It's nearly Christmas and New Year, and an opportunity to look back at the Facilitating eLearning Communities course that I have just completed. This represents my (still developing) understanding about online learning communities.

(photo: merry flickrmas,

Community and learning

A learning community is a group of people who share a common purpose and are engaged in a shared learning experience over time.

A sense of community is important because it provides the social environment that supports learning. Belonging to a learning community has the potential to promote deeper learning, support, cooperation, increase retention, and provide a greater sense of individual satisfaction and well-being (Rovai, 2002). Within the community, members can explore their ideas and understanding with others; and it is in these connections and interactions that their understanding is influenced, challenged and ultimately transformed. Rovai (2002) describes the social connections as

“… members of [online] classroom communities will have feelings of belonging and trust. They will believe that they matter to one another and to the group; that they have duties and obligations to each other and to the school; and that they possess a shared faith that members’ educational needs will be met through their commitment to shared goals.”

Communities do not automatically develop but have an increased chance of emerging with the provision of the right mix of ingredients. These ingredients centre around the members of the group (students and teacher/facilitator) and their actions and interactions with the content and each other. Both Konrad Glagowski and Derek Chirnside in the 10-minute presentations described how they structured their learning environments to support the development of a learning community. They identified the following characteristics: building up confidence in using the technology, developing social presence and an online identity, co-participation of the teacher and student, using personally-relevant learning tasks (authentic learning experiences), providing collaborative participatory learning activities, timely and constructive peer and teacher feedback, opportunities for reflection, extending beyond the online classroom, and the importance of the process as well as the end-product. This supports a constructivist view of learning, with the learner at the centre constructing their own knowledge from their individual and shared learning experiences.

Communities need some rules and guidelines, for example, about member’s roles and expected behaviours around participation, netiquette, and respect for people’s views and identity. These shouldn’t stifle the group and put people off from participating; clear, simple, relevant to the group and open for discussion and negotiation. Building up trust within a community is crucial for establishing relationships and connection among members so they feel safe to share themselves and reveal their weaknesses. Without trust, Rovai (2002) says the community

“does not engender the open and caring environment needed to promote diverse and constructive interactions that empower learners to negotiate common understandings in their quest for learning new perspectives and ideas”.

To what extent did our group form a community?

Most participants who continued to the end agreed that a learning community had formed and that their learning and understanding had been significant. I agree with this although I personally don’t feel a strong sense of connection and support, unlike others in the group. The confusion in the beginning over the multiple communication channels, privacy concerns, disagreement, and who made-up the group may have contributed to this. As we progressed on to when participants were starting to share their thoughts more openly and make connections, I was overwhelmed by the technology tools. At this time, just following the conversations, postings, and resources took up so much time there was little left for contributions or responses, as expressed in this blog post. So I guess I chose to step back and try and take it all in, from a safe place on the periphery of the group. Several people have since commented that pre-requisite knowledge of the tools would help avoid this situation, allowing participants to focus more on the topic of facilitating communities.

Social presence

Social presence is one of the important factors contributing to interaction, collaboration and creating a sense of community. It refers to the ability of learners and facilitator/s to project themselves as “real people” and their reciprocal awareness of others in an online environment (Cutler, 1995; Rovai, 2002). We exhibit social presence through expressing personal values, emotion and feelings, using salutation and closure in messages, acknowledging the messages of others and giving feedback, and making inquiries (eg requesting clarification, information or advice). The social presence of facilitators is also linked to providing learning support and assistance, and encouraging active participation (Na Ubon & Kimble, 2004).

It is not surprising that a positive cycle can develop as students begin establishing social connections: the more a participant projects their identity and shares something of themselves then the more that others will reciprocate, and the more trust and support is developed (Cutler, 1995). This effect was definitely evident in the more active participants of our course, who generally posted more frequently and received more feedback. It has also been found that having more experience of online courses contributes positively to social presence, perhaps because students have developed specialized learning skills for the online environment and have a better understanding of how they can project their identity (Hostetter & Busch, 2006). In our course those that were more experienced online communicators and more comfortable with the technology were able to develop their social presence more quickly.

Participation and interaction

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach in The Art of Building Virtual Communities summarized two models that represent the varying levels of participation found in online communities – from visiting to contributing to leading. In David Lee’s model Leaders contribute frequently and are central to “building the fire” that draws others in to participate. Members of the community who contribute regularly are described as Learners. Lurkers are generally invisible, mostly following the activities of the group and participating occasionally. People who visit from time to time to see whether it’s worthwhile joining are considered as Linkers. A similar model of participation presented by Derek Wenmoth describes Consumers as the lurkers gaining knowledge and understanding from reading and exploring others contributions. Commentors make responses to others posts, while contributors are more confident and start new threads of discussion. Commentators provide leadership, evaluating and drawing conclusions from the contributions of others to see the “bigger picture”.

