The Changing Role of the Learning Facilitator

There is an intense discussion going on in the CPsquare community at the moment about the work of learning facilitators. Quite a few members of the CPsquare community work independently as community facilitators or for an organisation. Others like myself, are members of CPsquare not so much because we work as community facilitators, but because we are interested in social learning theory and how people learn in communities of practice.

These two aspects of communities of practice (and there is obviously overlap between them) can also be seen in Etienne Wenger’s publications, e.g. his 1998 book ‘Communities of Practice. Learning Meaning and Identity’ –  focuses on expanding ideas around social learning theory, whereas a later book ‘A Guide to Managing Knowledge: Cultivating Communities of Practice’ (2002) – is written more for managers of communities of practice.

It seems to me that these two approaches, i.e. one on learning, the other on business, could affect the role of the facilitator.

The asynchronous discussion in CPsquare which started at 3.00 pm GMT yesterday and will conclude at 9.00 pm tonight was initiated by Brenda Kaulback, Lisa Levinson, and Doris Reeves-Lipscomb as a way of reflecting on the changing nature of their work and in the light of their recent participation in open learning environments such as MOOCs.

The questions they pose are:

  1. Has your scope of work moved from cultivating walled gardens to supporting do-it-yourself landscapes?
  2. Are you spending less time on convergent activities which create a sense of belonging, a sharing of common interests, and forging of mutual norms and more time on divergent activities in which individuals control their own learning choices, build their own personal networks and land for short periods of time in ad hoc gatherings?
  3. Do you see these new developments as creating possibilities for your role or as putting you out of business?
  4. What impact, if any do these shifts mean for the learning facilitator’s value, and marketing that value? 

The discussion is ongoing, but what is coming out of it so far for me, is how difficult it is to pin down exactly what a learning/community facilitator does, as it seems so very context dependent. Facilitating a MOOC, for example, will be very different to facilitating a community of practice such as CPsquare, or to facilitating an online learning course.

My first experiences of online facilitation were guided by the work of Gilly Salmon and her two books E-moderating and E-tivities.

These books propose a very ‘hands-on’ approach to facilitation and were designed to help a teacher make the transition from working f2f to the online environment. I still find Gilly Salmon’s approach very useful for facilitating small, task-oriented online courses.

But recently my learning experiences have increasingly been in massive open online courses (MOOCs) where the large numbers of participants prohibit a heavily ‘hands-on’ approach to facilitation. In these environments the role of facilitation lies more in the hands of the participants themselves – in peer-to-peer facilitation.

So if there isn’t a facilitator in these environments, who does the organising? There is certainly a ‘convenor’ – but is that the same as a facilitator? The convenor’s role is to provide the learning space and invite people into it. The convenor also provides the ‘syllabus’ / timetable, provides some, but not all, resources (such as links to readings) to stimulate discussion, and explains how the course works (see for example ChangeMOOC ). The convenor then withdraws and lets the learners get on with it. S/he may or may not engage with discussion and doesn’t attempt to moderate or summarise it.

The one instance where, in my experience, a facilitator is definitely needed is in any synchronous sessions that are offered. When I was working with Oxford Brookes University on the FSLT12 MOOC, we discussed this and thought that the online facilitator’s role in a synchronous session might be to support invited presenters as follows:

  • Thank for agreeing to present and confirm the agreement, including date, time, url of Blackboard collaborate, title and content of talk (steer content if necessary)
  • Ask for a bio to post up
  • Ask for slides/links ahead of time so that they can be uploaded in advance
  • Suggest possible ways of engaging the participants, e.g. uploading pre-reading, slideshare, links etc, possible activities that they might want participants to try out
  • Ask what support they might need with the technology – have they used Blackboard Collaborate before? Do they need their slides uploading? Will they want to show video within their slide show? Will they need a practice run beforehand or will it be enough to come into the session half an hour early?
  • Offer the use of a separate Blackboard Collaborate room for dummy runs
  • Suggest meeting 20-30 minutes in advance of the session to check audio, upload slides, prepare webtours, try out interactive features such as polling, writing on the whiteboard
  • Ask what help will they need during the live session?
  • Ask whether they will they want to continue the discussion after the session and therefore do they want us to set up a discussion forum
  • Following their session send an email of thanks

These activities are what you would expect of a facilitator in any online environment – so whilst a MOOC convenor might take a ‘hands-off’ approach to participant learners, a more ‘hands-on’ approach might be needed when hosting invited speakers/presenter, particularly if those speakers are offering their services for free, which tends to be the case in MOOCs. This is no more than common courtesy really 🙂

8 thoughts on “The Changing Role of the Learning Facilitator

  1. scottx5 November 14, 2012 / 2:58 am

    Hi Jenny, thanks for the links to the Gilly Salmon books. They look useful for the modest community I’m trying to initiate where I work. Original purpose was to get a simple conversation going among the staff and instructors in order to bring out ideas on where we can help each other. There’s a need for a greater awareness of who does what around the campus and there’s also a need for community to gently change divisive behaviours without the clumsy hand of administrative intervention.

