Online Facilitation

Let’s take the best of our facilitation knowledge with us when teach online. Let’s keep it human  – for fun and learning.

The ways we do things, all the things, how we learn, work and play – is faster, more immediate, more electronic, more connected, more networked and more disembodied than ever before.

Many questions arise.

How do teachers and learners stabilize our bodyminds as we navigate these “disrupted” digital times? How do we stay human in our pedagogy while we adopt, use, underuse and misuse digital tools?

How can we connect, engage, inspire, challenge and grow, as learners and as teachers? How do we retain the best of what we do together when we meet face-to-face to discuss and learn?

Or do we lose the best of learning and sharing knowledge together when we take education online?

I don’t have the full answers to all these questions, but I do know there are conscious choices we can make to create vibrant and effective online and digital learning experiences for learners. For organizations, making conscious choices means exploring the world of digital tools, growing our capacity, fostering creativity and connection, and expanding our sense of the possible.

So let’s start with the critical embrace of digital technologies.

And let’s assume that we bring the best of our teaching skills and adult education principles with us when we teach online.

And let’s assume learners want to learn and are as excited and moved about learning as we are.

And let’s consider the Internet as an ally, not a threat, and acknowledge its central role in our daily experience.

Let’s facilitate from a place of opportunity:

“It is helpful to consider the Web not simply as a new medium for distance education delivery, but also as a partnership offering a new teaching paradigm and new technology, creating the potential for fundamental changes in how we undertake teaching and learning.” (Caplan & Graham, 2011)[i]

I encourage you to explore four key considerations – “things to think about” – when setting out to create dynamic and personable facilitation of online and digital learning. The below is not comprehensive, but it includes some ideas that can make things a little easier, based on research and on my own experience as an aspiring online popular educator and facilitator.

Anyone who has undertaken to produce “online learning” for their organization can attest to the complexity of the task. I hope this helps.

Start where you are

I enjoy the experience of online facilitation, both as a learner and as an educator. I’ve learned valuable lessons from both “sides” of the mouse, and have come to apply lessons learned on one side to make things better on the other.

The best way to learn something, after all, is to teach it. But it’s also true that we teach better when we learn how others do things. This is why I regularly partake in a range of online learning opportunities, from courses on content strategy and digital marketing to skills trainings in web writing, podcasting and online teaching.

Yeah, I’m definitely one of those “lifelong learners” – and I think this makes me a better teacher.

I have always seen notions of participation, sharing voice and meeting people “where they are” to be fundamental facilitation techniques or approaches. They make simple human sense to me and they strengthen learning outcomes. Margaret Wheatley, an organizational development theorist I admire, has said that “people support what they create.”

The learning process is itself a vital place of creation.

Earlier in my activist life I was influenced by adult education techniques originating in Latin American liberation theology and popular education pioneered by Paulo Freire, among others. I studied closely with Canadian practitioners of these techniques who were active around the (now defunct) Toronto-based Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice whose “Naming the Moment” workshops were based in large part on the Canadian popular education classic text of the same name.

In “naming the moment”, we sought to describe the major social, political and cultural forces that were acting upon the present moment – all the better to identify strategies for learning, mobilizing and change. And we sought to engage in learning and teaching among equals and in solidarity and mutual exchange in a conscious effort to undermine global power imbalances – in short, to be in dialogue, as Freire has it:

Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence.[i]

Today, my in-person facilitation practice is informed by a variety of methodologies, including Art of Hosting (including Circles, Open Space Technology and World Café) and Global Learning Partners’ Dialogue Education process. I particularly have benefitted from Dialogue Education’s Design Steps, which I’ve turned to many times for help with structuring learning environments in-person and online (just as the crafters of “Dialogue Education” owe a debt to Freire).

What all of these approaches honour, by and large, is the centrality of the learner’s experience, knowledge and skills before they enter into the learning environment the facilitator has created. Once they’re there, it’s the facilitator’s job to anchor knowledge to a learner’s experience – to make knowledge accessible, conceptually relevant, challenging and rewarding. This helps create a bond between “the learner” and “knowledge” that is sturdier than demanding students simply memorize information and repeat it back, in exams or assignments.

