How to facilitate effectively online?

Before I go into the tips and tricks of facilitation, I think it is important that we start by defining what we mean by facilitation.  Facilitation is a process by which you engage with your participants and encourage them to share their ideas and experiences.  Facilitation is not a one-way communication from the all-knowing leader to the participants! 

In other words, facilitation is NOT a lecture or a webinar where the presenter dispenses information with no interaction from the participants.  Instead, it acknowledges that everyone has something to contribute and it is a back and forth discussion and sharing of ideas that occurs between participants and the facilitator and among participants themselves to reach a deeper learning.

For example, as a facilitator you may share information or ideas on a certain topic such as “How to communicate effectively”, however, the learning that occurs is when you ask participants to then share their ideas and thoughts on the topic. 

Facilitation, when done effectively, can be highly impactful as participants are allowed to debate, discuss, and apply the topic.  Since they are not just consuming the information, the learning that occurs is more practical as they consider how the new information they are gathering from the facilitator and the other participants can be applied in their own lives.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay.

So now let’s discuss tips and tricks of effective facilitation.  Here are the top five:

Tip 1:  Set the stage.  In order for a session to be effectively facilitated, it starts with the design of that session but also in setting the expectation of the participants.  Early on let the participants know that the session will be highly interactive and that everyone’s views and experiences are valid and respected.  Let the participants know that the learning is based on their willingness to share and try things out.  As a facilitator, you will model these behaviours and ensure you continue to hold a respectful environment for all to share.  Furthermore, you need to provide the participants some level of training, maybe in a checklist or short video format, to make sure they know how to log-on and check their devices, audio and video options on the platform you are using.  Asking them to log on a few minutes earlier can allow you to troubleshoot any technical issues that may arise and still be able to start on time.

Tip 2: Less is more!!  What I mean by this statement is that it is better for the facilitator to say less and to listen more.  To share the necessary nuggets of information but encourage the participants to add to the content by asking them to share their ideas.  The same idea goes with your presentation materials…having a dense presentation slide does not mean it would lead to learning.  Instead, have bullets and highlights with relevant images and illustrations, then encourage participants to discuss, share, and ask questions.  Typically, to have an interactive facilitated live session you want to design the session to have participants engage with each other and/or the content every 4-6 minutes.

Tip 3:  Make connections.  A good facilitator knows how to link ideas, build on ideas, and question for deeper understanding and clarification purposes.  You can encourage participants to share their thoughts either directly or indirectly.  Directly means asking questions and having them use audio or the chat box to answer.  It may also mean working in small groups and then presenting their findings to the general group.  Indirectly, you may use polls or whiteboard for participants to share their thoughts anonymously.

Tip 4:  Use the available tools.  Every online platform offers tools for engagement.  Get to know these tools and plan to use them often.  For instance, use break out groups to have small group activities, use polls often to conduct a pulse check, leverage the chat option for participants to share ideas or ask questions, use the whiteboard to create games such as bingo and so forth. 

Tip 5: Have a Lifeline.  When facilitating online you need to focus on your presentation and connecting with your participants.  It is always best practice to have someone in the background supporting participants should technical issues arise.  Always have a contingency plan which you have discussed with your Lifeline.  Your Lifeline can also help with sharing polls or setting up the break out groups, if these can not be created and saved beforehand.

In summary, in order to facilitate effectively online (or in-person), the most important thing is to create an environment where you invite and encourage your participants to share ideas and thoughts.  How you go about achieving this is dependent on the tools that are available to you and your willingness to share the space with your participants.  Remember learning occurs when participants are allowed to draw their own meaning and apply the information that is being shared.

Another reason why blended learning is important

As my New Media course draws to a conclusion, I am reminded again by my colleagues how important it is for educators to recognize and meet the varying needs of their learners.

Yes, I am a proponent of integrating technology in teaching but not always is it the right choice.  Technology will not always meet the needs of certain students.  Having some level interaction with instructors and other learners is needed to clarify points, exchange ideas and/or explore further application of the content learned.

