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 🙂