Much of the facilitation I’ve done, in-person and now online, has benefitted from the above approaches. They have allowed me to honour in others what I honour in myself – individual creativity, point of view, insight, experience and hunger for truth.

But what about online learning? Do we facilitate differently?

Sometimes I wonder how to find my way in online learning contexts when holding the same theories and biases that I’ve brought to bear in in-person learning contexts. Do I place too much faith in people? Do I ask too much? Do I place too much emphasis on the “learner” and not enough on the “learning”? Do union members, for example, just want to be told where to show up, what to learn and what to do with that knowledge? Colleagues tell me things like this, but I resist it – ideologically. I hold out space for learners to feel their own true selves in the work.

This gets harder to do online – especially sometimes among learners, it must be said, who don’t always feel fully comfortable with technology and tech change. It gets harder to create that “dialogue” when the exchange is mediated by technology, particularly asynchronous exchange, no matter how amazing our digital tools can be. (Asynchronous means “at different times” – learners engage in the material “at their own pace” aka by themselves, at their own schedule, when they can, instead of coming together “at the same time” or synchronously. Folks can gather synchronously online too – think of webinars or group chats or some other shared digital experience.)

Still, these digital learning environments can create pressure on online facilitators to replicate that dialogic moment, that community of learning, that love and that connection, in a space where folks just won’t be feeling it.

So what I’ve learned is that the choice of tech platform matters – a lot. Teacher “presence” matters. Humour, conversation and story matter. Clear language matters (more and more). And multimedia content matters – using diverse digital content to connect and engage with people in the ways they have become accustomed to.

4 things to think about when thinking about teaching and facilitating online:

  • Platform
  • Presence
  • Conversation, humour, story
  • Multimedia


I’ve learned that the best online education theories can crash and splinter like dry sticks upon the rocks of the “best practices” you have mustered.

And by “practices” I mean, in this case, platforms. I’m thinking of a recent experience where I used a Ning social network to do double duty to support a social “space” and fill in as a learning management system (LMS), however improvised. I don’t think it did either very well. Few of our 200 participants engaged in the discussion forums, and I don’t think anybody actually used the social networking “newsfeed” even though the feature set was reminiscent of Facebook.

What kinds of platforms and tools do you need to use? You’d be surprised. You may not need to rush to establish a conventional “e-learning” platform when simpler and more accessible (and familiar tools) may suffice. It’s up to you!

Depending on your organizational culture, or your size, you may or may not even need to configure an elaborate, stand-alone LMS (learning management system). You might just need a website to house your program’s reading and viewing content, a chat room to connect your people, and perhaps social media outreach and groups to promote your program and to facilitate certain discussions.

If you are running your website on an open source content management system like WordPress, you can incorporate an LMS plug-ins that allow you to run courses that include a rich feature-set. Features can include the ability to organize and present information, structure a learning sequence, allow learners to upload assignments in document, video or audio form, take quizzes, among others.

When it comes to elaborate, stand-alone LMS’s, organizations have many choices, both open source and proprietary. Moodle is a prominent open source platform that is used around the world by organizations and institutions ranging in size and complexity from local nonprofits to major institutions. Moodle may require more in-house IT capacity than other options. It depends on how you configure the platform, and how much control (and responsibility) you want, where the database is hosted and so on. Commercial LMS’s like Canvas offer a similar feature set. They cost more than a Moodle, but will come bundled with hosting and some degree of support.

Most of these kinds of platforms will have very robust ways of fostering interactivity amongst students, which is a key strategy for overcoming online learning’s in-person “absence.” (Read more on “presence” below.)

Still other options include web-based “software as a service” subscription products like Coursify which offers a cloud-based platform that can be customized and branded to look like part of the organization’s existing website. These can be an attractive option for groups that want to quickly create an online learning experience that is clear, easy to navigate and even welcoming for the learner – something that, as an online learner myself, I appreciate.

The market is changing, rapidly – it’s dizzying times for both teachers and learners. New products are rolled out constantly, with ever-simpler user interfaces, more multimedia and discussion capabilities, and automated features that allow for easier and more efficient administration of the program, among other features.

