I’ve taught nine asynchronous online courses over the past two years, all of which were longer than four weeks each, and I learned something useful about online facilitation going through every one of them. As a result, here are “three Ts” – technology, time and team – to anticipate and plan for in online learning & facilitation, and some ideas about what to do about them:

Technology

It’s no surprise that both facilitators and participants sometimes have trouble with the technology when involved in an online course. A certain basic level of computer skills is absolutely necessary to undertake this kind of endeavour. Most people who sign up for an online course seem to have them; some definitely do not.

The good thing is that humans can make friends with technology if we take the time to learn about it – which often involves asking for help. In the courses I have taught online it seems like, unbeknownst to me, there is often one participant who is still struggling with the online course platform by week two or three of the course, and I always wish they would have contacted me sooner to let me help them. If I think a participant is struggling with the technology I reach out by email or phone as soon as I can. In fact, I believe that reaching out in these ways to participants who are “going dark” (not showing up online) over a period of time is a must when trying to engage participants in general. Sometimes the reason for their silence/absence isn’t a tech know-how one (for which we perhaps can find other solutions), but sometimes it is.

To try to anticipate what participants need in terms of tech help I often have created “how to” screencasts and videos to show people how to do certain things within the site, such as create a post in a discussion forum, reply to a post, add a photo to their profile, and so on. (This is for courses that are not at institutions with a broad knowledge help database or orientation courses to the platform.) Also, for non-profit courses that have started off with a face-to-face session, I’ve also spent a little bit of time showing participants on the big screen how to navigate the site. In our last course we also got the participants actively participating in the online course platform while they were in the room with us, and it worked fairly well. Not only do I think the activity increased their comfort level with using the online site, I think overall they wrote better-quality posts throughout the duration of the course because we also showed them what a good discussion forum post looked like.  I will definitely do this again.

Time

One of the hardest things about learning online is the amount of time that it takes over a sustained period of time to engage effectively in the online classroom. Even though we tell participants that the workload is going to be about six hours a week (in the courses that I teach), there always seem to be a few who don’t believe us! Learning online in an asynchronous course is a “most nights” endeavour; that is, most nights participants (and facilitators) should be checking in on the course, reading the most recent posts, and generally staying on top of the discussion and activities. I’ve seen participants leave their coursework to the weekend at the end of every week and by that time they’ve totally missed participating in the discussion. They are just getting going on the topic while the rest of us are wrapping up. The posts that they chime in at the end of the week often go unanswered by their fellow classmates, who are often doing the next week’s reading by then.

We always ask people to schedule the coursework time into their schedules, and sometimes people do actually do it. I think often they don’t though. Once I had a participant say to me at the end of the course something like: “Oh, NOW I see why you asked us to schedule time for the course in our calendars…I didn’t do it and, uh, yeah, I should have. Oops. The course kind of got away from me.” Yep. Could have predicted that.

As a facilitator, too, online teaching can be very time consuming if you don’t set boundaries. I do try to take some time off from the course each week to make sure I maintain some balance, including usually not spending too much of my weekend online unless absolutely necessary.

Team

All the courses I currently facilitate have some element of teamwork to them, either a team project that is due at the end of the four-week course, or a team project that involves taking a turn at facilitating activities during one of the four weeks. Sometimes teams have met each other in person, sometimes they have not. It’s interesting that the other two T’s that I’ve just discussed play into this T quite crucially: teams need to find a way to work together at a distance, often possessing varying tech skills in the group that sometimes prevent them from connecting and working with each other easily. Sometimes the issue of time can be the different amounts of time that team members have allotted for themselves to spend on the course – which occasionally don’t synch up with each other and cause workload imbalances for teamwork. Sometimes teams are trying to communicate with each other across different cities, provinces and time zones. It is frustrating, but yet this is also what happens in real organizations so we need to find ways to mitigate and deal with it.

And then there are the communication issues! Lovely people to talk to on the phone can sometimes come across as task masters over email and discussion forum posts; others who are highly intelligent lack clarity when trying to communicate their ideas and cause confusion; still others simply take a “my way is the highway” approach and railroad over the rest of the class or their team. Sometimes team members just throw their virtual hands up in the air and give up trying to work things out with one another through the storming phase. And twice I’ve had participants just “go dark” and never talk to any of us again. (Really!) Luckily these kinds of things don’t happen very often, but they do happen.

To try to anticipate team issues, sometimes I have implemented a team charter practice. The team has to decide up front what they value, how they are going to work together, and what they are going to do if something goes off the rails. And I have learned that picking up the phone early to have a real live chat to solve any burgeoning issues more quickly is a real must.

More Info

Still interested in learning more about teaching online? Last year I read Lessons from the Virtual Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching by Pratt and Palloff and I found it to be an excellent resource for the online facilitator.

Good luck navigating the three Ts as you plan for and facilitate your next online class!