The Buggles wrote of the video killing the radio star back in 1980. But more than 40 years later, radio is still going pretty strong (the VCR they mention in the song - not so much). So video hasn’t been the end of the radio. Nor will online courses be the end of teachers.
A rewritten role
Over the last few decades, as online learning has grown, teachers and lecturers have found their job descriptions changing. Their roles being rewritten by machine and new technology. But though the job might change, the value-add for the learning process doesn’t decrease.
What teaching looks like has shifted even more rapidly in the last two years as we figure out how to support our learners while regions are in lockdown. While physical spaces have been inaccessible, digital spaces have been blown wide open.
Chances are, what you’re doing right now with your classes is quite different to the approaches you were using in the "before times". And now that more and more courses and content are online, teachers might not be spending as much of their time delivering content.
Online learning personal trainers
If an online course is a workout, facilitators are like the personal trainer. They add the warmup and warm down. They're the ones who give you feedback on your form. They're there to help with motivation when your energy is low.
Sure you can have a workout without a personal trainer… But there’s a lot you miss out on. Having a personal trainer there to help with your workout can enhance fun, form and results.
The same can be said for online courses. Sure online courses don’t always need to have a facilitator. And learners can and do make their way through online courses on their own. But… Facilitators really do add a lot to learners’ experiences and achievements. Fun, form and results.
What the online facilitator adds
This list is by no means exhaustive, but here are just a few pieces of pizazz a facilitator brings to an online course.
There’s no one quite like you. Social presence is really important in an online course. It helps learners feel connected, they become more engaged, and they’re less likely to drop out. You might show the human behind the facilitator icon, through your bio and introduction. Your personality can also shine through in your feedback and posts to learners.
Although the content might be taken care of, instead of “delivering the content”, your role shifts more towards supporting learners “through” the content (in both preparation and pacing). To prepare learners you might be doing things like helping them to activate their prior knowledge before attempting a task or pointing them towards supporting resources. It might be as simple as telling learners “Hey this task you did earlier, look back at that before you do your assessed task. It’ll help.”
Your learners will benefit from your guidance in how to work through the course. How long should they spend on this reading? How long after finishing the module should they try the quiz? And so on. You might achieve this via weekly posts to a talk channel reminding learners of what they should have completed and what they have coming up.
I cannot do duty in this short article to the value of pedagogy that facilitators bring to online courses. While all the other P’s in this list support learning obliquely, pedagogy is where you as a facilitator support learning directly - Giving direct, personalised feedback and feedforward to learners. Whether that’s through tasks, talk or web conferencing.
Discussions in online courses can be wide-ranging. We know that a lot of great learning can happen in the conversations between learners, but facilitation makes it better. Mediation involves guiding learners toward conversation, and insight and away from bickering or banality. Facilitators also help to make that learning explicit by weaving together common themes in learners’ comments, synthesising the group’s efforts.
Just like a personal trainer, facilitators help provide the provocation and motivation to keep going. This might be a friendly reminder to pop back into the course and complete the quiz for practice before the assessment. A reminder that, “Yes, I’m here and I care about your progress and achievements. Keep at it.”
How you provide these supports might look entirely different depending on your preferences, your course, and your context. Whether it’s through your weekly posts to a talk channel, your engaging video lectures, your quizzes, or your feedback and chats with learners - your learners will benefit from it.