In his interview with CNN, Bill Gates talks about delivering content via technology but still having labs or study groups.  He believes not only this would be cost effective but also allows students to personalize their learning by focusing on information that they need.

I think this is can be true but several conditions need to be in place:

1.   The participants need to know how to access and interact with the technology so they can focus on their learning

2. Course designers need to be clear on the key objectives of the course and their instructions so learners are not confused about what they need to do and why

3. Pure eLearning can be challenging to keep learners engaged, so having various technology and tools to relay the content is important

4. Learners need to take comfort that should they need access to someone to get help or just bouncing ideas with others, that they may do so without having to complete the online module

So once again, it seems a blended learning approach seems to be the winner here!

Five low cost tech tools

Sometimes educators are limited in how much technology they can incorporate in their learning events due to lack of support and/or funds. Here are some free or low cost tools that can be integrated in any session.

1. Dropbox

Dropbox allows you to share your documents and photos with learners.  They can access them from anywhere using computers, phones or tablets.  No more emailing multiple docs to different groups.  You can control who sees which documents in the Dropbox.

2. Screencast-o-matic

Use this tool to record anything on your screen and share with your learners.  You may choose the microphone to add voice to your lesson. Also there is an option to activate the webcam so that your image may be included.  Once completed you can upload the video on YouTube or Screen-o-Matic’s site to share with others.

3. TEDEd

Ever found a great video that you want to share with your learners?  TEDEd allows you to build a whole lesson around the video.  You may include questions, discussion threads and/or link to other articles and sites.


If your lesson has lots of data and facts you may want to consider creating an infographic.  This site allows you to illustrate your information using several templates.  You may download the final product as a PDF or PNG and share through a website, Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest.


Ever wanted to know what your learners already know about the topic or how much they are retaining from the lesson?  You may use this site to create live polls which your audience can send responses to via SMS or web voting using their computers, phones or tablets.  The results can be imbedded your in PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate right away.

Hopefully these tools will give you an opportunity to deliver your lessons and engage your audience in different manner.  If it is the first time you are using these tools, many of them have tours or intro videos that can show you step by step how to use their product.





Online learning

Last week I posted about blended learning and some factors that one needs to consider when thinking about including online learning in one’s course design.

The first thing I had to do was understand the terminology used and what others meant by online learning!  I like the infographics created by Edudemic titled Technically Speaking.  It is a good start to learn some of the lingo out there.

Some additional ones I encountered were as follows:


Content (typically in a PowerPoint) presented to learners, where they have some limited interaction with the content (through links and hotspots of information).  It is a one way learning event, where there is no interaction with an instructor or other learners.


A presentation made to learners.  Audio and video can be included.  Usually if large numbers are attending, then the presenter makes the session one way to reduce confusion among the learners.  There is some chat function available should there be questions from the audience.  Typically the session can later be accessed if recorded by the presenter.

Virtual learning room

There are several options using this feature, where you can share video and audio.  Chat with audience, take polls and break them out into smaller groups to get specific tasks done.  You may also share files, links and desktop.  There is also an option to record the session for later use.

Depending on your audience’s needs, the content to be covered, your learning objectives and the technology that is available, it may be beneficial to consider any one of the above formats to include technology in your course.

There are also platforms such as Moodle and Blackboard where you can share content, links and start discussion threads.  You may also group the learners out so they may concentrate on different topics and if needed then they can share their ideas with the rest of the group.

There are lots of options available when it comes to technology and bringing it in the classroom.  The hard part is deciding which to choose, so I highly recommend you do an in-depth needs analysis before designing your course to ensure not only that learning is accomplished but that your audience is kept engaged.




Blended learning approach

There is a great debate among educators as to which type of learning approach is better, face to face or online.

