Tag Archives: FO09

Educational tensions? teacher, facilitator, moderator

With my copy of the “Art of Facilitation” by Dale Hunter buried in storage while we’re house-sitting, I’ve had to scramble around my books and other gray literature to find definitions for this week’s #FO09 blogging assignment. We’ve been asked to look at how different online roles potentially undermine each other.

As I attempt to describe the role of facilitator I’ll turn to my trusty version of a “Resource manual for a living revolution” by Coover, Deecon, et al (1985), something I threatened promised to do in my introduction to my classmates. Here’s the definition:

A facilitator fills a role similar to that of a ‘chairperson’, but never directs the group with its consent. S/he helps the members of a group decide what they want to accomplish in a meeting and helps them carry it out. S/ he takes responsibility for reminding the group of its tasks, tests for consensus, and in general makes sure that the task and maintenance roles discussed earlier.

One assumption underpinning this definition is that groups are formed to take action so must make decisions. This may not apply in a teaching setting, but many online groups or communities are set up to do stuff together. Another assumption is that a facilitator alone is not solely responsible for the proper functioning of the group. The maintenance roles mentioned in the quote suggest that each person must make contributions to the group. This can include things such as information seeking, opinion seeking, clarifying, summarizing or acting as philosopher critic. Roles are not fixed but members apply these types of skills as required (something akin to de Bono’s multicoloured hats).

When it comes down to a more practical perspective you could expect a facilitator to draw out people’s ideas, seek agreement on groundrules, negotiate with group members about goals and decision-making processes (including time limits) and making sure everyone participates. One of the best lists of the attributes of a faciliator can be found in Nancy White’s guide, “Facilitating and Hosting a Virtual Community” (2004).

It’s hard to preserve the distinctiveness of the moderator role, but if I was forced to summarise I’d say this role is about enforcing rules and intervening between community members when there is a dispute. Stephen Thorpe sums this up precisely in a book chapter from the “Art of Facilitation” (2007) entitled Facilitation Online. He talks about the procedural side to a moderators role and says their role is to:

ensure an online group system is functioning. This may include monitoring discussion boards to ensure all postings meet guidelines and standards of behaviour, and organising discussion material. Moderators are usually responsible for many of the technical tasks required in assisting the group to participate, such as adding new members and fixing bouncing addresses. Moderators may also review posts to ensure they are in alignment with the group purpose before they are approved for the group to see. Small changes are sometimes made, and some postings may be rejected if they do not meet the group’s guidelines.

Suggesting a stereotypical definition of a teacher in a class filled with teachers is fraught with danger. I will do it anyway. If I had to choose a single word I’d limit it to instruction. This implies both directing or exercising authority, and transmission of detailed information about how something should be done, or perhaps imparting received wisdom.

But this is far too reductionist a definition for teaching. For Gramsci, Paulo Freire and other social critics, transforming society to serve everyone’s interests (not just the elite’s) by eliminating exploitation is founded on education. The teacher’s role is pivotal in this. However, teachers are not all seeing and knowing. They can help students find a learning path that suits them most. To do this relies on reconceptualising the role of teacher. Gramsci put it simply this way: “every teacher is always a pupil, and every pupil a teacher”.

This accords with Freire’s view, as described in a Wikipedia article, which states:

Freire however insists that educator and student, though sharing democratic social relations of education, are not on an equal footing, but the educator must be humble enough to be disposed to relearn that which he/she already thinks she knows, through interaction with the learner.

Under this definition of teaching we could expect teachers to let the classroom run riot, or at least let the learners needs to dictate the learning process. In this setting teaching and facilitating are closely allied. But if we conceived of teaching in a more conservative sense, a teacher will be undermined by a facilitator allowing students to assert their preferred and individual processes for learning. This is something that may challenge the very roots of a teacher’s knowledge.

This highly charged philosophical debate leaves little room for the modest pretensions of the moderator. As I primarily conceive of this role as a umpire or referee, I’m struggling to see how their role could be disruptive or undermining.

As this is a blog post not a treatise I’ll stop at this point. Blogging is very much about sharing first thoughts rather than well formed and articulate ideas. This is like a raw, early draft, which will be refined/ expanded/ critiqued through comments below and in other posts. So, I’m going to click “Publish” before I revise these first thoughts. Refinement to come, maybe.

Week 1: what is an online community?

The thing that has been troubling me as I grapple with a definition of online community is the bits that are missing (or not immediately obvious) compared with face-to-face community. I’ve been taking my existing definition of community (which I’m remixing on the hoof and without reference to any texts) and comparing it to what I see online.