While all of these members are valuable to the well-being of a community, it is clear that its survival is dependent on those who make regular contributions and provide leadership. In our course there were a core group of active participants, which I thank for their openness, curiosity, and determination, as we went on this journey of discovery. They appeared to quickly become comfortable with the technology and communicating their ideas. As they established their social presence, a positive cycle of feedback and support developed around them. There were also less active participants and Sarah provided her insights into why members may find it difficult to participate,

“I feel I have nothing to add or what I wanted to say has already been said. I may feel intimidated or lack confidence – I do not want to take a risk or expose myself. I may also be concerned with privacy issues eg I do not want my thoughts or comments to get back to colleagues or my boss … It may be that I do not know how to contribute - what buttons to press or where to put my comment … [lurkers] may learn in different ways to the people who are at the hub of the group”.

I recognize much of Sarah’s comments in myself. I also feel that my tendancy to mull things over, often left postings and comments partially completed and then abandoned as I moved onto to something else.

The role of the teacher / facilitator

In the group forum there was an energized conversation about teaching vs facilitating, with Leigh suggesting that you can’t be both a teacher with all the power and a facilitator who is more neutral with a passive presence. Many in the group expressed their beliefs that a good teacher could move between the two roles dependent on the needs of individuals or group, stepping back as a ‘guide on the side’ who encouraged and supported the learner to make their own discoveries, and stepping forward to provide expert knowledge and direction when needed. After all this time I’m still thinking about this. I teach foundation level students many of whom begin as dependent learners with little background knowledge about bioscience. To start with I am usually the teacher, who provides the knowledge and helps direct and organise their learning but as they gain some expertise I can step back and become more of a facilitator.

Online teachers/facilitators have multiple roles to fulfil, as described by Ed Hootstein’s (2002) wearing four pairs of shoes. These include being a/an:

Instructor: guiding self-directed learning, providing resources and creating relevant learning experiences
Social director: stimulating learner participation and interaction in collaborative environments
Programme manager: meeting organizational, procedural and administrative responsibilities
Technical assistant: helping learners feel comfortable with the technology

Salmon (2002) has developed a useful 5-stage model that outlines the roles (moderating and technical) that online teachers play to support interaction and learning in an online course, progressing through access and motivation, online socialization, information exchange, knowledge construction, and development.

Putting this into practice:
- be aware of barriers to getting set up with the technology, and provide support and resources to aid access
- provide an explanation as to why active participation is important along with guidelines for participating. Set realistic expectations for what participants can manage. Be open about how uncomfortable and difficult it may be.
- begin with simple and interesting activities (ice-breakers and introductions) to build up confidence and
become comfortable with the learning environment, technology and interaction.

These points focus on the first two stages of Salmon’s (2002) 5-stage model which addresses the technical or social issues that may inhibit participation, and provides motivation to join in and share some information about themselves (eg their understanding, culture, issues or concerns). It’s critical to follow-up early with support and guidance if participants are struggling. For those who are already experienced, they could act as buddies at this time.

- design relevant small group interactive learning activities like these outlined here. Group activities encourage interaction with course content and each other. Working collaboratively can contribute to deeper learning and building a sense of community.
This is working through stages 3 and 4 of Salmon’s (2002) model.

Last but not least, online facilitators need to be positive, proactive, patient and persistent (these four P’s are essential qualities according to Hywel Thomas here):
positive: to build rapport, generate enthusiasm, maintain interest and help when the going gets tough;
proactive: to make things happen, be a catalyst (if necessary) to help learners get going on a course, to recognise when action needs to be taken and take it
patient: to understand the needs of each learner as well as the group and to adapt to their timeframes as far as possible
persistent: to keep at things, stop learners from drifting away, and deal with any technical or other problems

Online communication tools

“High quality interaction, full participation and reflection do not happen simply by providing the technology. Hence the need to design online activities carefully, to reduce barriers and enhance the potential of the technology” (Salmon, 2002).

Online technology provides the communication framework of the learning environment. The tools must fit the purpose, that is, to enable and support the desired learning experiences, and be relatively simple and user-friendly. For any of these tools you have to be aware of possible glitches and providing time and support for participants to become familiar and comfortable with using them. Those I see as particularly useful for teaching bioscience include a course blog, wiki for group work (eg projects and case studies), and ElluminateLive for tutorials and group work (eg brainstorming, problems, discussion). I’d like to continue my exploration of SecondLife because I think it may offer some interesting opportunities to actually get inside the body.

Blogs provide an opportunity for students to share information, reveal their understanding, and reflect on experiences. Receiving feedback from others contributes to their growing understanding and a network of interactions can form through reading and commenting on each others blogs. While I would encourage colleagues and students to consider using these I don’t think that it is necessary for bioscience students to have individual blogs, but I see the value of a course blog that they could contribute to.

