A version of this post was published in Concordia University public scholars blog: https://www.concordia.ca/cunews/offices/vprgs/sgs/public-scholars/2017/08/01/9-tips-to-facilitate-online-learning.html
From 2013 to 2017, I taught online courses at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in the BA in Educational Studies and Digital Technologies (ESTD)program, using the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach.
In a course designed with a problem-based learning approach, the students are presented with an ill-defined authentic situation from which problems can emerge. Together with the instructor, who acts as a facilitator of learning, the students analyze the situation from different perspectives or angles, identify the problems and reflect on the various strategies to solve them. They start by recalling any prior knowledge they have and that might be invested in solving the problems. Then, as a group, they determine the knowledge gap that they still need to bridge in order to find solutions to the problems. Once this gap is identified, students act as independent thinkers and engage in the co-construction of the collective knowledge needed to solve the problems. In a PBL approach, learning happens through the process of bridging the knowledge gap in order to solve problems. In my courses, this process of knowledge co-construction happens mainly in our Facebook group.
In the first course, Digital Technologies and Advanced Teaching Methods (AEDT2150), the students and I explored how we could design efficient and effective training material using models of teaching and learning and innovative digital technologies. In the second course, Digital Communication Technologies (AEDT1160), we explored how we could use digital communication technologies, with a focus on social media, to solve problems related to education, commerce, profession, and society.
In addition to being core courses for students completing their BA in ESDT, AEDT1160 and AEDT2150 succeeded, over the years, in attracting students from other disciplines such as commerce, business, marketing, nursing, computer engineer, and criminology. In 2013, twenty students enrolled in each of these courses. In 2016, three sections opened for the summer semester and all the spots were taken in less than half an hour with thirty students in each section. Students were messaging me to be added to the waiting list, and many asked to attend the first sessions with the hope that others would drop out of the course and that they would take their place.
Both courses were fully online. I met students synchronously 50 minutes per week through Adobe Connect and our remaining interactions happened asynchronously using a variety of platforms, namely Facebook.
In this digital age, it has become increasingly essential for our students to be able to communicate and collaborate online using the digital technologies that are at their fingertips, including social media platforms.
They also need to be able to stay safe online and recognize the rules, the regulations and the responsibilities attached to having an online presence. They should be able to engage in ongoing life-long learning activities and contribute to the collective knowledge through filtering the volume of information they receive, aggregating the most relevant information and repurposing it to better serve their own learning and the learning of others.
Accumulating extensive amounts of knowledge is no longer a necessity. Instead, students should develop the essential 21st century skills to find and access required knowledge to solve unfamiliar or unexpected key problems. This is what the future job market will be expecting from them.
After four years of facilitating online asynchronous learning on Facebook in a Problem-based Learning approach, I share with you the nine lessons I have learned.
1- Opt for a Facebook group instead of a Facebook page
In a Facebook Page, only posts written by the managers of the page are displayed on the wall. Other posts are less visible and are displayed on the side as visitor posts. The manager(s) of the page are solely in control of the interactions, whereas in a Facebook Group all members’ posts are visible and central. Any member of the group can initiate a discussion. Further, members receive notifications by default when any other member posts in the group, which facilitates the communication. Members of the group can also start a chat with any other member or members of the group and add other people to the conversation, even if they are not friends on Facebook.
Opt for a Facebook Group to encourage your students to become members of the community, instead of restricting their role to that of of fans, as in a Facebook Page. You can always modify the privacy settings, the membership approval, the posting permissions and the post approval to best answer the needs of the group.
2- Do not restrict students to using their personal Facebook account
The first question many students ask is whether they should use their personal account on Facebook or if they could create a new account that they would use solely for the course. Some argue that they prefer to keep their personal life separate from their school life. My answer always includes a discussion about online image/identity management and the purpose of creating an online presence. I also discuss with students the logistic challenges they would have to deal with when they continuously switch from one account to the other and the just-in-time updates they miss when doing so.
