E-learning. engagement, e-communities and e-learning.
I have returned from an interesting trip to China where I met a whole range of e-providers and companies that work in distance learning and on-line courses. I was impressed with the way that China is embracing technology and I saw lots of examples really good work, especially filming classes and then using the content for teaching training development. This tended to be a whole class approach, where the complete lesson was filmed and then used to analyse and get feedback from the trainees. It can be quite an effective way of exposing teacher to different techniques. In China, the number of teachers who need training and the number of teachers in rural communities means this approach has real value. I persononally prefer when we use videos to highlight key skills ( ie micro-teaching). So for example focusing on warmers, feedback, classroom language, setting up pairs etc. One thing I did notice however was that e-providers were rather unclear about the development of e-communities. It is something that only dawned on me after a while of experimenting with Blogger, Edmodo, Blackboard and Moodle and I would definitely admit to be guilty of not realising the importance of the e-community within a platform in the past or being aware of how to develop one.
Developing e-communities does not happen by accident, rather it is fostered. This is normally done through an e-moderator. One of the roles of the e-moderators is to encourage and support the development of the e-community. This role is particularly important at the start of a course since the e-community won’t necessarily be very active and the moderator’s role is to get things moving. If they do a good job, then in many ways their role becomes less important as the e-community develops, something highlighted by Gilly Salmon in her book e-tivities . However, e-moderators still need to oversee the community and keep the interest going.
E-moderators are often not the person/people who wrote the course. In one of my favourite articles on e-moderation Gary Packham el al  interviewed 35 e-moderators about the key skills that they needed to do the job well. At the top of the list is being ‘encouraging and motivating’, followed by the showing an ‘on-line personality’ and 3rd was ‘communication skills’. The article goes onto outline a total of 7 key elements in good e-moderation. It draws attention to the multi-faceted role of the e-moderator and the fact that these core skills need to be trained and developed. Perhaps it also draws attention to just how much work is involved in e-moderation, a point often overlooked by institutions.
What is clear is that the skills needed to be a good e-moderator are not the same as those in face to face. Of course there is a large amount of overlap. E-moderators will often need to focus on giving advice and technical support at the start and they will need to be encouraging and motivating. They will also need to facilitate and support discussions, not jumping in too quickly but rather encouraging engagement, helping to link ideas. The term ‘weaving ‘ is often used. They have a management role too. They are expected to summarise posts, check that work has been handed in, reply to e-mails etc. At the heart of the management role, is the importance of being timely. It is often suggested that posts, emails etc. should be replied to in 36 hours (some suggest even quicker).
Building up the e-community
Developing an e-community is a process. Gilly Salmon has suggested that participants need to go through a 5 stage process. My own experience definitely confirms this. It is a question of building up the participants confidence where initial focus is on becoming familiar with the platform before the focus shifts to socialising and then onto learning and engagement. This is a basic outline of the sorts of stages that e-moderators need to take their participants through.
- Get the participants up and using the platform and filling in their profile
- Get the participants to meet each other and engage in some simple initial contact through the chat or the discussion board
- Get the participants to provide more information about themselves including their opinions and ideas on subjects.
- Develop the e-community through sharing and engagement type activities that go beyond simple socialisation.
- Getting participants to move to a higher level where students are commenting, evaluating each other’s work.
These stages are not precise but they do highlight a few important things. Firstly that it is a process. It may need more or less time to work through depending on the learning culture of the participants and also their experience in using technology, particularly on-line courses. Secondly it is probably not such a good idea to jump straight in and expect participants to comment, discuss and possible evaluate each other’s work and ideas, if they don’t really know each other. Rather, start with small simple activities and build towards this goal as the e-community develops. The stages I outline often merge into each other but the point is there are stages in a process that the participants need to be guided through.
Perhaps more important though is to think about the learning. After all, we are talking about e-learning and my worry is that many e-providers, moderators and other’s involved in e-learning are not really making sure that the interactions that are taking place on their platforms are really about learning. What I have seen at various points, is examples of discussions and comments that are very superficial in terms of learning. They are certainly not linked to the ideas of collaboration and construction of knowledge that we hear so many people talking about. Just because a student reads ( or doesn’t read) an article shared by another participant and then adds a comment like “This is interesting” or “ Nice article” doesn’t show any real engagement. Yet, this is what is often being highlighted as examples of engagement in e-learning communities. E-providers are often happy to reveal statistics showing large numbers of participants engaging on their platforms but what sits behind these statistics is large numbers of participants that have written little more than one line.
In realty this level of engagement is really evidence of nothing. They may have honestly read the article or they may simply be adding a quick comment as evidence to show that they have been on the platform. These types of comments are very frequent in many web communities, especially where students are obliged to show they have been using the platform. I call these ‘level one’ comments. In my opinion they have no real learning value and the e-moderator, whose job it is to summarise such comments would have a pretty easy job. They types of comments might be fine on a Facebook page or perhaps even in a blog but not really that useful on an e-learning course that is trying to foster a certain level of engagement and sharing of ideas. We often refer to these level one comments as ‘recall’ ie acknowledging someone has written something or made a contribution but really doing very little else.
Where we do hopefully start to see some level of learning is at stage 2. This is where perhaps participants begin to add their own ideas. They might have read an article or watched a video and then added a further idea linked to the content. They are not evaluating or criticising the piece or attempting to link it to a framework but they clearly understand what they have read and are contributing to it. In my opinion, this does show some level of engagement and learning. Though of course, it depends on the quality of the contributions submitted.
The 3rd level is really about evaluation. The participants are really engaging with the content. They are thinking about it, questioning it, linking it to other knowledge, perhaps trying to shape the ideas into a framework they have in mind. They might even use the ideas to help shape a new framework that they are attempting to develop. I sometimes see this with my MA students. There are various elements here and perhaps some of them need to go into a level 4 (ie there is a difference between linking the ideas to a current framework or using the ideas to develop a new framework which we should perhaps call level 4), however, the point is that at level 3 real learning is take place. This is what the e-learning communities need to be trying to engender into their learners. E-moderators will certainly find summarising these ideas worthwhile. For example of what I mean, take a look at the guest blog entry I wrote on Ken Wilsons blog . It generated more than 60 posts and many quite passionate and detailed comments.
I suppose there is lots of ‘Blooms Taxonomy’  in here. I am certainly not saying anything new or providing any sort of framework in which to evaluate the comments made in an e-community. But I am making the point that not all types of comments have the same value in terms of learning and yet this doesn’t always seem clear to those using e-platforms. We can think of this approach as having value in terms of the types of interactions we should be encouraging on e-learning platforms as well as a possible way to evaluate the quality of comments that students provide.
It is important to remember that we can’t expect level three comments on the first day of an on line learning course. It is something we can build towards as the e-community become comfortable with each other, with the platform and with the content they are working through.
One final thing tip. It is a good idea to summarise on a regular basis the comments that people are making. Some members of the e-community may not have time to read all the individual comments and most e-moderators will certainly not have the time to reply to all the comments on a platform. What they can do though is perhaps read the contributions and them summarise (this can be done periodically). After doing a few of the initial summaries the e-moderator can then enourage the participants to take up the role of e-moderator and get one member to do the summarising each week for example. Of course, the value and quality of these summaries will depend a lot on the quality of the comments in the first place. Summarising is one of many practical skills that an e-moderator needs, which perhaps I will address in a future post.
 Gilly Salmon E-tivities
 Gary Packham Et Al Perceptions of Effective E-moderation ( great article)
 Ken Wilson’s blog ( and my guest post in it)
 Bloom’s taxonomy ( a summary taken from the internet)