I think wikis have a lot to offer in providing a space for students to work together. As part of our course I developed two wikis: my wiki project called Group Activities in Bioscience and a wikispace called BiosciTeach wiki for Facilitating a Discussion assessment. Once I finally got under way they were both relatively easy to set up and add information to. I’ve invited colleagues to collaborate on these but they need a bit more encouragement, so that’s a focus for next year. I confess to not really following what others had completed in their wikis (and hence not offering any contributions) so I might have a look back through them.

I really like the opportunities provided by the computer conferencing tool Elluminate, which provides real time communication with voice and IM options, as well as a whiteboard and web links. With the ability to use powerpoint presentations, real-time discussion and small group work, I think this would be very useful for bioscience tutorials and encouraging social interaction. Apart from the odd time went it went down, it was used very effectively for the 10-minute presentations and subsequent discussions. And here’s a post on how I used it with colleagues for a discussion on Encouraging Social Interactions.

Phew, that’s my review for now. I'm going to go back through and catch up on some of the other material from this course that I overlooked along the way. A big thank you to Bronwyn and Leigh and all the other participants who have given so much. It was a hard road but well worth it!


Cutler, R. H. (1995). Distributed presence and community in cyberspace, Interpersonal Communication and Technology: A Journal for the 21st Century, 1 (2). Available at:
Hostetter, C. & Busch, M. (2006). Measuring Up Online: The Relationship between
Social Presence and Student Learning Satisfaction, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6 (2), pp. 1 – 12. Available at:
Na Ubon, A. & Kimble, C. (2004). Exploring Social Presence in Asynchronous Text-Based Online Learning Communities. In Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Information Communication Technologies in Education 2004, Samos Island, Greece, July 2004, pp.292-297. Available at:
Rovai, A.P. (2002). Building Sense of Community at a Distance. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3 (1). Available at:
Salmon, G. (2002). Five-step model of teaching and learning online.
Available at:

This is the summary and my reflections of the discussion of Otago Polytechnic bioscience educators using the online conferencing tool Elluminate, for the purpose of exploring strategies that encourage social interactions in online learning courses. Although only 3 out of the 7 invited members came to the meeting, we had a really valuable discussion.

Summary of session

Introduction activities
Pull up a chair and get to know each other and the features of Elluminate. Here we are sitting around the table (looking much skinnier than usual!).

What do we mean by social interactions and how does it benefit students in online learning courses?

The video of geese and slide below that summarized my understanding of social interaction were used to prompt discussion about participants thoughts about social interaction. Participants brought up learner isolation, the potential for misinterpretation without body language and voice, the benefits for students of working together, and their experiences of students supporting each other.

What are the strategies participants use to encourage interactions and the difficulties or concerns they have about them?
Strategies were listed on the whiteboard as they were described and discussed. There was also discussion about how to cope with non-participating students as well as dominating students, and how to handle inappropriate or annoying behaviour eg doodling / drawings / words appearing on the whiteboard.

After using Elluminate and looking at a wiki what did they think about using these for getting students working together?
A group brainstorming activity and overview of a wiki project stimulated discussion about the ways they could use these with their own students.

Concluding discussion
Participants felt they needed to pay attention to social interaction in their online courses. They commented that this session had been a useful way to experience and learn about these technologies, and they were very interested in having follow-up discussions. And I even managed to get in a big plug for the Facilitating eLearning Communities course.

Observations and reflections

What went well?

Despite both the technology and topic being relatively new to most of the group, I felt the meeting was very successful, and that participants had a positive experience in using Elluminate and participating in the activities and discussion.

Joining the Elluminate meeting was relatively problem-free. The participants took the opportunity to join the meeting from an on-campus computer suite with a support person available to help them set up (thanks once again Bronwyn for your help with this). The computer suites aren’t automatically configured for Elluminate, nor do staff have headsets, which Bronwyn kindly provided.
I’m sure that knowing each other well helped participants feel more comfortable but the introduction and ice-breaker activities along with the small size of the group aided the process of interacting online. During the meeting, the questions, images and activities worked well to prompt discussion around participants’ experiences and reflections from their own teaching.

- Providing adequate support as people take their first steps is really important. I would check they have the right equipment, and organise on-campus introduction sessions if possible, or use telephone / email support for off-campus students.
- Exploring and playing with Elluminate at the start was a useful strategy for providing some fun and an opportunity for participants to start engaging with the technology and interacting with each other.
- It took more thought and time to plan this online meeting (wiki, resources, powerpoint presentation, activities) than I had expected. I’m not sure whether this is usual for this type of online learning experience or because it was my first time facilitating an Elluminate meeting.
- Having meetings with colleagues online is a really good way to practice and gain confidence facilitating and using Elluminate (learn-by-doing).

What didn’t go so well?

