“… We are all writers. Maybe not Writers with a capital ‘W.’ But writing is our most powerful tool. … Like an offline facilitator who has to develop his or her public speaking skills, we have to develop our writing. We must learn to write with as many ‘voices’ as we use offline. Quiet, direct, energetic, reflective–all of them” (White).

Does your online voice encourage, motivate, and support others? Does your online voice promote a safe and inviting learning environment that leads to an increase in participation and fostering of relationships?

In a traditional, face-to-face classroom setting, we are able to communicate through verbal and nonverbal cues. We are able to understand one another by reading body language and listening to the tone in which words are being spoken. However, in an online learning environment it becomes difficult to express and interpret these types of communication.

Online we depend on text to convey our thoughts, emotions, and personalities. Those new to the online environment might not be accustomed to sharing their thoughts in a face-to-face environment, much less online. Online learners are, therefore, not only responsible for learning the online course material, but are responsible for learning how to communicate with each other online as well.

These are factors that hold true for the facilitator, too. The facilitator must possess and exhibit an online voice so that others will contribute to the learning environment and seek to find their own online voice.

“To encourage effective discussion and learner participation, it is important to build a setting in which learners feel comfortable and respected” (Hiemstra). It is up to the online facilitator to set the tone for the online course so that learners are comfortable enough to interact and build relationships with other learners, including the facilitator.

So, as an online facilitator, how does one use his or her online voice to establish an online environment where learners feel that they are acknowledged, that their anxieties are eased, and that appropriate online behavior is modeled for them to emulate?

  • Address everyone, neglect no one. “The facilitator needs to pay careful attention to welcoming each student to the electronic course and reinforcing early attempts to communicate. … Send many individual messages to students commenting on their contribution, suggesting links to other students, suggesting resources, and generally reaching out to students. The coaching function is key to easing the students’ transition to computer-mediated communication” (Davie).
  • Reveal your persona. Learners will communicate their persona through their online voice. It is only fair that a facilitator should reciprocate this by allowing learners to hear their personality through their own online voice. Facilitators should take opportunities to share personal or professional stories when appropriate, and/or write a detailed biography giving insight about their life.
  • Reach out to the “lurker.” If participants are insecure, seem to hesitate in posting, or have not posted for a lengthy period of time, offer assistance, assurance, or perhaps an invitation to come back through personal communication (FaciliTips).
  • Be flexible. Believe people have good intentions, and allow second chances. Remember that we are bound to make mistakes–and you might need some compassion yourself at some point, too.
  • Have a sense of humor. Some lightheartedness can be reviving, break tensions, and reduce stress. However, use humor with consideration. Humor can be confused with sarcasm and can lead to defensiveness.
  • Provide constructive feedback, not general comments. Remember, it’s probable that a number of hours were dedicated to completing an assignment. Giving broad comments only diminishes student work. Whenever possible, provide detailed constructive criticism: Elaborate on strengths and weaknesses, point out areas with potential growth and improvement. This shows personal interest in students, has tremendous impact on their future efforts, and serves to spark their motivation.

Facilitators might not have total control over the outcome of the online course, but they are able to influence the course as it progresses. Because communication in an online course is text-based, it is important for facilitators to develop an online voice that sets the foundation for a supportive learning environment.

References
Davie, Lynn. “Facilitation Techniques for the On-Line Tutor,” 1989.
http://icdl.open.ac.uk/literaturestore/mindweave/mindweave.html

“FaciliTips: Quick Tips for Online Facilitation.” Full Circle Associates, December 2001.
http://www.fullcirc.com/community/facilitips.htm

Hiemstra, Roger and Rae Wahl Rohfeld. “Moderating Discussions in the Electronic Classroom,” November 2000.
http://www.emoderators.com/moderators/rohfeld.html

White, Nancy. “But I’m Not a Writer!” Full Circle Associates, March 2003.
http://www.fullcirc.com/community/writers.htm

Martha Vasquez is a third-year high school math teacher. She is currently part of the Cyber Pathway at her school, which prepares students pursuing a career in computer technology. She is working to complete her masters degree in online teaching and learning and hopes to facilitate an online math course for high school students soon.