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Confessions of an online facilitator

What is it like to be an online facilitator? Sarah Stewart describes her experiences of facilitating  'open courses' (run in Wiki Educator), from a personal viewpoint.

The wiki that hosts the course is used mainly as a type of learning management system, and pulls in a lot of other media and platforms. The focus is on facilitation (as opposed to teaching). The course is not locked up in a password protected environment, and there is no fee to participate (although there is a charge if you would like personal feedback on your own facilitation). Other platforms Sarah uses on the course are blogs, Twitter, and Google groups. Email was seen as the technology that most participants would already be familiar and comfortable with. The course is for people who would like to learn and interact online, develop learning networks and communities, etc. It's designed around encouraging the participants to actually use the tools and to facilitate events and discussions. The final assessment for the course is to run an event, which uses a lot of Nancy White ideas around facilitating conversation in virtual communities (e.g. Online Community Handbook). To date a wide range of people from all over the world have participated in the course to date. The course has to cater to every level of digital literacy. Those participants who are very experienced have been very generous with their time offering support to other participants.

As a facilitator Sarah had to think really hard about how she facilitates such a wide range of people. One thing that she stresses she has learned is that she has to give up control to the students. It has been quite hard as her learning objectives might be rather different to what the learners are keen to do. She also discovered that adults don't read instructions, and found much of her time was spent re-directing people back to the course to become more autonomous. There was a need to encourage smaller learning groups to develop within the larger group of the community.

A safe environment was critical to the effectiveness of the course, especially as many participants were very worried about the technology and about making mistakes. Therefore, there was a need to develop an environment where people could make mistakes, as well as to play and learn. This meant the careful matching of people with similar interests, and as a facilitator she has had to listen very carefully to her participants.

Two key recommendations are to try not to bombard people with technology, and include instructions with everything.

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