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I’m getting into the specifics of designing my assessments.  Last night I was thinking about how to structure my blogging assessment.  In my research methods class, I want to use blog posts in the early days to assess their development of knowledge and skills of research.  To do this, I want them to make four posts

  1. Describe the research process (Week 9)
  2. Describe how information from different sources may vary in quality and how to differentiate good quality information from poor quality (Week 10)
  3. (Given the choice of several topics)  Describe your search process including the creation of your search query, databases accessed, sources found and information quality (Week 12)
  4. (Given several research articles of different types)  Assess the quality of the research findings in each case (Week 13)

I think these four posts will help to scaffold them into the task of performing first a joint literature review, then an individual literature review (more on the joint literature review later).

So that’s all fine, but when considering our assessment policies I realised that for every assessment, our students have the opportunity to resit the assessment if they’re marked as not competent on the first attempt.  At first glance, I thought that this was going to create a monster, however with a bit of thinking I’ve come up with a solution which I think might work.

The plan is to give the students two submission dates, one week apart.  To meet competency, the students will need to make a post on the topic, and have that post graded at a minimum of 2 on the blogging rubric.  The marker will need to review the post of everyone in the class briefly, record key points of misunderstanding, and provide individual feedback on the blogs of students who have not met the competency requirement.  They will then create generalised feedback for the class as a whole which clarifies the main areas of understanding.

The students will then have a week before their final assessment to read the posts of other students, to develop their understanding, and update their original post if they like.  My hope is that this period of reflection will help to stimulate cross-fertilisation of ideas.  At the end of this week the blog post will be graded using the complete rubric.  This rubric has been updated based on the feedback of Whitney & Leigh – thanks guys.  Here is the updated version.

This process will be reasonably time-intensive, but I think it should be managable.  It strikes me as a teaching model much more along the lines of George Siemen’s curator.

A curatorial teacher acknowledges the autonomy of learners, yet understands the frustration of exploring unknown territories without a map. A curator is an expert learner. Instead of dispensing knowledge, he creates spaces in which knowledge can be created, explored, and connected. While curators understand their field very well, they don’t adhere to traditional in-class teacher-centric power structures. A curator balances the freedom of individual learners with the thoughtful interpretation of the subject being explored. (Siemens, 2007)

Siemens talks about the role of the curator being to locate and structure an “exhibition” of learning objects or resources which the students are then free to explore.  The teacher as a guide rather than the font of all knowledge.


Research Aims

The research project has a number of related aims.

1. To review on an ongoing basis the experience (satisfaction vs. dissatisfaction) and achievement of students in the blended programme

2. To implement changes to improve student experience and achievement.

3.Is blended learning effective in massage education?



In recent years an increasing number of educational institutions have begun to offer their courses by online or blended delivery. Massage educators have been slow to adopt these contemporary approaches to learning, but there are now a number of educational institutions offering massage therapy education either purely online or with a blended style of delivery (Remedial massage, 2008; How can you, 2008). Within New Zealand a number of educational institutions are considering the exploration of educational options within this area (J. Morgan, personal communication June 14, 2008; B. Bernie, personal communication June 14, 2008; H. Lofthouse, personal communication June 29, 2008; T. Rodgers, personal communication June 14, 2008). Many massage education providers consider online and/or blended delivery education for massage therapy to be inferior to traditional class-room-based delivery models (P. Charlton, personal communication June 14, 2008; T. Rodgers, personal communication June 14,2008; A. Palmer, personal communication June 14, 2008).

The online environment is rapidly changing, and a course which aims to utilise the richness of contemporary online applications may often be involved in the use of a technology in a way which has not been documented previously. An experimental educational delivery style is therefore called for, where the teachers involved in online education trial the use of an online application with a group of students in a particular way, then assess how effective this educational experience has been. The integrated group of technologies which are used to deliver the course is described here as the online learning environment.

The Otago Polytechnic massage therapy programme has recently undergone the transition from a purely face-to-face delivery style to a blended delivery style. The programme’s delivery style is making use of contemporary online applications such as wikis, blogs, collaborative document editing, voice-over-internet-protocols (such as MSN messenger and skype). This is new ground for massage therapy education, and in many ways for education in general. The department feels that there is a need to monitor the student’s experience and achievement in this new context and to make changes to improve that experience over time.