It was a little discouraging that less than half the invited participants made it to the session, but timing appeared to be an issue here (Friday afternoon and busy with end-of-year work).
I also asked the participants to review some resources prior to the meeting; this included a video, article and wiki page, which would have taken about 15 minutes of their time. Only one participant accessed all the resources, one didn’t view the video as their dial-up download was so slow and another (with broadband access) didn’t review any of the resources at all.
During the first part of the session I found it particularly difficult to follow the text messages while listening, talking, and watching the whiteboard, and consequently missed some questions and comments from participants.

- From my experience of online learning I would want all my students to use Broadband but there are areas that still can’t access it and it may also be financially restrictive. Elluminate works well on dial-up but you need to be aware that access to some resources may be limited if students don’t have Broadband.
- Not looking at the resources at all is somewhat disappointing as I believe you ultimately gain more from a discussion when you are prepared, but this also happens in f2f classrooms as well. Apart from being very clear about expectations it comes down to participants being motivated enough to do the preparation.
- I would think that following all the channels of communication gets easier as you become more proficient with using Elluminate. I noticed however with missing some of the text chat, it provided an opportunity for other participants to respond or bring it into the audio discussion. If it was a larger group it would definitely be beneficial to have another person assisting with the session.

Facilitation strategies

Engaging participants, questioning, and modeling were reasonably effective facilitation strategies I used.

Engaging the participants:
- Providing a few easy-to-digest resources on a wiki to get their attention and motivate them to join in. These didn’t get everyone’s attention but timing of the meeting might have been an issue here with end-of-year marking etc
- Providing support and assistance to get set-up and during the session.
- Creating a comfortable learning environment (informal and relaxed) with guidance to use the tools.
- Using simple activities that encourage them to join in.

Effective questioning:
- This was used to prompt and maintain discussion.
- Asking open-ended questions encouraged participants to give an explanation rather than yes/no.
- Directing questions to participants drew them into the discussion.
- Providing space after a participant had contributed allowed others to respond.
- Useful for clarifying meaning when needed

Modeling behaviour and activities that promote social interaction and are useful for teaching bioscience.

These strategies are supported by De Schutter et al (2004) who reviewed the roles of facilitators in synchronous audio-conferences, in relation to participant access and motivation, online socialization, information exchange, and knowledge construction. These are the first four stages of Salmon’s (2002) 5-stage model of teaching and learning online. They described facilitating in a synchronous context as a “daunting task” with “little time for reflection and deliberation” during the meeting as compared to asynchronous discussions. It requires the moderator to “support both process and content, guide interaction through meaningful feedback and deft questioning strategies, and provide additional cues and information as needed.” Although I didn’t find it daunting, I definitely agree that you have to be tuned into the discussion and closely following proceedings to know when to contribute your perspective, ask questions, seek clarification, keep quiet or move on to the next topic. Clearly, effective facilitation requires planning and practice.

I feel rather pleased with how our discussion went having achieved a high degree of interactivity and participation to reach stage 3 /4 of Salmon’s (2002) model, that of information exchange and knowledge construction, although I wonder how much more challenging it would have been with an unfamiliar group. If you are considering using Elluminate then it may be worthwhile reading the paper by Murphy and Ciszewska-Carr (2007) as it provides handy insights into the experiences of teachers who have just started using it.

De Schutter, A. Fahrni, P. & Rudolph, J. (2004).
Best Practices in Online Conference Moderation. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 5 (1).
Available at:

Murphy, E. and Ciszewska-Carr, J. (2007). Instructors' experiences of web based synchronous communication using two way audio and direct messaging. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23(1), 68-86.
Available at:

Salmon, G. (2002). Five-step model of teaching and learning online.
Available at:

This is the facilitation plan completed prior to the online discussion using Elluminate. The facilitation and reflection follows in the next post.

Time and Date of facilitation exercise
: Friday 30 Nov,
1 pm (1 hour session)

Reasons for the meeting
The purpose of this meeting is to discuss ways that we can encourage social interactions in online learning courses.
Social interactions refer to the “people” interactions that take place between students and instructors. The most important features of this are social presence (degree of awareness of other people) and collaboration (working together for a purpose), which produces a feeling of connection and being part of a learning community, and leads to a deeper learning experience.

Medium to be used
One hour discussion using the online conferencing tool Elluminate. Elluminate provides real time communication with voice and IM options, as well as a whiteboard and web links. With the ability to use powerpoint presentations, real-time discussion and small group work, Elluminate offers a very useful tool for bioscience teaching and encouraging social interaction. It is hoped that using it in this session may encourage other participants to consider using it in their own teaching if they don’t already.
Participants will be invited to the meeting by e-mail, with instructions for joining the Elluminate session and required equipment (headset with microphone). There will also be a link to the BiosciTeach wiki which has resources and guidelines for the meeting, and a place to summarize the discussion and give facilitator feedback after the meeting.
articipants will be informed that should Elluminate fail (as can happen) there will be a message put up on the wiki page, and the meeting will be rescheduled.

