Facilitating an online course: Five ways for getting it right

The first online course I developed and facilitated was Fundamentals of Speech. I was determined to get it right, because I had graduated from an online program and understood first-hand the pitfalls and frustrations students go through with a weak facilitator. In the very first week of the course I realized that it takes a lot of work to facilitate well! The second thing I realized was that it was so worth it—and so rewarding.

Since then, I’ve developed and facilitated many online courses, and enjoy being the eLearning certification trainer for new online and blended faculty at Spring Arbor University.

1 Give your students as much guidance as you can.

We often don’t care about information until we need it. Think Google Search. Students will benefit from snippets of information you provide—especially when it is timely. Remind them of deadlines and congratulate those who crush every requirement on a grading rubric.

Course announcements and emails can be powerful “just-in-time” guidance. Conscientious students will eat up every hint you provide to help them be successful.

CAUTION: Avoid saying “it’s in the syllabus” when a student asks a question. Instead, listen for the reason behind the question. It may be true the information is in the syllabus, but for some reason the student is asking. Consider that when Joe asks “how many points are available on the final paper assignment?” he may actually mean: “I’m having a hard time writing the paper and I’m afraid I won’t be successful.”

2 Begin interacting in the discussion forum before the due date.

If discussion posts are due at midnight on Wednesday, to get it right, I need to begin reading and responding to individual posts that are made long before then.

The value and impact of a timely post shouldn’t be underestimated. Getting to the conversation on time means that students feel listened to, and validated as a significant force in the learning community.

CAUTION: Waiting to interact until everyone has responded, to get a good sense of the themes that arise (or because you’re too busy at this moment), hinders momentum in the forum and each student’s intrinsic motivation to engage.

3 Let students know when you show up.

The asynchronous nature of an online course can make facilitating feel isolated, like it’s done in a vacuum. It’s important to let students know you are there. After spending an hour grading essays or interacting in a discussion forum, create an announcement and send it to all class members. Let them know what you’ve been doing—and how you have enjoyed their work. Even quote a few stellar phrases from students, or champion exemplary out-of-the-box thinking. If you don’t let them know you are there—they may never see you.

CAUTION: If you just do what you do without letting students know about it, they may never realize that you are consistent and active in the course. Students won’t intuitively understand what grading 25 essays or leaving feedback for each student involves, and it helps to tell them.

4 Grade student work as it comes in.

If the paper is due on Sunday at midnight, some students will submit it on Thursday. Go ahead and read it and grade it on Thursday. The idea is to treat it as if it’s the most important thing you need to do. Because it is.

Your timely attention to an early submission supports the student’s strong work ethic, time management skills, and desire to achieve. Plus, it makes grading after the due date more manageable for you! Make the art of grading sacrificial—a gift that motivates them to improve.

CAUTION: Avoid the temptation to postpone your grading to a convenient 4-hour stretch of time after the due date. It’s not about garnering respect from students because you have a lot to do (they have busy lives as well). It’s about letting them know you value the time and effort they made to submit an assignment.

5 Give incremental and connected feedback.

Giving feedback should be a practice of continuing the conversation about improvement with each student. The idea is to remember and document what you suggested previously, and hold them accountable to growth by making the necessary adjustments.

If you asked Joe to properly format his paper the next time he submits one, you need to hold him accountable for that. Tracking how students respond to your feedback forces active learning and growth. You want them to know you expect them to grow. Treat feedback as a two-way conversation.

CAUTION: Don’t buy into a timesaver by cutting back on giving feedback to your students. Leaving comments like “good job!” “Love this!” and “Keep it up!” won’t motivate your students to grow. Remember, you’re there to guide them from Point A to Point B.

These five ways to facilitate a course may not be new to you, but they are still extremely important. I hope to encourage you to continue the good work you do, and keep striving to get it right!

What are some of your favorite tips for getting it right when facilitating an online course? Let us know!

Author: Gwen Hersha, Assistant Professor & Instructional Designer

Gwen is fascinated with teaching and learning and loves designing ways of "doing it better." She finds joy in the everyday practicality of life: writing, teaching, gardening, and trying new things.

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