A guide to online facilitation
Foremost, facilitators need people skills, patience and be able to act sociably in order to gain respect. A comprehensive list of cultural competencies are listed below: –
- Be non-judgemental/withhold judgement.
- Be flexible.
- Be resourceful.
- Personalise observations.
- Pay attention to thoughts and feelings.
- Listen carefully.
- Observe attentively.
- Assume complexity.
- Tolerate the stress of uncertainty.
- Have patience.
- Manage personal bias and stereotypes.
- Keep a sense of humour.
- Show respect.
- Show empathy.
Keeping discussions moving along and enabling participants to reflect on what they are saying is a key skill of the facilitators’ role. Typically this might include reinforcing points made and then following it up with a question.
Facilitators must also motivate, exchange information and construct knowledge as well as conduct basic ‘housekeeping’ for the platforms and environments in which they operate. They may also be required to keep the space “safe/civil” for all participants
Skills and behaviours
As most digital interactions are text based, facilitators must be able to write clearly and succinctly. The ability to construct short, concise, honest and specific interventions is vital. In particular, try to use Plain English and break up sentences into manageable chunks. Accurate spelling and grammar are expected but not essential, particularly as draft responses can be created if necessary.
Facilitators should be familiar with netiquette, the practice of online etiquette or courtesy. A subtle emphasis of words or even certain acronyms hold unique meaning to online environments. While only experienced participants tend to understand this code, it can be a source of embarrassment if facilitators do not understand it or notice it happening.
Common netiquette is provided below:-
- Avoid saying anything online that you wouldn’t be willing to say to someone face-to-face. Adhere to the same standards of behaviour online that you follow in real life;
- Stay positive. Avoid saying highly negative, insulting or disparaging things about participants or their views online (this practice, called ‘flaming’, is viewed as very poor behaviour);
- State views confidently but kindly, including differences of opinion;
- Don’t judge contributions by the quality of English;
- Use emoticons to express feeling. You could also describe your mood in brackets, for example ‘(I’m being serious)’;
- Keep a sense of humour but avoid sarcasm – rigidity will dehumanise an online discourse;
- Consider using multimedia as a way to initiate discussion and reflection;
- Avoid using CAPITALISATION. This is known as ‘shouting’ ;
- Respect other peoples time and privacy;
- Use asterisks surrounding words to indicate italics used for emphasis (*at last*);
- Don’t abuse your power.
 Hogan–Garcia, 2003
There are a number of ways that facilitators can stimulate an online conversation. For example, if things slow down for too long, they can try posting “discussion starters” or provocative questions. It is easy to assume that if no responses are collected then a topic was unpopular but a different result may be solicited at a different time, from a different angle or with a different twist.
Facilitators often play the role of a talk show host and introduce controversial ideas that are likely to stimulate some discussion. Behind the scenes, facilitators can nudge others to get involved in early attempts to build forum momentum. The more people who are actively posting, the more credibility and interest an online dialogue will have to new participants. Periodically, it is good practice to remind participants that the space belongs to them, and remind them how to start new discussion.
Key to informed, productive discussion is information. Participants should be encouraged to bring facts and figures to the discussion, but facilitators should also provide basic background information – such as links, a glossary of terms etc. Facilitators may also wish to consider providing a set of tips on how to make good contributions.
There are a number of ways that involvement can be stimulated, such as: –
- Welcoming new participants to the dialogue;
- Asking participants where they are form or what their interests are or about their experience of the subject matter;
- Acknowledging and thanking a participant for a particular contribution;
- Seeking clarity of a given statement;
- Digging deeper into the views of participants or a particular issue;
- Signposting supporting evidence or content;
- To extend or redirect a discussion into new territory;
- To prod and provoke, acting as the catalyst for more involvement;
- To reflect on a conversation, summarising conflict and consensus or the arguments raised;
- Calls to action;
- Celebrating forum anniversaries;
- Encouraging in-person gatherings at local venues to remind people that real people are on the other side of the forum postings.
Good facilitators will alter their tactics to the behaviour of participants. Refer to the table overleaf for strategies for dealing with particular types of individual.
Patterns of participation
|Behaviours||Facilitator response||Affiliated guide/guide response|
|Visits once a week, lots of activity, then disappears again until next week, or even the week after.||Nudge by email to encourage them to visit again and see the responses that they have sparked off.||Comment positively on the participants posts resulting from facilitator encouragement.|
|Steady – visits most days for a short time.||Congratulate. Ask them to encourage and support others – especially those who post very little.||Post positive comments when learners support others.|
|Always catching up: completes two weeks in one session, then disappears again for some time.||Nudge them with an email to suggest that they will find the course easier to follow if they access it more regularly. Check on other commitments. Provide regular summaries and archiving to enable them to catch up and easily contribute.||Join in posts from the facilitator’s summaries of topics. Comment positively to encourage learners’ contributions.|
|Visits once a week, reading and contributing little.||Check that this participant can access all the messages; check also language difficulties. They may need boost of confidence – give them a specific role.||Help to boost the participants’ confidence with positive, encouraging and friendly comments.|
|Inclined to post disembodied comments in a random way.||Try to include relevant comments from this participant in summaries and invite responses. They need support and e-stroking.||Help to support the participant with relevant responses.|
|Lives online; a prolific message writer who responds very rapidly.||This participant may need counselling to hold back and let others shine through. Give them structured roles, such as summarising after a plenary.||Support by including references to relevant comments from other participants to help integration.|
|Tendency to dominate discussion at certain times.||Invite this participant back frequently. Offer a structured and specific role.||Support and encourage the participant to reflect on other learners’ comments.|
|Steals ideas without acknowledging.||Foster a spirit of acknowledgement and reinforcement of individual ideas. Warn them directly if necessary.||Actively include these participants when posting comments that acknowledge others.|
|Intelligent, a good communicator and playful online.||Ensure they acknowledge and work well with others. They may annoy participants who think it’s all very serious.||Support the facilitators by helping to keep the learner on a relevant topic.|
This article originally appeared on tCI Wiki.