Description of the group
Hope to have 5 – 6 participants, aged 25 – 50 years
Profile of group:

  • Bioscience educators from Otago Polytechnic
  • Teaching experiences range from foundation through to post-graduate students
  • Varying levels of experience with online / flexible teaching
  • Learning styles unknown but aware of providing an environment that takes into account individual preferences, eg resources provided prior to meeting, Elluminate offers opportunity to engage visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles, feedback wiki after meeting
  • Some participants know each other very well, while others are relatively unknown
  • Don’t think this group has ever met face-to-face or online together

As this is the first online meeting of this group, there will be an emphasis on encouraging group formation so that participants feel comfortable to engage in discussions and share experiences, information and ideas (stage 3 of Gilly Salmons 5-stage model).

Stage 1:Access and motivation: support to get on to Elluminate, instructions and resources provided, contact for help; motivation to join and participate by providing invitation and resources prior to the meeting
Stage 2: Socialisation: introductions, introduction to the features of Elluminate and an icebreaker activity
Stage 3: Information exchange: discussion of topic

Planned facilitation of the meeting
For this meeting my role as a facilitator is firstly to invite participation using a personal invite stating the purpose for the meeting and a link to the resources (wiki) that will be discussed. As well as an opportunity to meet up with other lecturers teaching bioscience at Otago Polytechnic, hopefully the chosen topic will be of some interest to participants with more courses using online and blended delivery, and will motivate them to join the discussion. During the session I will use activities that encourage socialization and interaction (modeling), with questions and prompts to initiate and maintain discussion, and at the end summarize the main points of discussion.

Welcome: welcome page on whiteboard with image that suggests a meeting (eg chairs arranged in a circle)

Introductions: who we are and who/what we teach; get participants to add names/pictures to image provided; introduce elluminate features and invite participants to explore

Icebreaker: each participant provides a 3-word statement that tells us a bit more about themselves; elaborate further with discussion

Facilitation of discussion will be focused around these questions:

1. Benefits for learners of being in a group? (Video of geese)
Discussion around peer support and encouragement, communication, interaction, sense of community.

2. How are you a “social director” eg what strategies do you use to encourage interactions? Participants share the strategies they use. Discussion around strategies and any difficulties or concerns they have about them. List strategies on the whiteboard as they are discussed.
3. What other interactive activities can we use?
Group activities to show potential use of Elluminate: small group brainstorming activity and discussion activities in break-out rooms (questions and interpretation of image).

Introduce and discuss uses of wiki. Discuss whether Elluminate and wiki might be useful tools for encouraging student interaction in bioscience courses.

Summary: overview the main points from discussion

Closing message:
Thank you to participants. A summary will be posted on the wiki, where they can add further thoughts regarding this discussion. Email me with any feedback on the usefulness of the session and my facilitation.

Second Life

I finally had a go at Second Life this weekend inspired by this youTube video.

My SL name is Tulip Debruyere and I've spent some time on Orientation Island working out the basics of dressing, moving, flying and searching etc. No problems so far, actually it was somewhat easier than I had expected ... but early days yet! Here I am on the Island.

We’ve just had the opportunity to look inside Facebook (a phenomenally successful social networking site), thanks to Ellen our 19-year old guide. She began using it as an easy way to keep in contact with overseas friends. And the emphasis does seem to be on easy and fun, for this age group anyway, a bit like sitting in the pub catching up with your mates. You create your online identify with personal details and other interesting / quirky features, like your strippers name and quick contacts, for instance, friends may choose to lick, kiss or poke you!, as well as sharing what’s going on with your life, your photos, etc. And the user has control over who can access their site and what information they share.

But there seems to be a darker side to all this fun. Over the past month social networking sites have been in the media with stories of cyber bullying, gangs using them to recruit members, police surfing them for information about crimes, identity theft, and the ease of misrepresenting oneself for dubious purposes. There’s also the concern with Facebook owning all the information posted (does this include original art work or your own photos?), and how they may then use this information.

All this negative stuff aside, how might Facebook be used for education purposes? The following excerpts from Educause Learning Initiative (May, 2007) hint at its potential.

The current concerns …

that the actions and activities on the site may lack substance. Keeping in touch with a circle of friends and colleagues is fine, but if Facebook enables trite, superficial interaction, there is little educational value.

But there are possibilities it may develop into something more significant …

The interesting question is whether expanded access and a growing number of functions will lead users into more substantive activities on the site. Face­book may become a channel for dialogue and a destination for people interested in learning about or sharing information on current issues.

It could be used as a campus marketing and communication tool …

a campus can advertise jobs, a campus election, or other activities to students at that institution or perhaps also at nearby institutions.

And to forge more meaningful relationships between campus students and teachers in an informal social setting …

a central part of the college years is “learning to be”—experiment­ing with different personas, engaging with a variety of groups, and developing a set of core values. By allowing users a range of tools to negotiate and inhabit online networks, Facebook and sites like it can be an important part of this developmental process.