But this dizziness can be fun, too. After all, new tools and functions is the fun part – the shiny stuff.

However, we sometimes rush to establish platforms and start using tools before fully considering what our purpose is and what our goals are. A slick website with a smooth LMS is one thing. Engaging, interesting and accessible educational content supporting a coherent and engaging online experience is another.

Stepping back, what do we really mean by “platform”? Wenger, White and Smith define it as follows:

By platform we mean a technology package that integrates a number of tools available in the marketplace (for purchase or for free) that one can acquire, install, or rent. Vendors often organize a group of tools as a platform. Platforms offer communities a simple entry into using a set of tools.[ii]

For online learners, the key phrase of this definition would be “a simple entry.” Online learning can be confusing and unsettling for learners as they familiarize themselves with a new, technology-mediated learning environment. Consider “user experience” (UX), which has become a major component of web design strategy. UX asks designers to think of the user and how they will actually interact with the site, putting first what the user wants and needs rather than demanding the user adjust to how the site is presented.

Similar can be said about online learning platforms and spaces. How clear are they? How welcoming? Is it easy for learners to access all the tools and functions of the platform – for example, engaging with learning material, uploading comments, participating in discussions, submitting assignments, connecting with fellow students and with the instructor?

A good design can help mitigate against the absence that people can feel when engaging in online learning. A bad design will make that absence worse. This is why achieving a sense of presence is vital.


In my own practice I have come to realize that I need to err on the side of creating too much presence, rather than too little, when facilitating in online contexts.

This is a tricky balance for me, as I’m constitutionally averse to micro-managing someone’s experience, but I realize the need to be slightly more prescriptive, particularly in asynchronous environments.

When speaking with people about online and digital education, and the need to “go digital”, I often play this video by the makers of Blackboard LMS that describes the “new” “active” learner. Just like a retweet doesn’t confer endorsement, my playing this video as an educational aid doesn’t mean I agree with its content (especially the stuff on “charter” schools, for example).

The video is a good example of content marketing – digital content that can be (somewhat) educational or helpful in some way, entertaining or just plain awesome. In this instance, the video seeks to make the case as to why organizations need to develop online learning capacity, digital teaching skills and resources. It is because emerging generations are connected, are “always on” – and if those who wish to educate them are to succeed in doing so, then they’d better get on the line, too.

Perhaps the “why” in this particular video is overstated (and perhaps others will also find the narrator kind of annoying) but, to my mind, that’s a matter of degree. The fact is, for better or for worse, the world is going digital and we need to maintain our ability to reach people, connect with them, engage with them, and share and co-construct knowledge with them.

But, people often tell me, we lose what is human when we go online. Some things will always have to be face-to-face. And they cross their arms to signal the end of the conversation.

I nod and note their position and take a minute to reflect on the resistance to change, the fear of it, and the denial of it. And I give folks the benefit of the doubt here because there are tremendously good reasons for all three – resistance, fear and denial. But one concept, or quality, gets to the heart of what many people fear we lose when we take learning online: presence.

Athabasca University’s Patrick Fahy describes online learning media as “tools for cooperation, collaboration and communication.”

Teacher presence is a vital part of the success of online teaching. Fahy writes:

Individual participant’s success with online communication depends on effective use of the technical resources available, along with the guidance and leadership provided by a skilled instructor-moderator…and tempered by the learner’s own capabilities and preferences for collaborative, cooperative, active and self-directed learning….Teaching presence is the leadership and facilitation necessary for individuals to achieve “meaningful understanding” through interaction and collaboration.[iii]

Terry Anderson describes three kinds of “presence”: cognitive presence, social presence, and teacher presence:

  • Cognitive presence in the pursuit of study
  • Social presence in the creation of a container of support, comfort and safety that enables collaboration, and
  • Teacher presence to demonstrate subject matter expertise, design the learning experience and sequence learning activities to engage students.[iv]

These forms of presence are incredibly important in creating a sense of connection and togetherness in the virtual learning world. A conversational tone and storytelling help, too.

