A few months ago, I attended this virtual presentation at the 2009 TCC conference that really got me thinking: The Tao of Online Facilitation. I’ve linked my notes from this talk.
I can’t seem to escape the idea that good teaching online requires the online facilitator to be more of a guide rather than a spewer of knowledge. Much of what the presenter, Scot Robinson, shared falls in line with the idea that Online Learning is most beneficial when it applies constructivist learning practices. Students can be guided to drawing conclusions or applying knowledge effectively through both hands-on and scenario-based learning activities as well as well-crafted questions (posed by the facilitator or teacher). This all reminds me of this adage I heard once: “Telling is not knowing.”
In his presentation Robinson made the point that facilitators are responsible for directing the flow of energy during an online training. Through their questions, they can help generate meaningful conversations that reinforce and promote extended learning. They can also engage students in online participation in knowledge building via wikis and blogs. They can design creative activities and applications of these technologies to promote learning via collaboration.
Robinson also cautions we Westerners to ease back on the “active” or “dynamic” approach to doing things. As he said “Westerners are tuned into action…” and it’s hard for us not to act when we see a opportunity or problem. Instead, the savvy online educator should practice Wu-wei or “actionless action.” Following the line of thinking that encourages the teacher to contribute to the flow of energy in a learning activity, the teacher must observe the flow and “go with it.”
Bruce Lee put it well when he said… “Be water my friend.”
In my mind, I’ve started developing pictures of the Tao of Online Facilitation looks like vs. what it doesn’t look like:
Frustrated online facilitator: Is very upset that the students are not participating and adding information in the wiki according to her plans. Keeps on directing students back to the original line of inquiry on the wiki. Sometimes panics when things are not going her way.
Sensei online facilitator: Sees that the students are going in a new direction with their wiki resource posts. Watches and observes the exchange of knowledge before providing feedback. Encourages discussion and collaboration, but still gently nudges the group back on track if they get too far off the mark.
Anyone who teaches online can be taught the behaviors that epitomize the Tao of online facilitation. For myself, I realize that have some very western impulses when it comes to learning and teaching. I noticed this when I was teaching a sock-knitting class a few weeks ago. I had to fight the impulse to pick up one very vociferous and frustrated student’s work and help her work it out. I stopped myself because I knew this would be counter-productive for her learning, and after listening to her complain about a previous class she took where the instructor did the work for her, I wanted to help her understand that she could be successful. I stopped for a while and observed her. I noticed from her words and body language that she seemed a very self-conscious about failing in class. I suggested that she meet with me for an hour session outside of class. I was able to get her started using larger yarn and needles. In the end she was the only student to finish the socks during the class. Now, I’m aware of the fact that I had an advantage over online facilitators who cannot read their students’ body language, but I believe that the online facilitator can use a student’s online behavior to diagnose some possible problems with learning. Also, there are questions an online facilitator can ask or observations they can make to better analyze the student’s success or failure to learn.
Practicing the Tao of Facilitation means training online instructors to break old habits and engage in different ways to “perceive” learning. You can train people up to a point, but if they don’t buy into the philosophy it will not work. I’ve seen a few good ideas and e-Learning projects die because the e-Learning development team didn’t adequately prepare the facilitators or trainers adequately. They didn’t coach them to ‘direct the flow of learning’ or even understand what this ‘flow looks like.’ They used that “If we build it they will come” logic rather than looking long term by providing a plan for assessing whether or not the learning endeavor was a success with measurable results from both teachers and students.