Friday, January 8, 2010

Working out the difference between teaching and facilitation

This is my second post about my involvement with the online course 'Facilitating Online' delivered by Otago Polytechnic. In my post '"Facilitating Online" 2009: Evaluation' I have talked about the students' feedback and the changes I recommend the course for the future. In this post I want to reflect on my own personal experiences of being a facilitator and teacher in this course.

Separating facilitation and assessing
I was first asked by Leigh Blackall to facilitate this course back in July 2009. The idea was for me to facilitate and he would carry out the more formal 'teacher' tasks ie marking assessment. This separating of roles was an attempt to manage the tension that arises between being a teacher and facilitator. Leigh has felt for some time that it is better to separate the roles and to see what happens when the person who has the power of marking assessment is different to the person who is guiding students' way to learning. To find out more about Leigh's thoughts on this topic, please go to his post "To facilitate or teach".

What is a facilitator?
As the course facilitator it was my role to make sure everything was organised - people knew what they were doing and had access to all the information and resources. It was my job to organise the live online sessions and keep up the course blog with posts that summarised what had been happening. I did not have to develop any of the materials - they had already been developed by Leigh and were available on the course wiki.

Maintaining my role
I did struggle at times with maintaining a 'facilitation only' role. I may be wrong, but I felt it was not my role to introduce new material and I also believed it was important for me to stay neutral in discussions. However, I found this was very difficult to do, especially as many of the learners were new to the topics we were looking at. So I found myself taking a lead at times because I was the 'expert' at the time. For example, we got into discussions about Twitter so I wrote up a couple of blog posts about the use of Twitter, and use of Twitter for teaching and learning.

Giving feedback
I also found it difficult to know what feedback to give students as a facilitator, rather than a teacher. I didn't like to give feedback on their performance as such because I felt that was the teacher's role, especially relating to their individual blogs which was an assessment requirement. So I endeavoured to ask questions that hopefully would get students thinking further. But I felt the problem with that was that the students were going through the course a little blind because they did not know how they were progressing in terms of assessment.

What happened when I took on dual roles of teaching and facilitation
Half way through the course circumstances changed and I became facilitator and teacher. This had several effects. On the one hand I felt a lot more relaxed, feeling that I didn't need to worry so much about what I was doing...what hat I was wearing.

On the down side, I felt a change in dynamics between myself and the students when it came to assessment. I felt I had changed from being fellow traveller down the road of learning to being a critic. This brought me back to the question I am often angsting about when I am involved with assessment in courses such as this: who am I to put a value on a person's learning?

Holistic assessment
The positive aspect to mixing teaching/assessment and facilitation roles is that I had a much better sense of who the students were and their progress through the course when assessing them than Leigh would have had if he had been the assessor only. I felt that this allowed me to take a far more holistic approach to assessment - I knew what the students' backgrounds were, how they had grown over the course, what problems they faced and overcome. I also knew how the course had unfolded over the weeks - what its strengths and weaknesses were - what students were clear about and the areas that students had not explored adequately. All these things I was able to take into consideration when I was marking their assessment.

What I learned
I am not at all sure if I am making any sense of this, but I am not convinced the model of facilitating a course separately from assessment works well. This may be because of the way I defined what a facilitator does. What do you think - how would you define the facilitator's role in the context of an education course?

I understand the issue of power and control, and how that can affect the students' learning experience. I also agree that my role is not to tell students what to do but rather guide, steward or curate them to their own understanding and creation of learning. At the same time, there will be times when I am the expert and students will learn from my 'telling'.

I don't know if the discussion should be about the effect of the roles of the teacher and facilitator on learning, but rather the role of assessment in learning? What do you think? Do you think it matters what roles people take in a course, or is the teaching style and personality that affects learning?

What about next year?
As for what I would recommend for next year? I'm not sure. I do think it is good to have more than one person involved in a course like 'Facilitating Online' so you get a mix of teaching and facilitating styles and approaches. And the issue of the power a teacher has over students with assessment is diluted and moderated. I'd love to hear what you think and your experiences in open online courses.

Image: 'Teaching Math or Something' foundphotoslj


Simon McIntyre said...

Hi Sarah,

I read your post with interest, as to be honest it had never occurred to me to try to separate the role of teacher and facilitator before.

It would seem to me to be a problematic, and fragmented way to do things, as it seems you also found.

