Facilitation Considerations and Tips For Online Educators and Trainers
Julie Batovsky
Instructional Designer
Syracuse University

It is estimated that by the end of 2001, about 38 percent of U.S. organizations will have integrated education and training with their web sites (U.S. Web Sites Integrating Training Education). It is likely that more advanced modes of technology such as streaming media, voice and pattern recognition, wireless devices, and virtual reality will start to be incorporated into education and training solutions in 2002. Spending on streaming media services for example is expected to surpass $5 billion per year by 2005 in corporate organizations (Streaming Media Spending). Distance learning is expanding from corporate organizations to universities and new populations of distance learners are emerging. Course design in distance courses should account for the learner's preferred learning styles, characteristics and needs while at the same time accommodate the learner with less technological resources available to them (Flowers). Also important in course design and implementation is recognition that a shift from a teacher-to-student model to a technology-enabled interface to fit individual learning styles and needs is occurring. This shift to implement an asynchronous technological pedagogical model is necessary to enhance cognition. The shift toward student controlled learning requires extensive preparation by both facilitators and students (Johnston & Cooley), a shift it does not appear they are currently prepared for.

In a report submitted to President George W. Bush by the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) in February 2001, the overarching recommendation of PITAC was to "Make the effective integration of information technology with education and training a national priority." The PITAC recommended that the following four specific actions occur at the Federal level:

  1. Establish and coordinate a major research initiative for information technology in education and training.
  2. Establish focused government-university-industry-foundation partnerships to aggressively pursue the information technology research program required to advance education and training technology in the United States.
  3. Enable educators and related professionals to use information technology effectively.
  4. Develop and promote standards for education and training.
With recommendations to research and better enable educators to use information technology, the PITAC report indicates that educators are not yet effectively integrating information technology with education and training. The focus of the research that follows deals specifically with number three, enable educators and related professionals to use information technology effectively. Discussion will for the most part be limited to the technology currently available to online facilitators. Please note that this discussion does not differentiate between education and training. While these settings differ, education and training are both forms of learning and the information technology is adaptable to both settings (PITAC, p. 3). By identifying considerations and providing tips for facilitators of distance education and training, I hope this discussion becomes a useful tool to those educators to begin to integrate currently available information technology more effectively.


Instructional design is "systematic instructional planning including needs assessment, development, evaluation, implementation and maintenance of materials and programs" (Richey, p. 181). Many educators are being required to design and implement online courses without much (if any) lead-time. This short lead-time may eliminate the ability to conduct a needs assessment, or properly conduct a formative evaluation cycle prior to implementation of learning in this new environment. They are asked to develop web sites or use learning management systems (LMS) with little or no training on how to do so effectively. Research cautions educators not to make the mistake of recreating a classroom-teaching model within an online learning environment during course design (Sonwalkar, p.11). But how can educators possibly determine the needs of their new audience, learn technical issues, identify constraints, identify standards (or lack thereof) for each LMS, and modify the course's design to be student controlled given short ramp up times?

To answer this question let us turn to the role of the educator or trainer in the online learning environment. I would argue that their role is that of a facilitator. What then is a facilitator? Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary defines facilitate: "to make easier : help bring about". Given this definition the term facilitator seems appropriate for the online educator or trainer. With the shift to a student-centered learning model in distance education, the role of the educator or trainer is to facilitate learning - to make it easier for students to learn. This is accomplished by:

This approach keeps the focus on the student and focuses on "what learners experience and how learners learn from these experiences" (Greenaway).

Facilitation Tips

When creating online courses, facilitators should allow plenty of time prior to the start date for development. Since creating new subject matter while building an online course may overload an individual, an educator or trainer should consider converting an existing course rather than creating a new one to start. For facilitators who are not familiar with web site development, LMS tool kits are designed to manage courses and course materials. Some of the features provided by LMS include helping facilitators to communicate with students, track student web site use, and administer online surveys and exams (Demystifying Learning Management Systems). Links to web sites may also be included if a combination of web site development and LMS features is desired.

Facilitators should attempt to exploit the full power of online learning by making the course content interesting. When possible, they should allow the students to create some of the topics so that they have a vested interest and so they can anchor new information to their previous life experiences. Even when students help create topics the facilitator should structure all activities and specify objectives clearly and in detail (Klemm, 1997). Students may be asked to conduct "debates" where each student is asked to take a position on and post supporting arguments for or against the topic as well as critique other arguments (Klemm, n.d.). The PITAC report agrees that assignments should be sequenced to help students comprehend and piece together information, establish a broader context, promote discussions, evaluate results, and be redirected as needed (PITAC, pg. 9).