Literature review

The online component of our course has an email forum (a google group) for the year 1 students which is intended to have a function analagous to the discussions which you have in the classroom.

Because of the increased amount of time which is available for the students to reflect on the questions asked of them (due to the assynchronous nature of these discussions), I have expected that the majority of students will participate in these discussions.  Accordingly I have made the topics of discussion fairly important or even central to the students learning in some cases.

The problem that I’m having here is low participation.  In a discussion topic posted last week two students out of a class of 16 posted a response.  This discussion topic while it is not directly assessed, is based around developing an assessment instrument that the students will use in their major piece of assessment for the course.  I’ve been fairly disappointed with the response rate as a result.  I’ve extended the period of the discussion, and heavily pushed the point that this is a critical discussion for us to have, and that has led to contributions from 2 more students so far.

Maybe I’m expecting too much?  I guess if I compare this to a classroom discussion, I might get a similar response to some questions.

Does anyone have any ideas on how I can improve the response rate (short of making the students contributions an assessment item)?

We had our Elluminate-based session yesterday. Unfortunately I forgot to record the session. I think I should be able to adequately describe the session nonetheless.

The session was roughly composed of and can be considered in three phases – Access, Experience & Discussion.


Phase One – Access

Most of the problems with the session were computer-related (surprise).
Fifteen minutes from the session start time, I discovered that Irene didn’t have a headset. We managed to source one, and logged into the computer at the computer suite that I had booked for the purpose. Unfortunately the computer within this suite was blocked from accessing Elluminate. With five minutes to go, I returned to my office and managed to log in one minute before we were due to start. Irene now needed to install the java application to her computer, and log in to Elluminate. While walking through the audio-set up she discovered that she was unable to turn up the volume slider when trying to listen. As all of this was going on, Karole was having trouble with her mike. We had discovered previously that Irene’s headset didn’t have a mike, so here I was about to start on an Elluminate session (now 10 minutes late), and only 1 out of my three participants actually had a mike. One also couldn’t hear anything through her headset, but luckily enough was sitting next to me. Lucky for me I’m a bit of a stress management expert – BREATHE. 😉

On the upside, three out of three people were able to log into the session.


I tried to ensure easy access to the Elluminate session for the participants (through directing them to the auto-setup wizards on the Elluminate site, and instructing them to allow time for downloading software) and although there were still problems with access, most of these were due to me trying to use a computer that I hadn’t used/tested previously for this purpose (pretty silly in retrospect). In the future I’ll endeavour to pre-test any computer and or network that I intend to use for educational purposes.

I think that I managed the needs of the participants pretty well. I’m happy that external participants had no major problems connecting with the session, as I believe that minimising technology-related issues is of prime importance in online education (Pillay, Irving, Tones, 2007). I was able to direct the participants who were already logged in to play around with the interface while I helped Irene get logged in.

I didn’t get stressed by the situation, and so was able to be calm & collected in communication with my students.

Phase 2 – Experience Technology

Once we were in the session, the participants were able to use messaging, and Ash (with the sole microphone) got the hang of talking fairly quickly. I demonstrated the use of power point in Elluminate, but unfortunately there was a lack of participation when I asked for people’s impressions of the proposed delivery model. I wanted the participants to type text-related impressions onto the screen, and then to use these as a basis for discussion but I didn’t get anything much to work with, so I moved on.

As we moved out of Elluminate into WikiEducator, blogs, and finally Pageflakes I used the hands up tool to determine if people could see on their screen what they needed for each stage of the directed exercise, and this was very successful. At each stage I was describing how each of these platforms would be used in the course. In the blog stage of the exercise, participants were supposed to login to their course blog, then copy & paste material from their WikiEd course page to their blog.

