The Facilitation Exercise
The facilitation exercise I did in SL was not directly linked to my area of teaching ie language learning, or an activity to development intercultural competence. However I would need to be able to take language students to sites and to provide them with the opportunity to interact, so the facilitation experience was valuable (see conclusion). It could be argued that I was enabling the participants to experience different SL cultures (Japanese and Norwegian).
Preparation (with comments for implications for learning and teaching)
Search and exploration of potential sites, and arranging times of visits with hosts. This was timeconsuming and tricky with the Online Japanese host as there was 18 hours time difference. For Kamimo Island, the time difference was 12 hours and the host was unable to confirm whether she would be there.
- Need much more time to find and investigate more sites and contacts.
- Need to consider when students would be able to come online (computer specifications and time).
- Need practice sessions to ensure all students are reasonably confident.
- As above; best to schedule into class time if possible or have an evening session just to familarise, and to accept friendships and understand what LM and TPs are.
- Preparation is essential, and the nature will depend on the aims and learning outcomes of the SL session.
- For an activity involving teleporting to different sites, this is essential for novice groups.
Introduction of teaching colleague to SL so that there would be at least one Japanese teacher present.
- This is only successful if all participants turn up on time. The briefing should really only be reinforcement.
- Need to develop appropriate learning and teaching activities for students.
- There were about five participants at various times - more than I had expected.
- I managed to get the participants to all the sites and show them around and help those who got lost.
- I was able to interact with most of the participants on an individual basis.
- Some of the participants interacted with the host of the first site, Jupiter Lusch of the Online Japanese Courses site. As this study by Petersen suggests: 'the use of avatars, 3D graphics and real time chat provided opportunities for [target-language] interaction, while at the same time offering a means to overcome many of the technical constraints on communication inherent in network-based environments.
- Participants helped each other.
- Although there was not a great deal of 'chatting', the participants experienced meeting each other in Koru and what it would feel like for students to stand around wondering what to say or do, or what was happening.
- At least two of the participants are interested in following up on the use of SL in their own discipline areas.
- The whole process extended to over an hour and a half and I felt I had not finished it off properly. It would have been good to discuss impressions immediately after each site, or to arrange an opportunity to discuss it after. The most straightforward would have been through emails or meeting up again at Koru in SL itself. It could also have been done through comments to this blog, but being the end of the course, not all members would be around. Also members arrived and left at different times.
- Technical issues: SL had had a recent update, and wouldn't let me in at 7.00. It took 15 minutes to get in, so I only arrived at Koru a few minutes before the first group member. I would have preferred more time so that I could monitor the situation and come up with contingencies. There was also a problem with lag, and some things weren't happening, for example acceptance of friendship weren't coming through as quickly as usual. Also, I thought I had taken photos but they didn't come through, and I was too busy to check.
- People arrived at different times, so the intended briefing on the sites at Koru was not done properly. The host of the first site had sent me an IM to say she was there. It was 1.30 am for her - she had stayed up especially for the visit - so I needed to move the group quickly, but I did not know whether all of them had arrived. One course member tried to join an hour into the session but I missed her IM and Skype message.
- Getting even a small number of members to the first site was time consuming. Some logged into SL after we had arrived at the first site, so were teleported there, but I had to keep a look out for them to arrive in SL.
- The whole process required very good multitasking skills: monitoring what was going on at the site in terms of time, questions; monitoring IMs, being aware of different SL ability of members. My colleague had only just gone into SL for the first time that afternoon.
- For group members, navigating itself took a lot of focus and was not conducive to discussion, especially by typing, at least not for novices. Voice might have helped.
What I have learnt and could do differently in the future
Time frame: there was too much to cover for the profile of the group consisting of members with a range of SL skills and interests. A facilitation that requires navigation to this extent, needs to factor in the skills of the group and be scaled accordingly for the time allowed.
Voice vs written: The whole process of getting around can interfere with just how much you can take in - as I had experienced when trying to keep up with Aklom. I have since been on two facilitation sessions at Aklom's invitation. They both used voice rather than written, and it was much more effective: the facilitator could concentrate more on monitoring the situation while talking, and members of the group could assimilate more and concentrate more on navigation.
