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The Online Facilitator

A critical evaluation of the facilitator in an e-learning environment 

About The Author

Lorenzo Mulè Stagno is the Associate for Henley Business School in Malta and the Managing Director of Allied Consultants Limited. Lorenzo holds a Master in Business Administration (2004) from Grenoble and a teaching degree from the University of Malta. He is an educator by profession. He also successfully completed a Post-Graduate Certificate for Online Facilitation and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Coaching, both obtained from the Henley Business School – University of Reading.  Read more >>

Part of the difficulty in establishing this arises from the inadequacy of the traditional sage-on-the-stage paradigm mostly used in face-to-face (F2F) interactions in educational institutions when transposing them to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Such a paradigm shift could be hindered through the expected resistance by stakeholders encountered in any change situation, including the rigid mindset of students about what constitutes a “good” education and the difficulty of educators to change their design and delivery systems. A hindering factor could be the relatively new technological medium used which is constantly and rapidly changing, creating feelings of uncertainty among stakeholders who have to constantly grapple with learning new tools. The controversy and perennial discussions on the nature of teaching and learning could also be a source for a lack of reliable and valid performance indicators, especially with respect to what constitutes an effective educational programme.

Terminology

The issue goes to the very basics with a terminological confusion on the matter with the role being referred to as facilitator, tutor, guide, instructor, trainer, teacher and moderator with the adjective choice of e-, online, distance learning or virtual. In this article it is assumed that the online facilitator is someone who interacts directly with learners to support their learning process when they are separated from the tutor in time and place for some or all of these direct interactions.

Stakeholders

The initial focus for this issue should be on the different values and attitudes of the different stakeholders. Many times there are, for example, relatively large differences in the educational, technological and lifestyle backgrounds of the students in the various studies. These could account for the differences in take up of online courses and the resulting expectation gaps of this stakeholder group. The educational institution’s desire to enter the online scene is many times not reflected in its readiness to perform an educational paradigm shift to create an effective virtual learning environment. Educators, likewise, have difficulties adjusting to this new environment. Finally the high technological skills required to design such courses require a particular breed of experts, who seemingly feel that anything technological is their exclusive domain, in spite of the lack of any pedagogical understanding, thus producing a product that is highly developed technologically but poorly developed educationally. The main issue therefore seems to be the difficulty in clearly defining and delineating the new and changed roles of each stakeholder group, especially the students and educators.

Roles and Competencies

The most common and oft-mentioned role change for the facilitator is that from content expert to process guide in the social constructivist scenario of a VLE. This would complement the role shift that students would need to assume in such an environment, from listeners/attendees to self-governing problem-solvers. This role shift for the educator brings about a dilemma about the subject matter. Should the online facilitator be a subject expert?  The answer seems to be in the negative. However, it is advisable for the facilitator to have sufficient subject knowledge and/or have the support of a subject expert.

Various other central and peripheral roles and competencies of the ideal online facilitator include social, organisational, and intellectual dimensions, possibly divided in academic and non-academic, relating specifically to the division between content and process development. A more humorous view defines three roles: teacher, party host and sheep dog. More developed structures list six, nine or even eleven facilitator roles. Table 1 provides a comparison of these roles/functions and their respective importance with respect to the competencies required. The four competencies offer a different angle to the issue. Whilst all three functions seem to be covered by these four competencies, it is interesting to note the way these have been divided, giving prominence to the technological aspect and discipline expertise, without detracting from the social (communication) and intellectual (pedagogical).

The variety of roles and breadth of scope is further compounded by the multitude of recommendations experts proffer on the competencies the online facilitator should possess, mentioning pedagogical, communicational, technological and subject expertise.

Table 1 – Roles and Competencies

Competencies RolesPedagogicalCommunicationalDiscipline ExpertiseTechnological
 Content facilitatordot
 Metacognition facilitatordotdot
 Process facilitatordotdotdot
 Advisor/counsellordotdotdot
 Assessor (formative and summative)dotdot
 Technologistdot
 Resource providerdotdot
 Manager/administratordot
 Designerdotdot
 Co-learnerdotdot
 Researcherdot

 

Underlying Factors

Possible reasons for such a variety of roles and competencies being proposed are that group dynamics can be very complex, varying in size, the specific needs of the individuals, their characters, their environments and the possible differences in objectives and agendas they may have. Various factors can affect the individual in the group, requiring a facilitator’s intervention through the assumption of a relevant role and calling upon the required competence. The major factors involved in a VLE seem to be technology, communications, the individuals’ characteristics (whether students or facilitator), the course design, and time. Any or all of these factors affect the course and participants’ progression, and therefore elicit a need for a specific facilitator role.