From my personal experience (5 or so years of teaching fully online courses in art and design), the students seem to need a mix of both teacher and facilitator, but the roles are by no means distinct. I don't feel that the teacher is outside of the learning that goes on in a collaborative online environment. I know that I have always learned a great deal from my students, and I am always open about my role, and that I am not the only source of information, that everyone has an equal input into the learning process. Of course I am the one that assesses them too, and it is a balancing act to know when to step in and guide and when to step back and let the collaboration and idea sharing evolve.

What I do know is with our courses (and from my own personal point of view) I feel it would be quite disruptive to have one person managing my course and another being the teacher. To me teacher these days has evolved into being a mix of both roles, and what makes a good online teacher is that they are able to understand the different idiosyncrasies of the online learning environment as compared to the face to face classroom and adapt their teaching to suit.

To me the facilitation is a part of the teaching and not a separate role. Guiding students in what is expected, building habitual online behaviour, methods of interaction and collaboration is part of the learning students need to be productive in an increasingly online, collaborative professional world , and as such I personaaly feel it is therefore part of the online teacher's role to imbue their students with the necessary online literacies and behaviours that will enable them to use the web for more relevant learning and working practices.

Sorry if that is a bit long winded! I just think it is a very interesting topic, and something I am very interested in!

Sarah Stewart said...

Hi Simon, thanks for your comment. I have been feeling rather muddled over the weeks so it has been good to get my thoughts on paper and discuss things here & on Twitter.

The conclusion I am coming to is that is very difficult to separate facilitation and teaching, and I am not sure we should be. Having said that, I do accept that assessment can impact on relationships etc.

I am convinced that one way to deal with the whole 'power' issue is to make sure that learning outcomes and assessment is clearly and carefully designed, so everyone knows where they stand in the grand scheme of things.

Talia said...

Hi Sarah,

I'm in the same boat as Simon- I hadn't thought much about seperating the roles before.

The way we do our online course is fairly different (student work thought subjects at their own pace, with no specific teacher designated to them), and so this is all a bit of a mind-shift from what I'm use too!

I think the facilitator role by itself can be pretty powerful. As you mentioned in your post- students saw you as 'walking the journey with them', and I think that this is FANTASTIC. I guess it's almost more of a 'mentor' roles, as opposed to teacher then, and the more personal relationship you can develop with the learner (not too personal of course- perhaps 'friendly' is a better word?) means that they might be more inclined to ask questions, and bounce ideas off you, without fear of being judged, or their marks being affected.

So much emphasis on assessment can really hinder the entire learning process! Sometimes (only sometimes!)I think we'd be better off without it!

Simon McIntyre said...

Talia - I couldn't agree more. I have also found that you can really build a good peer relationship with students (I work mostly with postgrads these days which may have something to do with this of course) and build that trust which is so crucial for working efficiently in an online collaborative environment.

Nice post!

Leigh Blackall said...

A few points:

This course did not successfully test the model for 3 reasons. 1. Circumstances changed so that we did not finish the experiment. 2. We have not had enough time to develop the methods so as to be in a fair position to propose an alternative to a deeply routed norm. 3. What I could tell from the initial attempts is that I needed to be more present at key assessable milestones in the course. On this last point Sarah, I am thinking what your role would be in bringing in that presence? You did it once when you invited me to meet the participants online to clarify expectations in assessment.

Your comment around "holistic assessment" is precisely the reason to seperate the roles and preserve some kind of cold objectivity in teaching and assessment, as well as support an emphasis on independent and/or facilitated learning. this is important to the scalability of the open access aspects to course. Again, the value of this objectified assessment (aka competency based) is difficult to establish against the deeply enculturated ideas of teaching and learning, especially when in some instances it can be said to devalue the profession of teaching.

I think it is through this model you will find an answer to the question of how to put a "value" on someone's learning. I don't belief years of teaching necessarily brings one any closer to understanding the nature of this question and its answers, just as years of learning does not necessarily bring someone closer to understanding what learning is. the context for answers might be more available outside our professional comfort zones entirely.

Reference: Illich.

willie campbell said...