Unfortunately only one out of the three participants had managed to read their email prior to the session & set themselves up with a google account. As a result only one person was able to log into their blog & make their post. I made the most out of this by talking everyone through the process, and to finish off, we moved to look at the pageflakes-based course hub. The post that I had just made through my blog showed up, but it was at this stage that I found out the post made by the other participant had not been made correctly, as it didn’t show up (both here & on the course blog).


The lack of participation in the group discussion was disappointing despite my use of open-ended questions, and encouragement of open discussion (Dobson, 2006). I am really interested to know what my staffs impressions are of this “brave new world”. I can interpret this in two contradictory ways

  1. When I asked for discussion, they were struggling with figuring out the communication interface, and this was distracting them from actually engaging with what I wanted to talk about (McQuillan, 2007b).
  2. They’re happy with what I’m proposing, and trust me enough to jump in & make the best of the experience

It was also disappointing that the blog-posting exercise wasn’t particularly successful. In retrospect perhaps I could have been more directive with my instructions on how to go about setting up a google account, or perhaps we could have spent some time at the start of the session. The participants are all very busy people, and probably saw this as just another thing to do. If I had either made it easier for them (being more directive), or embedded the process within the session this might have been more successful.

I’m surprised that there was a problem with the blog posting because I thought that the process was fairly simple. I did give step-by-step instructions but perhaps my familiarity with blogging has led me to see this process as easier and less complex than it actually is? I guess the main thing that I can take away from this is that engaging with computer applications will probably be more difficult than I expect it to be for a considerable proportion of the group that I am involved in facilitating. I probably need to drop my expectations of participants in terms of how self-directed they are able to be (given that self-effiacy is a pre-requisite of self-directed learning (Connor, 2004)).

However with those negatives in mind, it seems that the participants did get a sense of how the software applications will fit together in the delivery process, and were not overwhelmed with the prospect of gaining familiarity with these platforms. As these were the main objectives of the session, I still rate this section of the session a success.

Phase 3 – Discussion & Playtime

After the guided session we had some time to discuss what we’d just done, and how people felt about using these technologies next year. No-one seemed completely freaked out by what I was proposing which was a good sign, although there were requests for regular training/meetings based on working with the technology (already planned).

We spent some time after this just playing with the interface, and I have to say that the participants seemed to learn much more from this than the guided experience that I had designed for them previously.


While participants seemed to develop skills in using the messaging window & in communication using the talk button, they seemed to learn quite a bit more and gain more confidence from the unstructured playtime in the Elluminate environment at the end of the session. This really adds more weight to Derek Chirnside’s suggestion to “practice & play with the tools before you use them” (McQuillan, 2007a), and it’s something I will definitely give more time to in the future.

Overall Reflection

Ithink that the balance of directed activities and facilitation worked fairly well in the session given the time constraints and learning outcomes. In terms of Salmon’s 5-stage model (2004), I think that the group was best characterised by the first level (Access & motivation), and to some degree the second (Online socialisation). Accordingly my aims were to provide access and an introduction to the technological platforms, and then to discuss any issues that arose. The model seemed to be appropriate in this case, and I will use it again.


The reflections in this process have been informed by Bronwyn Hegarty’s three step reflective framework (2005), although the descriptions of reflection above do not follow the structure of the model.


Connor, C. (2004). Developing self-directed learners. Oregan, USA: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved on November 11, 2007 from

The citizen’s handbook – a guide to building community

Hegarty Reflective Framework and Template. Retrieved on 20 November, 2007 from

Managing technology glitches in online education

Time, familiarity and socialisation.

Pillay, H., Irving, K., & Tones, M. (2007). Validation of the diagnostic tool for assessing Tertiary students’ readiness for online learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 26:2, 217 – 234

Salmon, G. (2004). The 5-stage model. Retrieved on 18 November, 2007 from

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.


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.


Blackall, L. (2007). To facilitate or teach. Retrieved on 18 November, 2007 from

Salmon, G. (2004). The 5-stage model. Retrieved on 18 November, 2007 from

Wenmoth, D. (2006). Participation Online – the Four Cs. Retrieved on 18 November, 2007 from

I’ve been so caught up in the experience of the facilitating online communities course that I’ve hardly paid attention to the nature of the assessments – not something that I’d recommend to my students normally ;-).

