In a networked community of learning the online environment is a social and learning space with room for knowledge exchange, and the role of the educator is as much the facilitator with a focus on engagement, connectivity, interaction and dialogue as it is teaching content. The meaning of support in an online environment is different from support in a physical learning space, as you have to anticipate possible learning pathways, you have to think about scaffolding and you have to make students participate, network and collaborate with peers, experts and others in an online environment.
Online environments – whether in an online e-learning course or as part of blended learning – may be compared when it comes to facilitation and support. With his connectivist approach, George Siemens notes, that in an e-learning course learner-learner interactions can be viewed as a four stage continuum:
1. Communication. People ‘talking’, discussing
2. Collaboration. People sharing ideas and working together (occasionally sharing resources) in a loose environment
3. Cooperation. People doing things together
4. Community. People striving for a common purpose
The continuum of involvement provides a useful framework for thinking about scaffolding with learners through progressively more complex interaction skills leading to the creation of an effective working group. Siemens (2002) proposes that in an online course, interaction will probably not go beyond communication/ collaboration most of the time.” (Brindley, Walti and Blaschke 2009).
In a previous blogpost I stated, that it becomes obvious that the connectivity, interactivity, dialogue, feedback and facilitation that seems to be crucial to a successful online course also needs to be taken into account when designing courses. I will extend my opinion to apply not only to online courses but to courses with blended learning, too. And I made up a list of musts for designing a course to make sure that it:
- has integrated synchronous meetings;
- is not just text-oriented but also includes videos and digital presentations and tools;
- has a guideline for students to find their way through the course, to know how to start the course and to be helped by rubrics or a Problem Based Learning model as guidelines for each topic;
- has dynamic learning environments and creates communities of practice where dialogue, collaborative work, co-creation and sharing can take place;
- makes students’ individual learning processes visible on blogs and in digital productions;
- encourages peer feedback.
These are important elements to integrate while creating an online environment as a collaborative community of learning, and they need to be taken into account when discussing facilitation and student support in online environments:
“In a collaborative learning environment, knowledge is shared or transmitted among learners as they work towards common learning goals, for example, a shared understanding of the subject at hand or a solution to a problem. Learners are not passive receptacles but are active in their process of knowledge acquisition as they participate in discussions, search for information, and exchange opinions with their peers. Knowledge is co-created and shared among peers, not owned by one particular learner after obtaining it from the course materials or instructor. The learning process creates a bond between and among learners as their knowledge construction depends on each other’s contribution to the discussion. Hence, collaborative learning processes assist students to develop higher order thinking skills and to achieve richer knowledge generation through shared goals, shared exploration, and a shared process of meaning making…” (Brindley, Walti and Blaschke 2009).
In the video, “Connected: Supported Student Blogging and Communities of Learning” (2012), Oliver Quinlan, Peter Yeomans and Steve Wheeler from the Teacher’s Education at Plymouth University present their processes with student support in networked communities of learning:
The students in the video not only learn networking, critical thinking and develop social and cultural understanding, they are also moved towards rhizonomy in the way they are facilitated, collaborate and co-create knowledge.
Some of the qualities in good online facilitation have to do with:
- presence – to keep students on track and not let them float away;
- commenting on students’ work;
- facilitating the community of learning with supplementary links to relevant materials in relation to where the students are at in the moment;
- being notified whenever there is activity in the online environment;
- stimulating interactivity and dialogue;
- accepting and understanding flexibility;
- supporting transparency in the course design, aims, tasks and rubrics;
- supporting accessibility to materials and communication;
- creating and supporting progression in students’ learning through questions, facilitation and rubrics.
In a visual Mia MacMeekin presents tips for engaging students in meaningful discussions, and I link to them here as suggestions on how to support peer-to-peer-response, dialogue, discussions and feedback in a practical way. I have been used to a lot of these approaches to facilitation and guiding in my own practice as an educator, but I can see, that in an online environment the facilitation needs to be more active whenever students are active, and that the community of learning needs more supplementary links when relevant in a more dynamic speed, than I have been used to. That brings the online environment alive as a learning community and as a networked space. The migration from traditional didactic modes to more learner-managed learning modes where students meet a greater variety of materials, learners, experts and support tools (Coomey and Stephenson 2001:49) develop learning citizenship (Wenger 2010:14) which grows in the support of communities of learning.
Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).
Coomey, M., & Stephenson, J. (2001). Online learning: it is all about dialogue, involvement, support and control-according to the research. Teaching and learning online: Pedagogies for new technologies, 37-52.
Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In: Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198). Springer London.