Conversation, humour, story

I’ll be honest: my bad jokes work just as well online as they do in-person. In fact, they might work even better in a tech-mediated environment where learners aren’t expecting slide 12 to be a photo of Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger. An unexpected laugh lasts longer, as it were, and brings learners back to the “dialogue” in a sense.

I’ve likewise become fully comfortable in adopting a decidedly conversational and friendly tone in online facilitation contexts, if only because the conversational tone is the lingua franca (the dialect?) of the Internet itself. It’s certainly becoming the dominant “clear language” of the Internet, where communication and engagement is the coin of the realm.

Marketers have realized that marketing is now a conversation. Advertisers leverage today’s digital technologies to engage with customers and “leads” through social media, interactive web apps and more. For our part, whether as customers or as consumers (of the web generally), we have grown accustomed to having our say – and to being heard. Digital conversation – informal, fast, ubiquitous – is the context in which today’s online learners exist, and they increasingly arrive at your platform with this cultural expectation.

Online educators can learn from the world of digital marketing. In fact, I’d argue that we have to learn from marketers. Not because marketing agencies do it better, or because they are the natural fonts of all social wisdom, or because their particular discourse of metrics and “conversion” represents the pinnacle of human interaction. Hardly! But rather because we often underestimate the impact and power of the marketing industry’s profound role in shaping our collective expectations of an online experience – and even our consciousness. And digital, speaking of platforms, provides marketers an unprecedented reach into the microscopic details of our every waking moment. So when the marketing industry decides that “conversation” is the new black, and when that conversation happens online, educators need to take notes – because their students are living in a digital world largely shaped by the commercial Internet’s ways of being, seeing, interacting and conversing.

Marketers have also (re)discovered the central role of stories in how we understand the world and our place in it – and the place of the brand. For marketers, the equation can be a little crude:

Definitions [of storytelling] abound, but basically it boils down to brands sharing their messages in ways that engage audiences and drive them to take a desired action (like making a purchase, calling a sales person, downloading or subscribing to content, etc.). Link

Happily, marketers aren’t the only ones who have taken renewed interest in stories and storytelling. Educators, of course, have been telling stories forever – in fact, it’s probably fair to say that “stories” are the oldest “learning object” that humans have.

Stephen Thorpe has explored the role storytelling plays in the effective facilitation of online groups. He found that:

Storytelling provided an emotional connector between people, it offered access to deep personal learnings, it inspired others, and it assisted with reducing isolation. Storytelling in introductions assisted people to better present aspects of themselves and to create more points of connection with each other.[v]

Storytelling’s power to reduce isolation is surely what makes it a perennial force in human culture (little wonder marketers are so keen on it today!). Reducing isolation through story is a key consideration for those preparing to teach online – and thanks to the blossoming of multimedia content, we have never had more ways to tell stories than we do today.


I’m a big believer in creating and presenting online and digital content to connect with learners in the way they are being accustomed to in the cornucopic bonanza that is the Internet.

So, articles for those who like to read. Videos for those who like to watch. Podcasts for the listeners and slideshows for the skimmers. And social media for those who really like to learn out loud.

But I want to be the one who makes all these things happen, and suddenly I realize that my writing skills don’t necessarily translate to video editing skills, or sound editing, or graphic design for that matter. So I make a virtue out of necessity and engage in content “curation”, that is, collecting and re-presenting existing digital content that I can’t create myself – that is, until I take that course in video editing, and learn how to use Audacity or some other sound editing program.

“Doing online learning” is more than taking a face-to-face training course and mashing it into a PowerPoint, narrating it and recording it and posting the video to YouTube.

Of course, there may be times where that kind of strategy is just perfect!

It depends. It always depends!

Educators can feel free to put away that PowerPoint, for now anyway, and cast their eyes across the World Wide Web. What do you see? You see:

  • Websites
  • Videos and animation
  • Photos and slideshows
  • Games
  • Apps
  • Music
  • Podcasts
  • Articles, essays, stories, poems
  • Webinars and livestreams
  • Social media and more

Any of these content types, and more, can be stirred into your educational mix – content you create yourself, or material you “curate” (select) from across the web.