So I guess it’s not surprising that when I look at Assessment 1 – Reflecting on your learning that I’m still some distance from completing the assessment tasks. I need to put some work in here.

Assessment 2 – Contribute to a wiki.

For this assessment I need to

i. Develop at least one page on the wiki relevant to your discipline

  • Done this.

ii. Contribute to the wiki discussion to inform others what you have been doing on the wiki, and to give feedback to at least two other participants – this needs to be a reasonably indepth critique with rationale and suggestions.

  • I think I’ve done this sufficiently, but I’m not sure???

iii. Contibute to general content on the wiki for future courses – add at least two resources.

  • I’m not sure what “a resource” is, or where I’m supposed to put this. Does the Computer Literacy Resources project count – my aim here being supporting computer literacy of online learners & therefore access?

iv. Add a link in your blog to your wiki page.

v. Write a summary on your blog about your impressions of wikis and their use in building

It’s somewhat difficult to have an impression of wikis & their use in building communities because of my limited experience with this. Yvonne has made some comments on my page which have been really useful – Thanks Yvonne. :-). I also see that the comments that I’ve made on Yvonne’s page seem to have been useful to her in the building of her page, so this is evidence I guess that when people are engaged in reviewing each others work that wikis can be a useful collaborative tool. But it doesn’t answer the question are they useful in building community?

I’ve had more experience of working with a group of people through my involvement in the Computer Literacy Resources project. My experience here has been that the wiki provides a useful space for people to collaborate on content, however most of the community building related to this project has come about through face to face contact with participants. Also, while I’ve invited people to be involved who are not based at Otago Polytechnic, it’s only been the people who have been regularly meeting face to face that are contributing to the project.

I’ve got another project planned – Massage Therapy Educational Resources – where I’m going to invite other massage educators that I’m in contact with in NZ, Australia & the US to contribute to the creation of resources that can be used in massage education. I might be better placed to make a comment on the use of wikis in a year or so, as I imagine that most of the collaboration here will come from outside of New Zealand.

Assessment 3 & 4

  • Plan how you will facilitate a discussion
  • Reflection on your facilitation of a discussion

I’ve got a meeting time scheduled, and have the session mostly planned out, but it needs a bit more work before I’ll be happy to post my plan here. I’m planning a session where I will introduce key staff members to the technological interface that we’ll be using for our course next year. Unfortunately the only time that we can all meet is 20 November, which I think is after the finish date of this course. Hopefully this is OK???

I’ve just finished reading through a research article which investigates the effectiveness of online learning in the SUNY (State University of New York) learning network (Shea, Fredericksen, Pickett, Pelz, Swan, 2001). The interesting thing about this research is that in contrast to other reports that I’ve read (1,2) they find that student retention is not significantly different in their F2F classes & their online classes, and that their students are at least as satisified if not more in their online classes. In response to the statement “Overall I was very satisfied with this online course” 39% of the students agreed strongly, Another 40% agreed, 6% disagreed & 5% disagreed strongly.

So what about the SUNY learning network programmes might be different?

In the SUNY learning network, courses are designed based on principles of social constructivism where learning is seen as an outcome of socialisation. Accordingly there is a strong focus on the use of discussion forums and student-teacher interaction. The authors believe that the level of interaction contributes to the development of “knowledge building communities”.

In addition the responsibility for course development is laid at the feet of the teaching staff, and they are provided with support in the area of instructional design. It is thought that this results in quality and coherence due to the fact that the teacher of the course knows the material better than anyone else.

I’m not sure how different this is from the other reports that I’ve read. Social constructivism definately seems to be the dominant pedagogical model used in online learning, but I’m not sure how long this has been the case. However it seems likely that the student satisfaction & retention characteristic of these courses are at least partially due to a combination of the factors discussed above.

Key Findings of the Research

  • Very strong correlation found between student satisfaction and perceived learning
  • Both high satisfaction & reported learning are highly correlated with
    • Prompt, high quality feedback from the instructor
    • Clear expecations of how to proceed in the course successfully
    • A high level of interaction with classmates
    • Satisfaction with computer support
    • Simplified course structure (fewer modules/pages)

    Those who experienced problems due to technical difficulties were most likely to report the lowest levels of learning & satisfaction.

