The primary role of an online facilitator is designing and guiding the learning that occurs through an online environment. A big part of the job involves managing the communications and collaborations that occur among the course participants, including those between instructor and students, students and students, and interactions with participants from outside the course such as invited guests. The specifics of the role of the facilitator will depend on the philosophy of learning being used, including the degree of freedom students are given in managing their own learning, the online tools that are chosen, and the split between asynchronous and synchronous activities. The facilitator’s role is also affected greatly by the amount of previous experience that students have in online communication. The facilitator’s role is critical, and it doesn’t really matter whether the online environment is more structured as in an LMS, or more loosely-coupled using a variety of tools such as blogs, wikis, and social networks.
In most online courses, the facilitator also has the role of being the scholar or subject matter expert. There may also be some instructional design responsibilities. Leigh Blackall (2007) points out in his blog posting To Facilitate or to Teach that he finds himself conflicted at times in the role of facilitator because he is also the teacher and subject expert and fears that his biases might impact his neutrality when it comes to facilitating.
“Either I yield to the tradition of schooled learning and assume the role of teacher, instructor and assessor and forgo the role of facilitator, or I invest a lot more time with these courses and develop my skills as a communicator and become more sophisticated in ways of moving expectations towards a facilitated and individualised learning environment.”
When you begin teaching online, you may be presented with anything from a very structured course with all the pieces in place, to a framework from which to build on, to as little as a course title, description and some learning outcomes—that’s it. One thing for sure is that being an online teacher provides great possibilities for creating a flexible learning environment, the ability to revise continually, and the opportunity to integrate tools, content and people that you find through your network. You might consider having your students help build the course through their research, reflections and contributions, if your philosophy of online learning goes there.
Blackall, L. (2007, October 12). To facilitate or to teach. Message posted to http://learnonline.wordpress.com/2007/10/12/to-facilitate-or-to-teach/
Anderson, T. (2008, May). Teaching in an online learning context. In The theory and practice of online learning (2nd ed., chap. 4). Retrieved March 10, 2010 from http://www.aupress.ca/books/120146/ebook/14_Anderson_2008-Theory_and_Practice_of_Online_Learning.pdf
Australian Flexible Learning Framework. (2003). Effective online facilitation.
Web access via The Internet Archive at https://web.archive.org/web/20060109235012/http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/guides/facilitation.html
and in local PDF copy
Watwood, B., Nugent, J., & Deihl, W. (May 2009). Building from content to community: [Re]Thinking the transition to online teaching and learning. Retrieved March 10, 2010 from http://www.vcu.edu/cte/pdfs/OnlineTeachingWhitePaper.pdf