    The plan is to offer an opportunity to bring as many people as possible into a OPEN conversation about the future of the college by whatever means we can. My inclination is towards an activist (as in not waiting forever for the time to be “right”) approach to setting this up and I was wondering if you can suggest some material or organizations to refer to? As much as I’d like to see this emerge on its own my feeling is strong facilitation will be needed to start things off.

  2. jennymackness November 14, 2012 / 12:14 pm

    Hi Scott – thanks for your visit.

    I think the Gilly Salmon books are useful for learning how to moderate/facilitate online courses that already exist. They are very practical books.

    I don’t think I have fully understood what it is you are hoping to do. Are you wanting to improve online working/facilitation in your college, in which case Gilly Salmon’s books are very useful – or are you trying to introduce/promote elearning in your college – or is it another question you have?

    You might find the JISC site useful for practical advice and some case studies – see for example

    JISC has a lot of resources on elearning and you might want to explore their site more widely –

    It occurred to me that your concerns might be more about the leadership and management of change – but I’m not sure.

    Does any of this help?


  3. scottx5 November 14, 2012 / 6:55 pm

    Hi Jenny, e-learning is here at our college and has become a magnet for other concerns.

    I suppose my question is most closely related to facilitating change by initiating a dialog among staff and instructors about the process of change. There are already self-assembled circles of resistance to the many changes our college is going through so the energy for discussion is there–only it is self-defeating and wishful for the past that won’t return.

    This resistance has grow to the point that some department heads are actively or passively refusing to help us build online content and deliberately creating conditions for project failures. I don’t see any purpose in meeting their challenge in a traditionally political manner as that would just send us backwards. Nor do I see a role for conflict management as this would be another energy waster.

    As for introductory courses in online teaching, attempts have been made to introduce material like the Potcert MOOC or the Oxford First Steps program and have fallen on deaf ears. In a sense, the skills for online teaching are taken to be a critique of current teaching practice and won’t be useful until people here decide whether they will teach online in a state of protest or as another step in their careers.

    To me, the hesitation to move on isn’t really based in lack of, or poorly presented, professional development but centres on identity as an educator. My experience in MOOCs tells me that talking this out might be more productive before we even begin to introduce online teaching techniques. Staff also need to be brought into this to resolve problems across the college as a whole–as a community.

    Change push has been top down and formalized here into mechanism that any normal person would resist. How do we soften the process and bring people in? Can a community of practice function as a change mechanism? Is there something less formal that can be facilitated? My knowledge of beginning a dialog is virtually nil so maybe advice on change agency IS what I’m looking for? Do know that I’m tired of the BS, spinning in circles and waiting for miracles.

    In response to the CP Square question of facilitators putting themselves out of business… My sense is facilitation will always be necessary as will leadership. Initiation of emergence sounds wrong but seems to be a necessary function in a community setting where things get stuck or need someone brave enough to wayfind. To me, facilitation won’t ever be set aside for self-initiated activity because we need people who reside in the uncomfortable area between the things we know.

    Thanks for listening.

  4. jennymackness November 14, 2012 / 7:30 pm

    Hi Scott – Stephen Downes has said that to teach is to ‘model and demonstrate’ and this resonated with me because it was how I worked to introduce an elearning programme into the institution that I worked in a few years ago. Like you I met a lot of resistance. People told me that the programme was ‘a poisoned chalice’ – but bit by bit we proved that it not only worked but that it was financially viable and that the students achieved as well as the students who were doing the equivalent face-to-face programme.

    So in thinking about your situation, would a way forward be to invest in one online programme which could be used to model and demonstrate how it works. This might need to be a specially written new course and you might need to recruit someone especially to run it.

    So I suppose my approach would probably be to start small with one or two champions and bit by bit to chip away at the resistance – simply by the modelling and demonstrating the quality of teaching and learning that is possible.


  5. scottx5 November 14, 2012 / 9:14 pm

    Hi Jenny, good advice and we do have champions in place so once we get them in the same room where some strategies can be worked out. We do have courses that have been online for years that are mostly taught by contract employees who have no problems embracing online learning. Some of our on-campus instructors do blended courses which put them partially online but they remain unconvinced that becoming a better teacher online matters. And finally we have those who are literally at war with us and no amount of persuasion will change them.

    As I think this through the notion of working on the most resistant to bring them onside is the wrong approach. We could model and demonstrate as Steven suggests until hell freezes over and move not an inch. Better to work with those teachers who are willing to meet us part way.


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