  • Computer skill prior to taking part in an online course was not correlated with learning & satisfaction

These last two points are interesting. Another study (Pillay, Irving, Tones, 2007) found that computer self-efficacy was correlated with learning & satisfaction. At first glance the finding of Pillay et al. seems to be supported by the first point, and contradicted by the second point. Perhaps a high level of interaction mediates computer difficulties as students are able to gain support from their peers and/or teaching staff? Another possibility is that the course has computer literacy supports embedded within the courses or accessible by students who are enrolled in the courses (although there is no discussion of this in the article).

One other point of interest is that in their literature review, the authors found that many studies showed that collaborative learning was not effective in an online context. It’s worth noting that the study discussed here was completed in 2001. Articles in the literature review would mostly have been completed before this date, and there have been many developments in online learning since this time. It would be interesting to see some more contemporary research on this topic.


Pillay, H., Irving, K., & Tones, M. (2007). Validation of the diagnostic tool for assessing Tertiary students’ readiness for online learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 26:2, 217 – 234

Shea, P., Fredericksen, E., Pickett, A., Pelz, W., & Swan, K. (2001). Measures of Learning Effectiveness in the SUNY Learning Network. In J. Bourne, & J. Moore (Eds.), Online Education – Volume 2 – Learning Effectiveness, Faculty Satisfaction and Cost Effectiveness – Proceedings of the 2000 Summer Workshop on Asynchronous Learning Networks. Massachusetts, USA: Sloan Centre for Online Education.

Taking Otago Polytechnic’s Designing for Flexible Learning Practice course before Facilitating Online Communities has definitely been a huge advantage to me in that I was already aware and partially competent in the use of many of the web-based technologies that we have used in the course.  This has freed me up to concentrate on content rather than technicalities, and I am aware that the need to develop competency in the use of these technologies has been a barrier to some of my classmates which to their credit they have overcome.  The observation of this has really reinforced my belief in the need for computer pre-requisite skills for online courses or at least significant computer support built into online courses.

In the early stages I was quite actively involved in following the structure of the course as defined by Blackboard and the course blog.  My experience of this was somewhat frustrating.  I initially wasn’t able to login to Blackboard due to password/user-name problems.  Once I finally got involved, I found some of the exercises and readings to be quite interesting and others to be seemingly less relevant and overly theoretical.  I did like the idea of marking the focus of activities as being individual, group, or class. 

Bronwyn & Leigh – Do you know if we can use the images that are used for this within the Blackboard shell?

I really enjoyed Geert Hofstede’s article on Cultural Differences in Teaching and Learning.  I was keen to try out communicating through the Blackboard discussion forums, but actually found this to be fairly awkward.  Also there was a fairly low level of participation in the forums which meant that our learning projects made little process which was frustrating, and in the end I gave up on this aspect of the course.

By this stage the group had mostly decided to move the focus of the course outside of Blackboard anyway.  So we moved on to a series of guest lectures, which have been generally fairly thought provoking.

Some participants have expressed some concern and dissatisfaction with the seemingly unstructured nature of the course from this point forwards.  Personally I came into the course with few expectations, and have been happy to ride the wave of learning experiences.  I think that most of my learning has actually come from engaging with the technology, communicating with other participants, and observing other people doing the same rather than the course content.  It’s been somewhat useful to be introduced to different speakers, ideas and theories, but I think that most of my learning has come through the discussion & observation of the discussion that has wrapped these experiences.

Has a community of learners developed in this course?

The course google group was the first place where group communication really happened on a regular basis, and I think that this communication channel has probably been an contributor to the development of community, however…

I first noticed that I was getting a sense of a community through blogging.  From the start of the course I been browsing everyone’s postings through my bloglines RSS reader, and after about 5-6 weeks of doing this I felt that I was really getting a sense of the other participants although there was still only a little cross-posting happening at this stage.  Interestingly enough I commented on this on my blog and in the group email forum and feedback from other participants was that most people did not have this same experience of a community.  I’m interested to know how many course participants now have the experience of being part of a learning community.


