2.5 How to facilitate an online course

In this section, we give a brief overview of how to effectively facilitate an online course, drawing on the literature. One of the first theories with respect to distance education was the theory of transactional distance put forward by Moore (1991) which highlighted the importance of the dialogue and interaction to mitigate against the separation of the student and the educator. Promoting interactions between students and educators has positive impact on student outcomes (Walters, Grover, Turner, & Alexander, 2017). Facilitating online courses is mainly concerned with supporting these interactions. Martin et al. (2019) put forward an interpretation of online course facilitation, in which it “.. broadly refers to how, what, when, and why an online faculty member makes decisions and takes actions to help students meet the learning outcomes” (Martin et al., 2019, p. 36). However, the pedagogical approaches to online teaching may differ between online educators as they bring different perspectives, personal beliefs, attitudes and dispositions to online teaching and the use of technology (Borup & Evmenova, 2019; Coker, 2018).

Online course design

Clear, consistent and systematic online course design is a very important for effective teaching online. Student engagement can be supported by a well-designed online course which promotes interaction, presence and creates a clear, purposeful learning journey (Farrell & Brunton, 2020). Organising the course into weekly topics or assignments, chunking content and providing clear signposting are elements of course design that facilitate student learning (Martin et al., 2019; Meyer & McNeal, 2011; Peacock & Cowan, 2019). Consistency in structure from week to week allows students to know where they are within the learning process (Martin et al., 2019; Trammell & LaForge, 2017).

In order to engage students, and “make the materials alive” (Martin et al., 2019, p. 39) in the online environment it is recommended that consideration is given to the type and variety of the learning activities and to include experiential learning, real word or job related experiences, and online scenarios (Gómez-Rey et al., 2018; Martin et al., 2019; Meyer & McNeal, 2011; Shattuck et al., 2011; Trammell & LaForge, 2017).  The selection and use of a variety of tools, approaches and media such as providing audio and visual resources or using discussion forums, blogs or wikis for discourse will also influence how effective the learning activities are. Further, integrating online collaborative activities and opportunities for reflection will enhance the student learning experience.

Online course design approaches vary considerably, but most fully online courses use a combination of:

  1. Asynchronous activities such as quizzes,  interactive content, and short videos
  2. Asynchronous communication channels such as discussion forums and chat groups
  3. Online collaborative activities like wikis, blogs, glossaries and web quests
  4. Synchronous classes using platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft teams

At the start of the course

One of the important aspects to emerge from the literature is the requirement for the online educator to present the nature of the interaction required in the online course to students. Clarification of expected participation, standards of contributions and interactions and deadlines need to be explicit. (Abdous, 2011; Peacock & Cowan, 2019; Trammell & LaForge, 2017). Using an introductory video, getting in early in discussions and having icebreaker activities are all key to success (Coker, 2018; Peacock & Cowan, 2019). Award winning online educators use weekly announcements with reminders of the learning activities for the coming week (Martin et al., 2019).

Here is an example of a course introduction video from the #Openteach course.

Facilitating discussion

Asynchronous discussion forums are often the primary means of communication within an online course. Therefore, online educators need to take a proactive approach to the facilitation of these forums.  The job of the online educator in facilitating discussions is to “take it outwards, to bring in a new idea, to ask a question and in some cases to share opinions” in order to avoid the early termination of a discussion (Coker, 2018, p. 136). Online educators should post regularly on the course discussion forums, acknowledging student contributions, giving feedback and prompting further interaction.



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