Before I start I’ve got say that community is a loaded term. Often a discrete geographic area is labelled a community by someone in authority – but on the ground there isn’t actually a community. Few of the critical elements of community life are present (about which I’m about to list). There are also assumptions about there being a singular ‘community’ with ‘community leaders’, often self-appointed, rather than multiple communities with organic power distribution.

In my rough whiteboard notes, here’s what I see as the characteristics of community:

  1. social norms, shared beliefs and values (eg fairness, reciprocity, love, tolerance)
  2. systems for transmitting values (eg lore, law, education, myths, art)
  3. methods for monitoring adherence to values
  4. systems for investigating and applying sanctions for breaches of social norms (eg courts, tribunals, obudsman, complaints procedures), including opportunities for redress (eg right appeal)
  5. methods for distributing resources to enable participation.

Of these characteristics I can easily see the first four in online communities. Chromatic writes in his article “Building Online Communities” (21 Oct 2002) about the dynamics of setting rules, methods for resolving disputes after inevitable spats and frictions, and loss of face or reputation. Into this neat system dive able and willing members.

Mark Pesce is far more mysterious when it comes to framing community (see “This, That and the Other” 27 September 2008). He implies that in community people know each and are capable of productive joint action. Disillusioned with mere mobs or crowds, who wait for someone else to do things for them, Pesce clearly believes communities can achieve great things.

The oil that greases the wheel – resources to enable active participation – is seldom talked about. When barriers to participation emerge, in whatever shape these may arise, is help available to overcome them?

Online it isn’t easy to find evidence of people sharing resources to help someone else who wouldn’t otherwise be able to join in by paying the power bill and ISP charges for them to stay connected. Or help put food on the table. Scarce time may not be available to both work to earn a living, and allow time to meaningfully participate in an online community.

Would online community members be willing to take steps outside of the community to help someone out? Send a cheque? Make a sacrifice with some future expectation without immediate reciprocity?

The degree to which relations extend beyond the confines of a particular community space with people sharing resources in the real world is a sign of a healthy community.

This relies people connecting and staying in touch one-to-one, in addition to any interaction within an online community space. When bonds and friendship build then people will go to some lengths to help one another. This means members must feel comfortable asking for help and acknowledging problems. It’s also important for people to be able to ask who is missing from the conversation, and what will it take to get them on board.

I found an illusion to this sort of thing happening when I read Nancy White’s recent post about how she uses social media (4 August 2009). She talks about how “online relationships can be real, how they get real, and how they break and fail.”

If communities are merely well ordered places where people talk nicely with agreed rules, that seems to me to be a bit weak. What is often missing are both the means and motivation to contribute resources to move a community from offering just an opportunity to participate to actually providing practical help for people to join in.

[Find out about the Facilitating Online course I’m participating in, see my FO09 page.]

Facilitating online course: introduction

The true meaning of consensus was something the Canterbury University Peace group wanted to get to the bottom of. Before we could act we needed an ethical basis for making decisions. From a philosophical standpoint, we needed to decide on things together in a non-coercive way. To do otherwise was considered as a form of violence to each other.

While I can’t recall the subtleties of our discussions in 1988 and 1989, I do remember we agreed to become good at shared facilitation. I’ve still got one of the books which I treated as a bible for non-violent communication, “A resource manual for a living revolution”. Ever since I’ve had an interest in effective decision-making and group processes.

I’ll be dusting off this book out, and other materials I’ve gathered over the years, as I begin a Facilitating Online course. I’m familiar with most areas being covered by the course, which looks for online community in forums, blogs, wiki, virtual worlds and social networking platforms, and have led discussion and sharing within many of these platforms.

The missing link for me is stepping things up a gear and helping online groups to be really effective. I’ve learned a lot by doing and reading (including seminal texts such as “Community-building on the web” (2001) by Amy Jo Klein and “Design for Community” (2001) by Derek Powazek).

I’m seeking some structured methods for facilitating conversations and sharing learning. I’d also like to talk with others about the efficacy of best practice guidance for running online groups.

During the four month course there are three pieces of assessment, including input into a virtual conference. I’ve signed up as an informal student, but course credits can be obtained through Manukau Institute of Technology. There is no cost to join in, just your own time.

Already nine others have signed up, a few short of the 74 people listed as participants in 2008. I’m anticipating lots of sharing and commenting – in fact, I’m worried it might absorb more time than I have to spare.

I’ll be writing regular posts about the course, using the tag FO09. Feel free to add your thoughts too.

Update: check out how I’m progressing – see a list of related posts.