Have we developed a community of learnersPersonally I’ve really enjoyed the experience of blogging in this community of learners.  It’s been great putting my ideas out there and (lately) getting fairly instantaneous responses from other people in the course giving their perspective on my thoughts.  I think the reason that I’ve found blogging to be more effective than email communication in creating a sense of relationship with other learners is that blog postings are typically more considered than emails.  They take you deeper into the thought processes of other people, and you get more of a sense of who they are and where they’re coming from.

The elluminate sessions and skype channel have also been fantastic communication options.  It’s been good to have some synchronous options.  With the 10 minute elluminate lecture series we’ve all had the opportunity to meet around a shared conversational topic and to discuss in realtime the issues that were important to us.  Skype’s also been a great way of communicating with other participants and getting a response fairly instantaneously – generally I’ve found that we’ve used it to discuss issues that we’re thinking about, or having trouble with.

So I guess that each of the communication channels that we’ve used have had their benefits.  They’ve each allowed us to communicate in a slightly different form, and I believe that all of them have been useful in community development.

Lately I’ve been guilty of following my own interests to large degree, and have treated the course offerings as food for thought and stimulation of my own processes rather than basing my learning around them.  On reflection, perhaps this is a good thing.  I guess that in a real-world learning community people will follow their own interests, and their motivation for being involved in the community will presumably to be inspiration, motivation, reflection and food for thought.

I think I’ve noticed that as the group matures (& becomes more of a community?) other participants are also focusing on the issues that are important to them, and I believe that our communications have more depth as a result.

There has been controversy, and at times it’s seemed to be potentially divisive, but to the credit of the course facilitators any controversy and criticism has not been taken personally, and the conflict seems to have strengthened the community if anything.

So in response to my initial question.  I believe a community has developed, and is getting stronger by the week.  Although I probably won’t choose to facilitate any of my online teaching in such an unstructured manner, I actually believe that it’s been a valuable learning experience for us.  It’s been useful to experience & observe others struggling with technology and reflect on the implications of this to my teaching.  Being relatively unguided has presented us with the opportunity to follow our own interests, and to try to find our own meaning.  Perhaps this has actually helped to stimulate the creation of community & relationship?  It has certainly provided plenty of scope for discussion of many issues relevant to facilitating online.

There was an elluminate meeting last night to discuss strategies for managing technology glitches in online education. The meeting started with everyone marking on the map below where they were connecting to the session from. Most of the group were people enrolled in the Facilitating e-learning communities course, although Derek Chirnside from the TALO email group also attended (from Sydney).


After that initial ice-breaker everyone collaborated to

1. Create a list of technologies which they are using or planning to use in their teaching.

2. Make a mark next to the technologies which each individual is planning to use in their teaching

As you can see from the diagram below most people are either using or are planning to use most of the technologies on the list.


Technologies such as flikr, youtube, video conferencing, slideshare, podcasting were less popular probably due to lack of familiarity. These are all technologies that we haven’t really investigated in any great depth in the course so far.

After this primer, we discussed the different technology glitches that could occur when using the above technologies and strategies that could be used to manage them. A summary of the strategies follows.

Strategies for managing technology risk

Have plan A & plan B (& also maybe plan C)

Back-up communication channel

  • Skype
  • Audioconferencing(
  • check with OP Property & services
  • Email-groups
  • Point of contact in case of emergency

Prepare for technology use

  • Making sure students and staff download and are able to access tech well before use
  • Practice & play with the tools before you use them

Managing server risk – communication channel with people who look after the server

Having a 2nd person involved


The first two strategies are quite strongly related. It’s quite important that if everything turns to custard there is a back up plan. A back up plan might be to use a secondary communication channel if the original proves to be un-usable, although there are other options.

Skype, audio-conferencing, and email-groups were all mentioned as possible back-up communication channels.

Skype worked quite well for some of the class last time, and the synchronous nature of the communication is probably quite well suited to salvaging a synchronous elluminate session or something similar.

