Facilitating Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators

September 28, 2001

By George Collison, Bonnie Elbaum, Sarah Haavind, and Robert Tinker

Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing, 2000; 216 pp., ISBN: 1891859331 $ 24.95 (pbk)

Reviewed by David L. Dollar

Tarrant County College Southeast Campus
Arlington, Texas

Online courses are now integral learning mediums in traditional education, business, and distance campuses. The use of online communication for teaching and training is continuing to grow as more schools and businesses connect to the Internet and gain access to new technologies. To be successful in this new medium, educators are finding that they need a new repertoire of skills or a new way of using old skills.

Facilitating Online Learning is a groundbreaking handbook that lays out a systematic approach for creating a learning community in which a more collaborative learning environment is effectively fostered.

This timely and beneficial handbook establishes the following three goals for the effective moderator:

    1) to develop an increased capacity to build effective online learning communities,
    2) to establish a wider repertoire of strategies for sharpening course content, and
    3) to learn new strategies for deepening online dialogue in order to enrich learning opportunities.

Authors Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, and Tinker are dedicated to revolutionizing education through the use of information technologies by undertaking innovative projects that bridge the gap between research and practice. They are staff members at The Concord Consortium, a nonprofit research and development organization in Concord, Massachusetts.

In Chapter 1, the authors identify three fundamental principles that must be acknowledged for effective moderating:

    1) moderating takes place in both a professional and a social context;
    2) leading a virtual learning community by the style of “Guide on the Side” vs. “Sage on the Stage” is most appropriate; and
    3) online moderation is a craft that has general principles and strategies that can be learned.

Chapter 2 sets the stage for creating a successful learning culture in netcourses by discussing dialogue forms and moderating goals. The forms of dialogue or patterns of speaking called social dialogue, argumentative dialogue, and pragmatic dialogue must be recognized and channeled by the moderator in order to enhance learning in the virtual classroom. Although social and argumentative forms of dialogue are present in most online discourse, the intention of pragmatic dialogue provides a supportive framework for the goal-directed conversations needed in online courses. Among these moderating goals are building community, supporting a culture of respect, and cultivating reasoned discourse.

The remainder of Facilitating Online Learning is devoted to tools and strategies that moderators can use to accomplish the goals of moderating in support of specific production targets or content goals. In Chapter 3, the authors look at three key moderator roles: “Guide on the Side,” instructor, and group process facilitator. These roles can shift depending on the circumstances and the students.

In Chapter 4, the authors provide a manual of basic strategies for maintaining functional online groups.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 provide experienced moderators with a “tool kit” of advanced strategies that will ensure pragmatic dialogue in the virtual discussion areas. The topics covered include voice, tone, and critical thinking strategies. Voice offers diagnoses of what a discussion might need to move forward. The facilitator can use different tones to offer empathy to participants and nurture people who are struggling with new content or new design challenges.

Also, proven critical thinking strategies facilitators might use to focus or deepen an ongoing discussion at critical junctures are included. The authors enhance this handbook by concluding their theoretical discussion with solutions to a number of classic roadblocks facilitators are likely to face.

Facilitating Online Learning offers a theoretical framework and a practical guide to help moderators meet the challenges of starting and sustaining quality dialogue in online courses. Online learning has sparked a resurgence of interest in teaching techniques and strategies as well as in the hows and whys of learning.

Facilitating Online Learning serves those educators who have never tried facilitating online dialogue and want to gather information about the process from experienced practitioners. This book also serves seasoned online course facilitators who wish to confirm their own understandings of moderation, reflect on their own practices, and expand their repertoire of strategies for effective online training or teaching. Facilitating Online Learning offers the novice and the seasoned educator the opportunity to grow with this exciting new medium.