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.

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