Technological issues can range from participants’ heterogeneous levels of technical dexterity, which can constrain their participation through lack of know-how if the dexterity is low, to technological break-downs or malfunctions. Such situations require the facilitator assume an active role combining different functions, such as that of technologist, by being knowledgeable about the technological tools and helping participants understand them and learn to use them, of a social director – investing effort in assisting participants in their predicament, which can lead to isolation – and by possessing organisational skills, particularly in the setting up of clear guidelines for rules of engagement and contingencies. It is recommended that a clear overview is provided not only of the tools used and their potential, but also of their limitations. This could then be made clear with all participants, as part of their rules of engagement. Participants with high technological dexterity who keep astride with the new tools available and who would be of the opinion that there are better tools to be used for the purpose, would encourage all participants to adopt these new tools, since the use of less efficient tools elicit feelings of frustration for them. On the other hand, such adaptation to new tools can hinder the progress of less dexterous participants if they are not provided with the right overview to understand these tools and their benefits, and the time needed to become confident using them.

There are various communication issues that affect the level and type of role to be adopted by the facilitator. The lack of communication that can be the result of technological breakdown is such an issue. The participants’ different languages, whether through country or culture can create various difficulties of understanding or misunderstanding, bringing about a strong need for a social role for the facilitator, emphasising the focus on process development. The necessity of asynchronous communication in most VLEs also calls for the facilitator to possess strong organisational skills.

Time is again a multi-faceted factor. From the afore-mentioned need of organisational skills to integrate participants learning in different time zones, to the course time available or allocated by both the student and the facilitator, and finally to the actual duration of the course, as part of the course design, these factors seem to purport strong organisational skills.

The individuals’ characteristics also affect the choice of roles. The combination of the facilitator’s and participants’ characters and cultural background (not to mention the educational institution in the latter case), would always create a particular mix of group dynamics, which would automatically necessitate different facilitator roles, according to the circumstance.

Models and Theories

Another notable reason for such a variety of roles is the metamorphoses and development a group experiences during the actual course. Models and theories have been postulated on this, such as Bruce Tuckman’s (2001) group development model of forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning, sometimes not as much sequentially as with large overlaps, regressions and developmental switches. This may depend on the intensity and duration of the course, as well as by the individuals’ characters and the ensuing group dynamics. The forming and storming phases seem to require more active involvement from the facilitator than the other phases, with the facilitator being skilled in conflict management, dividing the types of conflicts into task-related and relational, combining cooperativeness with a mix of assertiveness. The forming stage, on the other hand, seems to rely mostly on a social role for the facilitator, even though some insist that the social aspect is the primary role of the online tutor, assisting the students into leading them towards proactive thinking. The performing stage may call upon content expertise, which may be provided by the facilitator or by the support of a subject expert.

A highly regarded learner development model that sheds lights on the variation in facilitator roles is Salmon’s five steps (Salmon, 2000) paralleled by Symons’ pyramid model, which adds a final stage of transfer for the learner’s development (Symons, 2001). At the beginning, the demand on the facilitator is considerable, requiring active social, organisational and technical competencies, to help “form” the group, assist them in gaining confidence with the tools required, and help them tune in to the course requirements. As the course and group develops, the demand on these three roles dwindles with pedagogical competencies gaining in importance, especially at the information exchange stage. The final transfer stage seems to require minimal active facilitation. If at all, the facilitation required would be more social and organisational. This model pre-supposes a linear or sequential progression, which is not always the case, especially when new tools are introduced (invoking the technical role), or time pressure demands higher co-ordination skills, or task or relational conflicts require social input to “norm” the group.

Conclusion

The social role seems to be an essential element for the online facilitator. Whether as a party host/entertainer, or conflict manager, or facilitator, it is an essential competence to form the group in the first instance, and to keep it from disintegrating in the second. The risk of participants feeling isolated and disengaging in distance-learning courses is high, therefore the facilitator needs to monitor the group in this regard to be able to act quickly in such cases.

The organisational/managerial role is also very important, since the learner-centred, self-learning structure of distance education runs the risk of lack of discipline, especially in the context of time constraints and heterogeneity of abilities. Again, a strong organisational input can help create solid ground rules and monitor proceedings, to assist where necessary and hinder frustration and disengagement. Creative problem-solving and contingency planning are also advisable to counter Murphy’s law, especially with respect to technological let-downs.

Technical competence is required particularly in three instances. Firstly to be able to solve or counter the possible technological problems which do happen. Secondly, the facilitator needs to be well conversant in the tools used for online learning, to be able to instruct all participants on how to use such tools and what their limitations are. Finally, the facilitator should also keep abreast with technological developments, to be able to adopt new and improved tools that would strengthen course processes and give a better service to the participants.

Pedagogical skills should be a requirement for any educational activity, on- or off-line. Hence the online facilitator should, by default be a pedagogical expert. This supports the process orientation of online courses, as well as the shift to learner-centeredness. Content expertise does not seem to be a priority, although it is advisable for the facilitator to have a good background, and as long as this expertise can be provided by a subject expert who would be on call. This on the one hand, can be quite a necessity when taking into account the highly  specialised nature of the subject matter in some of these courses. On the other hand, considering the self-learning context of such courses, it may be inadvisable and confusing for all and sundry to have the guide-on-the-side being also the sage-on-the-stage.

This article is an adaptation of an academic work done by the author for a Virtual Tutor Certificate Course that was offered by Henley Business School.