From this very brief introduction to Facebook I couldn’t see any immediate use for it in my teaching (or personal life), so I haven’t signed up. But people probably said that about blogs and youTube, so who knows, it might be worth keeping an eye on it.

In the last 10-minute talk Derek Chirnside described features of a constructivist, learner-centred, collaborative online course that he teaches. Here are some of the points that were discussed.

Blogs and journals encourage participants to reflect on the course content and their learning experiences, and interact with each other through sharing their stories and problems. Weekly postings and collaboration are a requirement of the course.

Learning experiences revolve around authentic (personally relevant) activities and projects.

While some parts of the course are open and public (for example the student blogs), there are closed environments and opportunities for private discussion between the course participants and individually with the lecturer. This stimulated quite a lot of discussion around the necessity for closed places in health courses where participants can safely share their experiences in private.

As the course progresses, students begin making connections beyond the course and become part of a wider learning community.

I was very interested in the strategies Derek used to encourage and support participation and interaction. He was realistic with participants about the challenges ahead in the course, was clear about course expectations and requirements, provided an environment that allowed participants to build up confidence, identified and supported at-risk students, used teaching activities that required contribution / peer feedback / collaboration (for example, sharing stories and problems), provided teacher feedback that invited more discussion and helped to connect people / ideas / examples, and linked participation to assessment.

I’m beginning to appreciate the complexity of online learning communities and achieving the optimal mix of challenge, participation, connection, independence, and support. And the roles that facilitators and participants play in bringing this all together to meet the needs of each particular group of learners and individuals within a group. This discussion certainly provided some useful insights and practical advice towards this.

I haven’t left the course but have spent the last couple of weeks engrossed in exploring a number of web tools and playing with them. I’ve found that there seems to be two parts to this course, firstly there’s setting up and learning about the web tools themselves and then secondly, considering how they can be used to communicate, share and collaborate, in developing and maintaining a community.

So far my priority has mostly been on the first part. I have set up rss and google reader, have iGoogle as my homepage, have got and tags for bookmarking, explored flickr and uploaded some photos, used skype for chatting, explored youTube, worked on google docs, used gliffy and to make concept maps, tried out audacity, and taken a peek around myspace and bebo, and most recently have been looking at how to podcast, set-up slideshows and videos. This is a huge achievement given where I began!

I have to say though that even getting this far, nearly didn’t happen. Earlier on I was floundering around in cyberspace, completely directionless and disorientated; it would have been easy to give up. I knew I needed to fill in some basic gaps in my understanding of these tools, but I wasn’t sure how to do this. And then by chance, I found some resources that gave me the structure and guidance I needed:

Learning 2.0 program: 23 things, a course for librarians. I liked the course blog format, introductory podcasts, resources and discovery exercises, all with an emphasis on having a play and some fun.

Workshops and Resources wiki from University of Manitoba’s Learning Technologies Centre, with lots of really useful background information, advice and examples of using the web tools.

These both helped enormously and have kept me fairly busy over the last couple of weeks.

The best bits so far

  • the knowledge gained about these tools and my confidence in using the web has grown substantially
  • having the opportunity to hear from expert speakers in the 10 minute talk series
  • following everyone’s progress in their blogs and email forum

The worst bits

  • the earlier times of complete confusion
  • getting around to blogging (I have never managed to keep any kind of journal before! I’ve got some posts partly written, but it’s easy to lose the moment and find yourself engrossed in something else)
  • and leading on from the last one, not being a more active online participant in general, being here but mostly invisible (my online personality definitely doesn’t match my real-life personality and I’m not sure why, maybe it’s a confidence thing)

A roller-coaster ride

Two weeks ago I felt quite down and demotivated, overwhelmed by the technological mountain before me, what with blogs, wikis,, rss, tags, flickr, slideshare, twitter and a whole heap of other mysterious words. I felt quite inadequate; I simply wouldn’t be able get up to speed with all these web-based technologies. Not only was I struggling as an online learner (having difficulties managing my time, focusing on a particular task without zipping off here and there following pathways of interesting links, or even making some contribution to others in the group … needless-to-say I’m still struggling with all of these but working on it), but even worse, would I ever be able to make it as a good online teacher. Fairly depressing stuff!

But then I tuned into Nancy White’s talk about how much we learn by looking over someone else’s shoulders (here’s her website). I recognized immediately that this is how I have learned most of my (somewhat limited) computer skills, watching someone else, it’s like they turn the key and open the door a little for you to then venture inside yourself and try it out. In this course I’ve been looking over people’s shoulders to see how they set up and use their blogs, and how Elluminate and some of these other tools can be used (I like Elluminate, it’s immediately applicable to my teaching area (bioscience), although I’ve found I can listen and watch the slide screen but not follow the text at the same time!). And it’s been really useful, I’ve picked up a lot but to be honest, it’s a slow and difficult process when you are not an overly confident computer/web-user and doing it all online rather than having that person sitting next to you. But this will be the challenging reality for many online learners that don’t have any f2f, so it’s good to be aware of it and to consider how I can help students to feel comfortable and able to move beyond the technology.

