Friday, 7 December 2007

Winter's coming....

I've spent the last few weeks frantically packing up our lives in preparation for our return to the UK. We're heading to the South Island for a whistle-stop tour before a few days in Tokyo and then back to Bristol in the south west of England. Whilst endeavouring to minimise my headless chicken impression I have also been trying to finish off the assessments for the Facilitating Online Communities paper. I think after my two previous posts I'm mostly done, although a quick scan of the wiki assignment asks for a summary of my " impressions of wikis and their use in building communities" which I don't remember doing. So here are my impressions.

  • Building communities requires willing participants and shared goals. I think Web 2.0 tools like blogs, social networking, email groups and wikis all have the potential to build communities if those involved wish it and participate to create it.
  • I think wikis offer learners many opportunities to build up skills in clarity, negotiation, discussion, analysis and working with others.
  • I think that wikis need a clear purpose to start with but the beauty of the wiki is that it can adapt and change. How it changes depends on how the collaborators work together.
  • The fact that others beyond the immediate group can view/edit/comment offers learners the chance to reflect on their efforts and justify their ideas or adapt. These skills are transferable across many areas of life.
  • In producing my wiki, I found that I enjoyed setting it up and then going back to add to or edit it. The few comments that have been made in the discussion page spurred me on. Discovering how to include more visual or audio based resources would have been helpful. Communities are made up of people with a range of learning styles.
  • This is a tool I intend to experiment with when I'm teaching again.

Ok. That's it. I'll check the email forum and my wiki page and then I'm off on hols. Next blog post probably not until February when I may attempt to blog my way through the Applied project!

This has been a different learning experience for me but I have learnt so much. Thank you to everyone who has read my blog posts and offered up comments. Thank you to Brownyn and Leigh for guiding through the experience.

May catch up with some of you on the next paper! Cheerio, winter here we come...brrrr....

Reflecting on Asynchronous Discussion

My facilitation exercise was an asynchronous discussion which took place over the course of one week. The topic was the ‘pros and cons of blogging for projects’ and the discussion group consisted of eight people, five participants of this facilitation online course, two alumni students and myself. The forum for the discussion was a Google Group called Pros & Cons of Blogging for Projects. This forum was set up with an activity page which highlighted the topic for discussion, some brief learning objectives and some links to various resources about blogging. Some articles provided positive description of the use of blogs and some identified some of the negative aspects. Three links to actual blog sites were also given as examples of how a blog could be used for recording a project.

Points of success:

  • The first learning objective was “to identify the pros and cons of blogging” and this was achieved. See conclusion page.
  • The second learning objective was “to evaluate blogging in the context of projects” and this was partially achieved (although the conclusion tended to relate more to blogging in general)
  • All participants introduced themselves and offered a view on blogging
  • Five participants offered detailed, thoughtful responses about blogging
  • Two participants offered up further resources for consideration
  • Evidence of critical thinking

Points of failure:

  • Sometimes responses did not relate to other people’s posts – individual statements rather than conversation.
  • Not referring to learning objectives when summarising the conclusion – no point in having objectives if there’s no reference to them later!
  • Two participants introduced themselves but then did not return to the discussion. This was not followed up.
  • The time allocated for the discussion was one week and this was not enough. Just as the discussion was getting started, it was over. So the second learning objective was not explored in enough detail.
  • No response from participants as to whether the discussion was useful for them – although not surprising as they were not involved in the topic selection and were participating in order to help me fulfil an assessment!

This exercise was an opportunity for me to practice facilitation online, something I’ve never done before. The discussion topic is one I am interested in and the opinions expressed designed to help me make a decision about whether I will continue my blog next year when I start the practical project part of this elearning programme. Therefore, as an educational exercise it was a fairly informal one, not part of a course of study or qualification. As such, there are two factors to note. Firstly, participants kindly volunteered to take part. There was no requirement to participate and there was no grade or mark attached. This could have affected participation levels. Secondly, the time frame allowed for the discussion was clearly too short given that participation was not compulsory. Allowing time for people to introduce themselves took up too much time in the week and the discussion was just developing when time was up.