Encourage your students to use one account however, if they wish to opt for different accounts, do not stop them. The decision should always be theirs. The majority realize after a while that the effort they invest in managing several accounts hinders their engagement, and thus their learning, and recognize the value of an online image.
3- Discuss netiquette
An ongoing kind reminder of some rules to follow when interacting online usually prevents potential conflicts. Make sure to discuss Netiquette with your students at the beginning of the semester and whenever needed.
One strategy always proved to be very efficient: I start a discussion thread asking students to reply with one netiquette rule they think we should respect during our asynchronous discussions. Students are expected to read others’ replies before posting their rule to avoid repetitions. By the end of the thread, we usually cover all that needs to be covered!
4- Contrast conversation with monologue
In a problem-based learning approach, students learn through their interactions with other students. They exchange resources, they share experiences, they challenge each other’s ideas and beliefs, they use arguments to defend their positions and they prompt others to analyze topics from different perspectives. This only happens when students engage in conversations. The first week of the semester, many students new to online asynchronous learning, visit the group page, post a long comment, sometimes with a link to a resource, and then disappear. Any observer will notice the appearance of several monologues that discuss the same topic and yet stay detached from the conversation.
As facilitator of learning, make sure to discuss this behavior with students and highlight the benefits of engaging in a conversation. I usually invite my students to imagine themselves with a group of friends in a cafe and I ask them: “Would any of you engage in a monologue while others are engaging in a conversation?”
5- Be explicit when it comes to quality versus quantity
The second question students ask is about the amount of contributions I expect from them per week. I always take them back to the cafe example: “If you are with your friends in a cafe and you are discussing a topic of great interest to you all, would you count how many times you speak, ask a question or share? Conversations in the Facebook group are similar to your conversations offline. Whenever you have something to contribute, you need to add it. The contributions could be through posting new resources, commenting on others’ sharing, or replying to others’ comments.”
I also acknowledge the value of liking a post to show appreciation and support but I also explain that liking a post does not really contribute to the knowledge construction. In terms of conversation, liking is similar to a nod or a thumb up.
6- Explain the difference between engagement, last minute postsand joining the party after everyone has left
In order for your students to be part of the conversation, they need to check the Facebook group frequently. As the conversation is happening asynchronously, students can engage at their own convenience, however, they must respect the duration and the flow of the conversation.
Again, you can invite your students to imagine themselves with their friends in a cafe discussing a topic and ask them: “Would you jump in whenever you feel that you can contribute to the discussion or do you wait until the discussion is over and your friends are ready to leave then you share your thoughts, or do you wait until everyone is gone then you speak, as if you were joining the party after everyone has left?”
7- Tolerate occasional off-topic posts
In a Problem-Based Learning approach, the facilitator acknowledges students’ prior knowledge. Together with the group, he/she evaluates its relevancy to the knowledge needed to solve the problems. Then the students collaborate in finding resources that would help them better explore the topics.
It is necessary that students feel that they are in a safe environment where they are not judged and that their contribution is valuable. They need to develop a sense of belonging to the community.
Whenever students share an off-topic post, acknowledge the effort and seamlessly bring the students’ focus back to the discussion.
8- Transform the students from passive participants to active moderators
Communicating effectively and efficiently with others is one key condition to achieving learning in a course designed with the problem-based approach. Other conditions are: being critical of the shared information, developing negotiation skills, facilitating knowledge sharing, accepting criticism and responding to it with solid arguments. For this to happen, students need to stop being passive participants in the discussion waiting for others’ guidance and take control of their learning experience.
By assigning students to the moderation role in the Facebook group, you give them this control. Make sure that the responsibility of moderation is rotated.
9- Ensure the once a member, always a member culture
Members of the Facebook group form a community of learners with shared interests. While some students leave after the end of their courses, many stay and engage in discussions with current students. Lifelong learning is facilitated through the ongoing connections created and maintained in the Facebook group.
So, make sure to remind students that they have a lifelong membership in the Facebook group and that their contribution will always be valued.