There were several things that really struck me from Nancy’s talk:

Her chatty style mixing information and personal stories, her sense of humor, and ease of responding to the written text and questions; I felt like we were in the same room, I could almost see her waving her hands about as she excitedly spoke.

Much to my relief she told us that online facilitators don’t need to know all the techno stuff but it’s helpful to have a geeky friend who does (that’s Leigh, Bron and Terry I think). She said a wonderful line “it’s OK to be unknowing and comfortable in your unknowingness”. It was great to hear that, I don’t need to know everything about all the techno tools and words that keep popping up, just enough to see whether a particular tool will be useful in my teaching context and then using it well. So I’ll just focus on a few things (and keep a list of others to catch up with later on).

And it was even better when Nancy referred to the power of the newbie or new ”bee” buzzing around carrying new ideas to other people. What a confidence booster! Later that week I excitedly showed my husband some of the communication tools I am becoming familiar with (google groups, blogs, wikis) and he began wondering how he might be able to use this in environmental management at a national level. I really was buzzing!

And lastly from Nancy some tips on what makes a good facilitator: they are self aware, they practice and get feedback so they can identify their strengths and weaknesses, and they know how to ask good questions. This was great stuff.

So where am I now? I forged ahead and changed my web browser to Leigh’s suggestion which seemed to upset some of my other applications, although I hope that’s all sorted now. And I set-up my RSS feeder (I really liked the YouTube video (RSS in plain English by Leelefever) that described what it was, this video was really simple and effective). Then back down to reality with the number of posts appearing on the reader after a number of days away distracted by work and family commitments, and finding myself unsure what to do with my Gary Larson cartoon for our Bb exercise when I discovered it and the link to it breached copyright (which is why it hasn’t appeared anywhere), and then missing the talk last week because I thought it was on a different day (thank goodness they are recorded). I know I still have a long way to go but what a ride so far!

Just as you set up the normal classroom and use a variety of teaching practices to create an environment that supports and encourages student learning, so too should you apply this to the online environment, says Konrad Glagowski, in his recent talk to us about ‘classrooms as third places’. The theme of his talk was about creating a place that allows an online learning community to emerge; not building it for the students but building it with them.

Using the four key attributes of a great place (uses and activities, comfort and image, sociability, and access and linkages), Konrad described the teacher’s role in helping to set-up “the kind of environment where learning experiences can take shape”. He does this by providing opportunities for creative and expressive writing that is personally relevant and beyond the normal coursework; allows students to customize, define and build their own web space and online presence (individual student blogs); promotes dialogue by using a readerly and participatory voice aligned with instructional scaffolding / conversations; actively encourages interactions and the formation of networks; and provides a visual representation of the community so that the members, content and interactions can be seen and easily accessed.

His experience involves online learning as an extension of his normal classroom teaching where he sees the students daily, so that the two overlap and build on each other. Even so, he takes considerable time (about a month) establishing the community before they then start on course-related work; is this related to his young students (13, 14 yrs) or does it actually take more time than we realize to lay good foundations? Personally I like the idea of taking time and allowing everyone to become comfortable with the environment, technology, and the process of revealing one’s thoughts. I particularly liked his visual representation of the community (eg a building with named windows that link to each student’s blog). I think this representation can help to create a feeling of ‘a group’ with everyone having a place in that group. It’s good to be reminded that very simple things can have a big impact!

In his blog, Konrad talks more about the five stages of creating learning experiences that have emerged from his own teaching.
1. Discover: student looks for a topic of interest from a course theme and begins exploring
2. Define: student narrows and defines their research topic and how they will approach it
3. Immerse: student becomes immersed in topic: blogs, reads, creates, and becomes part of online learning communities/networks
4. Build: begins to build their own knowledge that is evident on their blog
5. Contribute: creation of unique and individual artifacts to the field they are researching

Constructivism in action! This framework along with his talk reinforce important characteristics of online learning that have become increasingly evident since beginning this course: personally-relevant learning (authenticity), having an online identity, ownership of material, co-participation of the teacher and student, social learning networks (collaborative learning), transparent learning and the importance of the process rather than just the product.

I’m still considering the extent to which blogs and the processes described here could be used in a meaningful way in my teaching context, in that it adds value to the students learning. I can see that a project investigating a topic related to the body would provide the type of in-depth exploration Konrad describes with his students, but I’m also weary that for many beginner-level tertiary students, simply managing the large amount of content in the bioscience course in an online learning environment is challenging enough already.