To ensure students receive a high quality, online learning experience attention should be given to the depth of content, accommodations for significant interpersonal interaction, and the facilitation of a wide variety of learner needs and capabilities (Flowers). Facilitators should determine the learning preferences for the current group of learners and structure course activities appropriately to aid their learning. Soles suggests online distance learning activities appropriate for each Myers-Briggs learning preference in Table 1. Online Distance Learning Activity Suggestions for Myers-Briggs Preferences.

Table 1. Online Distance Learning Activity Suggestions for Myers-Briggs Preferences

Activities should be carefully selected to stimulate reflection, insight, integration, creative or critical thinking, or in-depth problem solving. To achieve this, try using team-learning techniques. Group interaction is enhanced through cooperative learning and an increased access to experts (PITAC, pg. 6). Working in teams, students are likely to form bonds with one another and become more likely to participate in other online conference activities.

Learning can be encouraged by assigning students to research information on assigned topics, piece it together, report the information and discuss it with the class (PITAC, pg. 8). In his paper "Eight Ways to Get Students More Engaged in Online Conferences", Klemm's first solution is to make participation a required portion of the course grade. He believes that this will engage the student and produce thoughtful responses because students will not want to post low quality postings for peer review. Several authors also suggest that the facilitator become actively involved in the conference. Students benefit from the knowledge, experience and insight offered by the facilitator. To further allow students to integrate, synthesize and apply information they find through research, facilitators should consider requiring a deliverable or term project that captures a main topic of the course.

Finally, remember that each group of learners is different and things will not always go as planned (this is no different than the classroom environment). As a result it is required that the facilitator be a good troubleshooter and problem solver. In the event the problems are technical, it is helpful to have technical support available and know how to use it.

Greenaway suggests three strategies to turn 'intrusive complicators' of online learning into 'enabling facilitators'.

  1. Ask learners what is helping and hindering their learning. Conduct formative evaluation while working with learners. The insights and perspectives from the students on the learning process can help identify the learning strategies that are the most successful.
  2. Demonstrate confidence in the process of learning from experience. Being a facilitator also means empathizing with the students and actually becoming a learner. By becoming a better learner you will become a better facilitator.
  3. Notice the realities and possibilities with the current group of learners.
Working with current experience matters more than what worked well in another time and place with other people. Our experience and knowledge of 'similar situations' or 'familiar types' is useful background but no more than this. We can draw from our past experiences, but they should not overshadow our present experiences. How we work should be a creative response to the current situation.


For better or worse, technology has already changed the educational environment in ways that educational leaders must recognize and address. Expectations regarding new technologies will rise as they continue to be implemented in more organizations. As the standards continue to emerge in the area of learning management systems and other education and training solutions, both students and facilitators must be educated so that they may better comprehend their new and emerging roles in this instructional environment. Pedagogical models will continue to evolve and be redefined to better design, develop and evaluate instructional materials delivered via these technologies. Educational leaders should continue to conduct research on learner styles, characteristics and needs so that instructional goals, activities, etc. may continue to be updated and improved.

Not all students and not all instructors, facilitators or faculty are comfortable with this shift to student-led inquiry or problem-based learning. Some still prefer more traditional models. Technology allows for the exploration of various learning options and ability to account for different learning preferences. A shift toward student controlled learning requires extensive preparation by both professors and students (Johnston & Cooley). Technology-enhanced instruction can be used to enhance cognition when used in conjunction with principles of instructional design. Supported by powerful technologies, students (especially those who have grown up with powerful technologies) can become responsible managers of their instruction, and instructors can become enabling facilitators and co-learners.