The benefit of audio-conferencing is that it is independent of the computer, so if there were network connection problems, audio-conferencing would still be able to be used. The downside of audio-conferencing is that there is generally a reasonable cost associated with it’s use, and that network problems are likely to only affect a couple of participants.

For a back-up communication channel to be effective, all participants must be clearly informed that if the primary channel fails for some reason the back-up channel is to be used. It’s also a good idea to have a point of contact for someone in an emergency situation (e.g. if a student has a problem with their local connection).

Preparing for technology use is also fairly important. If Skype is to be used in a teaching session, all participants must have downloaded & installed Skype before participating in the session. It’s also a good idea to have time to play with and get familiar with the technology before using it for an important session.

Having a second person involved in teaching/facilitation was mentioned as a strategy that might be useful in managing technology glitches. Using Elluminate as an example, if the facilitator’s connection went down for some reason it’d be handy to have a second person on hand to continue the facilitation of the lecture.

When technology issues are related to the server (e.g. Elluminate), it’s probably a good idea to have clear communication channels between the server managers and the academic staff who are using applications that are server dependent.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on this ellusive creation of community and relating it to my own experience of using different online technologies.

In any type of online community, participants communicate through some type of technology interface. There are a variety of these, both synchronous and assynchronous. Will some of them be more effective than others in the creation of community?

In my experience communication through syncronous media (such as elluminate, instant messaging, etc) seem to lead to a feeling of relationship quicker, so I’m going to consider synchronous media first.

I think that a significant consideration has to be the complexity of the interface. My initial experience of using elluminate was that for perhaps the first 30 minutes of the meeting so much of my attention was taken up with trying to get to grips with how the interface worked, and how to control it that I did not engage significantly with the group. I was primarily engaging with the elluminate interface.  At roughly 30 minutes into the session I stopped being aware of the interface & plunged into communication with the group.

Now elluminate is a fairly simple interface really. Second life is commonly touted as a fantastic way to create community, and I can see that it could potentially have real benefits. Being able to communicate with an avatar instead of a faceless being has appeal. My experience of second life however has been quite frustrating. I’ve probably visited the virtual world three times, maybe about 3-4 hours total time, and I’m still not a competent navigator/controller. Most of my attention is still consumed by trying to figure out how to do things. I presume that this would disappear with experience, but how much experience I wonder? I consider myself to be fairly computer literate, and when I think about the computer literacy of a typical massage therapy student, it is fairly clear to me that this environment is not going to be the best way to build a sense of community in the class.

What about Gtalk/Skype? I haven’t used skype yet, and have heard that it’s better than Gtalk, but I’ve found Gtalk to be excellent. The interface is simplistic to the point of being invisible. In theory you could set up your class in your list of contacts, then everytime you turn on the computer you will be able to see who else is online. You can send instant messages to classmates, or phone them directly. I haven’t experienced this yet, it’s purely theoretical for me at the moment, but I think this would really help to create a sense of community.

So what about assyncronous communication?

Blogging is the main technological driver of community building that has been promoted in the course I’m participating in at present. It did take a while, but I am finding that as I follow other people’s thoughts & experiences, I’m developing a sense of relationship with the other bloggers in the group. For this to be effective in a group of students I believe that everyone would need to become familiar with both the process of making blog postings (fairly simple) and using RSS feeds (fairly simple, but this may take some time for students to really get it). Once this technology has been mastered, there’s probably some time before a real sense of community forms.  According to Debbie’ posting James Farmer said that it typically takes about 5 weeks for his classes to become comfortable with (blogging? / community?).  I wonder if that includes time taken to get familiar with the tech?

Email groups – I think they’re a useful communication medium, but I’m not sure they are particularly good at facilitating a sense of community/relationship.

Discussion boards – I don’t think I’ve ever had a good experience of using a discussion board.  At the start of this course I was open to the possibility that they could be used effectively for communication, but that hasn’t really been my experience yet again.  Functionally I think they’re not too much different to an email group, although perhaps a little more unwieldy.

We’re just embarking on a collaborative wiki-building exercise.  I think this again has potential, but I guess the proof will be in the pudding.