I would certainly like to create more opportunity for interaction and social learning in the online environment, perhaps using student blogs as learning diaries where they have a place to share relevant knowledge / experiences / links, explore a topic of interest in more detail if they wish, make comments on topical issues (I think this incidental learning is really important), begin to have relevant conversations, and to reflect on their own learning. Maybe this is how it starts out in the first half of the course, progressing to using it for a project in the second half of the course. It certainly has given me lots to think about.

After visiting Stephen Downes website to find out more about eLearning 2.0 (or Web 2.0 as it is also known), it seems to be the future of online learning. In his ‘Trends and Impacts’ video he describes how eLearning has developed from an online learning environment that delivers content largely supporting traditional classroom-based learning, to the new age of eLearning 2.0 defined by ‘immersive learning’ (learning by doing) and ‘connected learning’ (conversation and interaction via computer-based learning networks; social networking). In this type of online learning, the learner essentially has a ‘personal learning centre’ where they create their own learning by using and mixing content and materials from the web and other sources according to their own needs and interests.

And here comes the “blog”, which two weeks ago I had barely even uttered the word, to now when my head seems to be bursting with stuff about and on blogs. A blog can be this ‘personal learning centre’, used to create and showcase a learner’s work. He says about blogging, it “is very different from traditionally assigned learning content. It is much less formal. It is written from a personal point of view, in a personal voice. Students' blog posts are often about something from their own range of interests, rather than on a course topic or assigned project. More importantly, what happens when students blog, and read reach others' blogs, is that a network of interactions forms-much like a social network.”

In the recent Distance Learning article, Stephen Downes describes how eLearning 2.0 could be applied to an online course. His essential requirements for the course: “the learners choose their own technology - whether blogs, discussion boards, audio feeds, or whatever ...” and “the content is not imposed on them, but is rather, self-selected”. I’m wondering how could a teacher manage all this flexibility, how could standards be maintained, how could students possibly manage to cover all the (typically huge) course prescription?

And he admits this isn’t going to be easy in a tertiary education setting, as there’s too much predefined content and classes, and thinks “the best that can be done is to mitigate the disadvantages. Basically, what this means is throwing a lot of stuff out there and letting people craft their own course out of it”. This sounds even worse than the previous statements!

However his description of what could work is better: content area for course material but with as little design imposed on it as possible (I’m not sure about that, some structure and guidance is surely needed), course blog or similar which would be a focal point for resources and discussion, online synchronous chat like Elluminate, course community for social connections perhaps by discussion list or student blogs. Hang on, this all sounds familiar, isn’t this what we are experiencing in the facilitating eLearning course. Aha, the proof (of how good eLearning 2.0 is) will be in the learning!

The course has started with communication happening through a course blog, our own blog, the google email group, Elluminate and Bb. Of these I am only familiar with Bb. It was all a little confusing to begin with, much like any new student to an unfamiliar course and environment feels. It’s true to say that I’m in the ‘dark ages’ about computer technology, having only mastered the basics of word documents, spreadsheets, the web etc, so I’m beginning to get a sense of a big new world out there, which is both scary and exciting at the same time. This is also the first course I have taken where I have not had the opportunity for any f2f sessions with any of the other participants at the start, so I’m finding it a little strange not having any faces to fit to people’s comments.

An initial online ice-breaker activity had us introducing ourselves to the group. While I gained a ‘feel’ for the group and identified areas of commonality it didn’t spark much social conversation. I think at this time many of us were preoccupied with trying to sort out the various ways of communicating. I think icebreaker activities are important; they set the tone that ‘we want to know you and start working together’. Lots of examples can be found here at the index of icebreakers.

Learning styles (ILS questionnaire and descriptions available here)

My learning styles result showed I have a moderate preference for sensing (7) and visual (5) dimensions while the other dimensions were fairly balanced (1). Sensing learners like fact, details, well-established methods, practical work, and learning with real-world connections, and this fits well with my science background and teaching the fundamentals of environmental science and bioscience. I’m surprised the visual learning didn’t score higher as this is very strong for me, and used extensively in my teaching with lots of pictures, flow diagrams, concept maps, and demonstrations. And also I would have thought that the reflective dimension would have scored higher because I definitely prefer to sit back and think through things before I rush into anything (in learning and life in general).

The foundation level students I work with usually determine their own learning styles at the start of the course and guidance is provided on how they can best use this to help themselves learn more effectively. Because they are often just entering tertiary study for the first time it can take a while for this to develop. Also those students who are more intuitive do struggle with the emphasis on facts, detail and difficult terminology that is typical of science-based courses.

The blog begins

I will be using this web log to document my experiences and learning about online facilitation and communities. Already there has been so much to think about and we've only just begun. I'll post my thoughts shortly but for now some inspirational thoughts from this week:
'conversations are the stem cells of learning'
'teaching, blogging, learning'

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