It’s the diversity of this mix that can make online and digital learning exciting and dynamic. Pretty much any kind of multimedia content can be pressed into educational service to make your online education offerings exciting, relevant and dynamic. The challenge is to ensure that “the technologies selected for course delivery are not superfluous”[vi] but rather supportive in how they bolster learning, and are integrated into coherent educational design.

For a fuller discussion of possible applications of online and digital content, readers are referred to McGreal and Elliott’s article “Technologies of Online Learning (E-learning)”. The authors discuss how teachers can enrich the online learning experience of learners through: video and audio streaming, VOIP services like Skype, web conferencing, messaging, the use of mobile devices, peer-to-peer file sharing, wikis, blogs, newsfeeds, virtual worlds, games and learning objects (pieces of content with lessons). [vii]

Aspiring online teachers can also learn from virtual training expert Cindy Huggett. Huggett has articulated three steps to her design model for live, synchronous learning environments. They are:

  • Select the best format for each learning objective.
  • Shape appropriate learning activities.
  • Structure a logical flow.[viii]

These are good design steps for developing any kind of online learning effort, and they help us think about how to approach our learning activities based upon a consideration of goals and desired outcomes, rather than simply rushing to “convert” a “real” course into a “virtual” one.

I’d suggest that we could apply a similar framework for when we consider the use of different kinds of media in our online and digital learning and teaching:

  • Select strong examples of different kinds of content
  • Engage learners in a range of activities
  • Exercise judgement (avoid being “superfluous”)

This kind of approach can help us identify how we can dip our cups into the rushing torrents of the digital content river in a judicious fashion, selecting multimedia content that helps different kinds of learners engage with course content in diverse ways:

  • Text, images and video for visual learners
  • Audio content for aural learners
  • Interactive apps and content for kinetic learners

Of course, a single learner can have all three of these learning styles. This makes diverse online multimedia content a solid strategy to connect with and engage learners in deepening their experience and supporting their construction of knowledge. The digital world is the online educator’s oyster.

And so on. The point is the need for such content has never been greater, and the pressure to create it never sharper. The challenge for organizations like the ones I’m familiar with is to create the in-house capacity to tell their stories using all the digital tools – and to see which ones, over time, move learning forward.

And moving forward means we are free to fail.


And so sometimes we fail, because we have to fail, because online is great for many things, but not for everything. Just like asking a fish to climb a tree just isn’t fair – or relevant.

So why would we ask technology to be human, rather than, as McLuhan observed, to let it simply extend our reach?

Many excellent questions arise in these disrupted digital times – for teachers and learners alike. But the fears of leaving our humanity behind when we move teaching online are, in my view, overstated and, sometimes, misguided. Online facilitators can keep it human when engaging in online teaching by considering four key aspects: platform, presence, conversation, storytelling, and the thoughtful use of multimedia content.

By exploring aspects like these, with an open mind, we stand a better chance of developing seaworthy principles that can guide us as we navigate the churning waters of technological change.





REFERENCES check numbering


[i] Friere, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pp 79-80, Herder and Herder New York, 1972.

[ii] Fahy, Patrick. (2008) Characteristics of Interactive Online Learning Media from The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, Athabasca University Press

[iii] Terry Anderson, “Teaching in an Online Learning Context” in Theory and Practice of Online Learning, p. 274.


[i] Dean Caplan and Roger Graham, “The Development of Online Courses”, in The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, AU Press, Athabasca Press, 2008, 2011.


[ii] Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, John D. Smith, Digital Habitats: Stewarding technology for communities, p. 40, CPSquare, 2009.

[iii] Patrick Fahy, “Characteristics of Interactive Online Learning Media”, ibid.

[iv] Terry Anderson, “Teaching in an Online Learning Context”, ibid.


[v] Stephen Thorpe, “Using Storytelling in the Facilitation of Online Groups,” in Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal, Number 11, 2011.


[vi] Caplan and Graham, ibid.


[vii] Rory McGreal and Michael Elliott, “Technologies of Online Learning (E-learning)”, ibid.


[viii] Cindy Huggett, The Virtual Training Guidebook, p. 67, American Society for Training and Development, 2013.