I find this rigid distinction between facilitator and teacher very very artificial.
Someone needs to guide, scaffaold, support a students in their learning and someone needs to monitor progress. This may well be be the same someone to promote further learning and achievement, or in the case of "final or summative" progress to stated outcomes,(and the recording of a result) a different someone.
IF it is the same someone, then some other is needed to verify the decision.This way any kind of power advantage can be overcome.
A ture facilitator conmes from the group work world and the community development world, where there is no injection of facilitator viewpoint- this is by its nature impossible in the educative world, where the subject matter requires viewpoint.]As an informal student in this course, the time spent on these disctinctions seemed to me to be quite counter-productive. (sometimes a teacher needs to use the skills of a facilitator, but that doesn't make them one, anymore than a career advisor using the skills of a counsellor becomes a counsellor in the therapeutic sense.)This may well be a distinction of skill use to what intentional purpose.(where does an injection of information make sense? where does an open invitation to the group for combined wisdom make sense?)

David Callaghan said...

I've often felt uncomfortable being an assessor and teacher, and was more comfortable when the assessment was external, as with the GCSE system in the UK. At masters or doctorate level, I think having the same member of staff as supervisor (perhaps more accurately facilitator?) and assessor produces an artificial situation where the student is discouraged from asking the kinds of probing, exploratory or contentious questions that are key to a deep learning experience.

I am also a bit confused as to how many roles we are discussing for the teacher – I see three, not two:
1) Assessor
2) Teacher (deliver of knowledge (knowledge being a contentious phenomena itself)) and
3) Facilitator.

I really like Sarah’s post – I believe adopting a facilitative role allows the teacher to journey with the student. This approach fits better with my preferred pedagogy, “Social Constructivism”. I believe that a teacher as a facilitator and definitely NOT an assessor builds the learning relationship.

Sarah Stewart said...

Hello everyone, thank you all for commenting here - it's great to hear everyone's points of view which is helping the processing of my own thoughts.

cheers Sarah

Adrienne Moyle said...

Hi Sarah,

I've cut and pasted this from my blog

I've been reading the conversation here. It has been quite enlightening and has given me some understanding of what happened in the course. Why did we not know about this during the course? It would have cleared up some confusions I had ;).

I agree that it is very important to have clear, spelled out, learning outcomes and assessment criteria. That way everyone knows what is what.

I don't know that we will ever be able to eradicate the power differential between a learner and a teacher/facilitator/moderator/friend/whichever term we use. Knowledge is power.

I also don't believe that it's necessarily a good goal. If we did do it we run the risk of learning only what we want to hear. And the relationship is so two-way, that we risk losing that too. I think that recognising that the power differential exists is important. Also being learner centred is important.

I think that you can be an effective facilitator and teacher - particularly with graduate students - while assessing work. You can even work with students to create their own assessment criteria.

Anyway, very interesting comments, and interesting to hear about your journey. Thanks for that.

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you Adrienne for your comments - great to hear from a students' perspective.

Sarah Stewart said...

One of the issues I have come across over the last couple of days is the difference between marking assessment in an online course at the time of the course and assessment that has been carried out once the course has finished.

Several students have written blog posts (assignment 1) after the course has ended. Consequently, there hasn't been the level of networking and connecting that I have seen from students who blogged as the course progressed.

It has struck me that it is vital this is considered when designing assessment in open online courses - that we design assessment that allows for students who work through a course at different times to the 'formal' schedule. Any thoughts about this?

Bronwyn hegarty said...

I absolutely do not believe in Leigh's comment:"...cold objectivity in teaching and assessment, as well as support an emphasis on independent and/or facilitated learning."

I agree with Willie: "...rigid distinction between facilitator and teacher is very very artificial.
Someone needs to guide, scaffold, support a students in their learning and someone needs to monitor progress."

If using a Holistic learning approach, emotional engagment in learning is critical and a cold observer who is not engaging with the participants has NO right to assess them. Learning is a creative endeavour and fair assessment needs to be creative.

See John Heron's Holistic learning model:

Yes leigh you should have been monitoring all the way through to make it work at all.

Bronwyn hegarty said...

The idea of developing a partnership as a facilitator is great and if the teacher steps back and takes time to learn from the students and listens and gets to know them and interacts without always having to be the expert - the same thing can be achieved without separating facilitation/teaching/assessment.

Bronwyn hegarty said...

The idea of developing a partnership as a facilitator is great and if the teacher steps back and takes time to learn from the students and listens and gets to know them and interacts without always having to be the expert - the same thing can be achieved without separating facilitation/teaching/assessment.