Reflecting on the experience I would expect that a future attempt at a similar exercise would lead to the following changes:-

  • If this was at the start of a course I would allow more time for the discussion to develop – once introductions were out of the way. If this was part way through a course I would get straight into the discussion and make sure that participation was expected.
  • I would contact those who were not participating. I would invite them to take part with some questions to lead them in the right direction. It may be that the original topic was not clear and a re-wording may help. (I had planned to email people who did not participate but as I was dealing with volunteers, I did not want to impinge on their goodwill).
  • I would contribute more ideas if the discussion was slow moving and give more pointers especially in trying to get participants to respond to each other.
  • I would have liked to have found a video to put on the activity page for the more visual learners – rather than just text based readings. This was not something that arose from the discussion but in consideration of the various learning styles identified at the start of this course.
  • I would make it clear where the discussion was taking place – i.e. identify one of the threads as the place to start in the hope of avoiding disorientation.
  • I would sum up the discussion by referring to the learning objectives so it is clear if they have or have not been met. If they have not been met it would be useful to provide further reference material for learners to review if they wished to.
  • I would ask the students to sum up what they have learned so it is clear what has been gained, providing a focal point for the discussion.

    It’s difficult to identify an event/strategy that shaped the discussion, although from looking at an overview of the posts made (click on image below), it is clear that the majority of the discussion (11 posts) occurred after a particular post. Therefore I’ll consider this event and how it shaped the discussion.
The post was titled “so what do you think about blogging”. In his introduction post, Gordon had started to consider the topic and provided a link on the educational uses of blogs. In order to signal the move away from introductions to the topic I reiterated Gordon’s link and asked for others to share their views. This resulted in the most fruitful part of the discussion. Two of the roles of the facilitator, according to Berge (1995), relate to pedagogical and managerial factors. Pedagogically, the facilitator should “encourage participation” by “recognizing student messages” (under Pedagogical Recommendations heading, ¶3, Berge, 1995). Managerially, the facilitator should “be responsive” by responding to posts with reference to the “author’s comments” (under Managerial Recommendations heading, ¶3, Berge, 1995). Potentially, these two factors resulted in the discussion taking off. Although it may have been that at this point the participants had spent enough time gathering their thoughts on the topic and the timing of my post was a co-incidence. Berge (1995) also pointed out that facilitators should not expect responses to occur immediately. One of the benefits of asynchronous discussion is that interaction does not have to occur at the same time but when it is convenient. However, the effect was that participants started to interact and the discussion started to develop.

The interaction which then occurred began to demonstrate different levels of critical thinking. Henri's Cognitive dimension (1992, cited in Hew & Cheung, 2003) identifies types of interaction representing different levels of critical thinking, either “surface level” or “in depth”. Five different types of critical thinking are identified and below are some examples from this discussion. (The whole discussion can be retrieved from

Levels of critical thinkingExamples from Discussion
Elementary clarification - passing on information without elaboration“Gordon’s link … identifies a number of uses for blogs – worth a read”
In depth clarification - analyse a problem, identify assumptions“The consequence of [interpretation] is that we believed it to be very important to take care with your words or phrases”
Inference - concluding based on evidence from prior statements“In developing a project it’s sensible to try to benefit from the experience/knowledge of others”

“I think there’s definitely evidence of this happening in our course”
Judgment - expressing a judgment about an inference“Presumably the degree to which feedback occurs is one measure of the strength of the learning community”
Strategies - proposes a solution, outlines what is needed to implement the solution“This seems to be yet another argument for trying to connect the learning of the group with other learning communities, and inviting participation from learners who are already engaged in the process”.

The short time frame did not allow for enough development of the discussion and had it continued I think there would have been more examples of critical thinking.

In the future I would ask the group to produce their own summary at the end of the discussion. In having to reach their own consensus and conclusion they are more likely to interact fully with each other, to negotiate an agreed outcome. This would enable the participants to fully construct new knowledge and work through the various types of critical thinking. With the participants in this group (i.e. adults working within educational professions) it is not surprising that critical thinking was in evidence. If I was facilitating a group of 16-19 year olds I would expect to be involved more in the discuss to help them achieve this ‘deep’ learning. Being aware of what constitutes the various levels of critical thinking, in terms of written posts in a discussion forum, is important for any future online discussions I’m involved in. Guiding learners into responding to each other instead of just writing their own statements will help start to develop critical thinking.

This was a different experience for me and less taxing, I imagine, than managing an Elluminate session or a trip into Second Life but nevertheless it has been fascinating reading about the facilitation techniques and types of learning involved in asynchronous discussions.


1. Berge, Z.L. (1995). Facilitating Computer Conferencing: Recommendations From the Field. Educational Technology. 35(1) 22-30. Retrieved on 3 November 2007 from
2. Hew, K. F. and Cheung, W. S. (2003). Models to evaluate online learning communities of asynchronous discussion forums. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 19(2), 241-259. Retrieved on 1 December 2007 from