Annotated Bibliography

Demystifying Learning Management Systems (n.d.) Retrieved December 4, 2001, from http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~fmb/articles/demystifyinglms/

Flowers, Jim (2001, Fall). Online Learning Needs In Technology Education. [Electronic version]. Journal of Technology Education. Retrieved November 26, 2001 from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JTE/v13n1/flowers.html Greenaway, Roger (n.d.) Enabling Facilitator or Intrusive Complicator? Retrieved December 5, 2001, from http://reviewing.co.uk/research/resindex.htm#reflections Johnston, Michelle A. and Cooley, Nancy (2001, November/December). Toward More Effective Instructional Uses of Technology: The Shift to Virtual Learning. The Technology Source. Retrieved on November 28, 2001 from http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=869 Klemm, W. R. Ph.D. (n.d.). Eight Ways to Get Students More Engaged in On-line Conferences. The Higher Education Journal. 26 (1): pp. 62-64 Retrieved June 29, 2001 from http://www.cvm.tamu.edu/wklemm/Eight%20Ways/8waystoengage.htm Klemm, W. R. and Snell, J. R. (1997, October). Instructional Design Principles for Teaching in Computer Conferencing Environments. Retrieved June 29, 2001 from http://www.cvm.tamu.edu/wklemm/instruct.html Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (n.d.) "Facilitate". Retrieved on December 2, 2001, from http://www.m-w.com

PITAC Report (2001, February). Using Information Technology to Transfer the Way We Learn. Arlington, VA, President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, Panel on Transforming Learning. Retrieved on December 2, 2001, from http://www.itrd.gov/pubs/pitac/pitac?tl?9feb01.pdf

Richey, Rita C., & Fields, Dennis C., & Foxon, Marguerite (2001). Instructional Design Competencies: The Standards (Third Edition). Syracuse: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology. Soles, Carolyn ME.D. and Moller, Leslie Ph.D. (2001, January). Myers Briggs Type Preferences in Distance Learning Education. International Journal of Educational Technology. Retrieved July 26, 2001, from http://www.outreach.uiuc.edu/ijet/v2n2/soles/index.html Sonwalkar, Nishikant (2001, November). Changing the Interface of Education with Revolutionary Learning Technologies. Syllabus pp. 10-13. Streaming Media Spending to Hit $5 billion per year (n.d.) Retrieved November 30, 2001, from http://www2.cio.com/metrics/2001/metric253.html

U.S. Web Sites Integrating Training Education (2001, September 27). Retrieved November 27, 2001 from http://www.idc.com/ebusinesstrends/ebt20010927.stm

Related Resources

Compton, Jason (2001, November 1). How to Take Over the Classroom. CIO Magazine. Retrieved November 28, 2001 from http://www.cio.com/archive/110101/classroom.html

E-Learning Marketplace on the Move (n.d.) Retrieved November 28, 2001, from http://www.cio.com/sponsors/100101_xhlp/move.html

FUTUREPERSPECTIVE - What issues in educational technology will help shape the next millennium? (2000, January). Special Report - T.H.E. Journal, 27(6), 42-45 Retrieved November 15, 2001, from http://www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A2599.cfm

Graham, C., Cagiltay, K., Lim, B., Craner, J., & Duffy, T. M. (2001, March). Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses. The Technology Source. Retrieved November 9, 2001, from http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/default.asp?show=article&id=839 Hapgood, Fred (2001, October 15). Emerging technology. CIO Magazine. Retrieved November 28, 2001 from http://www.cio.com/archive/101501/et_revisit.html Hapgood, Fred (2001,September). Time for Training. CIO Magazine. Retrieved November 28, 2001 from http://www.cio.com/archive/090101/et_revisit.html James, Gary W. (n.d.). Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Learning. Retrieved October 27, 2001, from http://www.allencomm.com/pdfs/white_papers/ad_dis_ol.pdf Morrison, James L. and Meister, Jeanne C. (2001, July/August). e-Learning in the Corporate University: An Interview with Jeanne Meister [Electronic version]. Technology Source. Retrieved June 27, 2001 from http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/default.asp?show=article&id=888 Rogers, Everett M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations, 4th Ed. New York, The Free Press.

Schank, Roger C. (2000, January). FUTUREPERSPECTIVE - A Vision of Education for the 21st Century. T.H.E. Journal. Retrieved November 28, 2001 from http://www.thejournal.com/magazine/vault/A2598.cfm

Technology Infusion in Higher Education (n.d.) Retrieved December 3, 2001 from http://www.pt3.org/technology/index.html

ITFORUM PAPER #61 - Facilitation Considerations and Tips For Online Educators and Trainers by Julie Batovsky of Syrtis. Posted on ITFORUM on April 11, 2002. The author retains all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/home.html