should be supported to develop their own technical competency & computer self-effiacy. Facilitators can support this need of participants by ensuring that they provide adequate instructions (McQuillan, 2007b) to new participants, and that they allow time and space for participants to explore any new communication technologies before they are expected to be used for community-related tasks. It has been observed that when a new communication interface is used, most of the attention of new users is absorbed into gaining familiarity with that interface until the user becomes competent. Quality interaction generally occurs after this initial period. (McQuillan, 2007d)

Another way in which participant’s computer literacy and self-effiacy can be developed is through the use of computer literacy programmes (McQuillan, 2007a) that can be independent of or integrated with community activities.

Encouraging participation

) says that one sign of a healthy online community is

“really active and consistent participation within the community. Community members … start to moderate themselves. It isn’t just the (facilitator) that handles…issues…. members… answer questions.”

As participants in online communities become more familiar with the communication technology and the community, they tend to participate more. If an online facilitator understands the stages which people move through when participating in online communities they will be better prepared to encourage them towards greater participation.

Derek Wenmoth (2006) describes a four stage level of participation model which illustrates the different stages participants move through when becoming involved in an online community. Derek’s model seems to best describe a participant that chooses to be involved in an online community out of interest rather than a student who is involved in the community because it is required by their course, however most of the ideas are probably still relevant.

 

Gilly Salmon’s 5-stage model (2004) provides a practical guide for facilitators, and concentrates on the technical support that is required, and the types of facilitation behaviour which are optimal at each stage of group development.

This model provides a guide to how a facilitator may encourage people to move towards greater participation at different stages of group development, but there are also facilitation techniques that may be applied at any stage for this purpose. Dobson (2006) describes some of these

  • Make sure everyone gets a chance to speak

  • Encourage open discussion
  • Draw people out with open-ended questions
  • Inject humor
  • Paraphrasing & Clarifying

Recognising the contributions of participants should also encourage participation. Both contributions towards the course learning outcomes, and community-focussed contributions should be recognised.

My conversations with online educators have indicated that a common strategy is to make participation a course requirement. This definitely seems to encourage activity, but does this directed rather than self-directed activity foster community & participation?

Some commentators argue that it is important for a community organizer or facilitator to view their role as being a member of the community rather than as an owner or director of the community (; Glogowski, 2007b; Blackall, 2007). The idea is that if someone is taking the role of the teacher, expert, or director of the group, then the participants are encouraged to be passively involved. If the facilitator is rather a participant in the community, the space is provided for others to take ownership of the community, and be more actively involved. Assuming the role of teacher or expert may be a barrier to the creation of an authentic learning community.

Glogowski (2007b) talks of “losing the teacherly voice”, however he says that this “is not the equivalent of losing the voice of an expert”.

“I cannot pretend that I (am not an expert in the topic). In fact, I probably shouldn’t because they are in my class to learn from me, and they expect me to be their guide and introduce them to the topic.” (Glogowski, 2007b)

“the challenge is that when I try to divest myself of my teacherly voice. I need to remember that this process is not about losing the voice of the expert but about losing the voice of the traditional authoritarian teacher who enters the classroom as an official persona armed with a pre-defined set of goals and very specific lesson plans for his students to follow. It is about giving the students the freedom to engage with ideas that they find relevant and interesting, not about dictating every step of their learning process.” (Glogowski, 2007b)

Facilitating social interaction

One of the ways in which an online facilitator my initially help to facilitate social interaction is through the design and establishment of the communication channels which are used by the online community, however once these channels are established there are many other ways in which the online facilitator can be involved in social interactions.

Glogowski (2007a) believes that one of the most important aims of the online facilitator is to “promote all activity, make it visible & easy to access”. By this he alludes to the fact that in the online environment sometimes valuable contributions may be unseen by other participants.

Dobson (2006) describes several ways in which social interaction may be facilitated

  • Encourage work in pairs or groups
  • Make space for social time and activities

Salmon (2004) sees the facilitation needs of the group changing as they gain familiarity with the online context, and describes through her 5-stage model types of facilitation that may be appropriate at each stage.

Be sensitive to group dynamics

A facilitator should consider the dynamics of a group, and should engage with the group differently depending on the group dynamics (McQuillan, 2007c)

  • In the early stages of group formation, a more directive leadership style is generally needed
  • As the group matures and becomes more comfortable in the online environment, and with each other a more facilitative leadership style become appropriate.

Conflict is a natural part of being in a community. A facilitator should know how to deal effectively with conflict. Dobson (2006) has some suggestions

  • If people seem tense because of unvoiced disagreement, you may need to bring concerns out into the open
  • Flare-ups: When two members get into a heated discussion, summarize the points made by each and then turn the discussion back to the group.
  • Grandstanding: Interrupt the one-person show with a statement that gives credit for his or her contribution, but ask the person to reserve other points for later.
  • Broken recording: Paraphrase the contribution of someone who repeats the same point over and over. This lets the person know they have been heard.
  • Interrupting: Step in immediately. “Hold on, let Margaret finish what she has to say.”
  • Continual criticizing: Legitimize negative feelings on difficult issues. You might say, “Yes, it will be tough to reduce traffic congestion on Main Street, but there are successful models we can look at.”
  • Identify areas of common ground

In online communities a participant’s lack of awareness of the principles of netiquette may lead to offense & conflict. An online facilitator should be familiar with the principles of netiquette, and should identify where inappropriate communication is leading to social issues. Simply bringing the attention of the participants involved to what is occurring is likely to alleviate the immediate problem to some degree, but it is probably advisable to direct the participants to netiquette resources where relevant.

Conclusion

There are many skills required to successfully maintain an online learning community. I have outlined the skills which in my recent experience seem to be relevant, and in doing this have realised how much I’ve learnt over the past 4/5 months. This post is not as coherent as I’d like, but I guess that’s probably to do with the nature of my thoughts on this topic at present – Many fragments of knowledge, with some overarching themes that tie the pieces together into some kind of whole.

References 

Blackall, L. (2007). To facilitate or teach. Retrieved on 18 November, 2007 from http://learnonline.wordpress.com/2007/10/12/to-facilitate-or-to-teach/

https://massageonline.wordpress.com/2007/10/08/managing-technology-glitches-in-online-education/

https://massageonline.wordpress.com/2007/08/15/teaching-vs-facilitation-through-the-lens-of-leadership-theory/

https://massageonline.wordpress.com/2007/09/12/time-familiarity-and-socialisation/

http://www.techlearning.com/blog/2007/08/the_art_of_building_virtual_co.php

Salmon, G. (2004). The 5-stage model. Retrieved on 18 November, 2007 from http://www.atimod.com/e-moderating/5stage.shtml

Wenmoth, D. (2006). Participation Online – the Four Cs. Retrieved on 18 November, 2007 from http://blog.core-ed.net/derek/2006/11/participation_online_the_four.html

Advertisements