Jose Bowen in his book Teaching Naked asserts that as educators we need to think of our courses as products that need to be more accessible to learners and have the ability to be individualized for each learner’s needs/interests.  This is no easy feat to accomplish!

Although there may be a greater push to place our courses online to meet the demand and allow flexibility, one needs to really conduct a needs analysis. Some of the questions to explore are:

  1. How their targeted audience would be willing to use the product?
  2. What makes the course unique, and
  3. Whether the course objectives can be in fact achieved through an online environment

In their survey Gosper and colleagues found that most students in higher education do like to use technology for learning but they were specific in how they used it.  For example they liked to use technology to access content through the universities’ established LMS, researching databases or viewing announcements.  However, there was not much support found in students’ willingness to use social media for their learning.  Walker and Jorn state in their article that students still like to maintain some degree of face to face contact with their classmates and instructor.

These findings leads me to believe that a blended approach may be more viable option for many learning events.  Educators and trainers can offer the content for their courses online so that students can access on their own time, but still set up some opportunities for face to face interaction.

In the face to face sessions, the focus is more about clarifying points, answering questions, and more importantly having deeper discussions on how the new found knowledge can be applied.

For me the next step would be to see if face to face contact can be truly achieved using a web based media.  Hopefully this would address the needs of the students to stay in contact but also allows for greater access to the course by participants who may be from diverse geographical areas.  This would result in the course being rich in content and dialogue from different perspectives but still keep it accessible and flexible for all to join.

Adult learning principles

Over the years the majority of my work has been training adult learners in different settings.  Based on this experience and the research that I have studied to date, there seems to be eight distinct principles that one needs to follow when offering training to adults.  These are:

1. Need to know:  Let your learners know WHY they need to learn something.

2. Self direction:  Treat your learners as the ones responsible for their own learning. Present variety of opportunities and resources for adults to process the learning.

3. Prior knowledge: Appreciate and acknowledge the work/life experience your learners bring with them.

4. Relevance:  Ensure what is covered in the training is relevant and applicable to your learners’ everyday lives.

5. Respect: Allow your learners to voice their opinions and ask questions.

6. Diversity: Acknowledge the rich background that your learners come with and be aware of the different learning needs that they may present.

7. Motivation: Take the time to identify your learners’ motivation to learn. Most adult learners are driven by internal motivators.

8. Multiple roles:  Recognize the different roles that many adult learners have and thus offer learning opportunities that they can access in their own time and space.

If you are one who tends to offer learning opportunities for the youth, you may want to check out Edutopia’s blog.  Interestingly there are quite a bit of commonality between youth and their adult counterparts when it comes to learning.

Instruction versus facilitation

Over the years I have worked in many different settings offering learning events to adults and youth.  One thing that stands out to me is that depending on the purpose of the session my role may shift from an instructor to a trainer to a facilitator.  So what is the difference you may ask?

I think Langevin Learning Services coins it best by stating that “the purpose will determine the structure of the session and the skill set used to deliver it”.  If the idea is to teach your participants a new skill or knowledge, then the role needed is one of an instructor or a trainer.  An instructor may just present the information, where the trainer would hopefully demonstrate how the information will be applied.  However, the result may be that the participants will only achieve the first two levels of Blooms Taxonomy in the cognitive domain, which is primarily to recall and understand the information presented.

In reality, too often participants need to go beyond recall and learn to actually apply what they have learned.  In order to achieve that level of learning, one needs to go beyond theory and allow opportunities for participants to try out their new found knowledge and skills.  For this learning to take root, the information must be relevant to the participants.  That is when the role shifts from being an instructor to being a facilitator.

As a facilitator you encourage participants to share ideas, try out skills, bring forth scenarios and learn from one another.  This engagement requires different types of skills and tools to be used.  The result is a very rich environment that is changing and adapting to the needs of the learners, which is one of the primary principles of adult learning.

Next week I will post further about adult principles.  Meanwhile, I am interested to hear your thoughts about the differences between instructing and facilitating.