As Isa had pointed out to me, because it is not possible to see students' faces or to see what they can see on their screens, it is difficult to know just what the student is experiencing. If voice is activated, it might be possible to pick up more of what is actually being experienced or what they are looking at. I found out later that the text can be recorded on ones desktop. I am not sure about voice.
Management of group: It is necessary to be a bit more assertive to get attention to round people up before moving on to avoid losing them, whether going to a new site or to a different location in the same site. With an inexprienced group, there is definitely a need to have a tail-end Charlie who is well-briefed. For this facilitation, I needed to communicate more with the group, in other words, to provide more direction and support at critical moments which seemed to be arrivals and departures, and to keep the focus on the aims of the visits. People kept disappearing and appearing and I am not clear whether this was just because of technical difficulties.
When being hosted, it was difficult to get away to the next site - some members were interested and were asking lots of questions, and it was difficult to gauge whether the others were getting bored and needed to be taken to the next site. If another host was waiting at the next site, it would be necessary to get everyone there. Having a tail-end Charlie would provide the flexibility needed fo this sort of situation.
Preparation: I should also have encouraged everyone to read the blog on the sites before the visit as some were not sure of the purpose of visiting the sites. If they were students, it would have been a requirement to read up on necessary information, whether the activity, coordinates or site information, with some discussion before the event. More details in frequent emails before the event would have helped.
I would send an IM to everyone in the group, with a note attached showing the schedule and LMs. This would make the navigation to the sites much easier instead of just relying on TPs. Also, if we did lose people in the site or they were booted off SL for any reason, they could at least go back to the starting point. It would be good for people who were late, as they would know the schedule, and could navigate to the sites themselves. It is not enough to rely on teleporting. A hud is another possibility. This is like a rubrics cube of photos of the places and could be left at the meeting point for each person to wear. Then all it involves is clicking a picture in turn to get teleported to the planned sites. It is also useful to give out a list of names of participants or the tail-end Charlie, so that an IM can be sent to them if the facilitator does not respond.
Navigation skills: for a tour that requires quite a bit of navigation such as this, it is best if all have some basic SL navigation skills, and at least use the movement arrows.
I wasn't sure just how much they had read in my messages, or what they could see - as their views might be different. I would need to learn how to monitor this somehow.
My preparation time had been taken up with just mastering the technicalities and finding sites, that I had not thought through the learning outcomes sufficiently, nor put sufficient preparation in place for my participating students. I might have had a few more taking part had I posted some articles or links earlier. This reinforces the need to:
- ensure the facilitator has sufficient SL competencies as well as those for facilitating.
- ensure sufficient and appropriate preparation is done - the learning outcomes, the lesson plans (beginning, middle and end), preparation of students - technical and background. This article by Berge provides useful check lists.
Facilitating online learning - some of the challenges
- Designing the right mix of online and off-line activities (referred to by some as 'blended learning')
- Keeping tabs on individual students' progress
- Catering for different learning preferences and learner needs
- Adopting student-centred approaches, and learning to become a 'guide' or 'facilitator'
- Dealing with the pragmatics of teaching online - e.g. administrative and support requirements, and issues of time
- Dealing with technical issues.
Facilitating online communications - some of the challenges
- Avoiding the dangers of misinterpretation of text (and assisting students to do the same) (Sherry et al. 2001, p. 4)
- Dealing with silences (the dread of all online moderators) and getting students to actively participate (Benfield 2000)
- Finding the right voice (i.e. techniques for communicating and responding to achieve particular outcomes - see Collison et al. 2000)
- Finding the optimal balance between private email and public discussion (Collison et al. 2000)
- Standing back, and allowing students to discover the power and potential of the medium for self and group learning and not purposely or inadvertently dominating or stifling discussion.
'Unlike asynchronous conferencing, the synchronous media afford little time for reflection and deliberation. Moderators of synchronous audio-conferences therefore face a daunting task. They must support both process and content, guide interaction through meaningful feedback and deft questioning strategies, and provide additional cues and information as needed. Moderating functions can be fulfilled collaboratively by teacher and learners, in the interests of effective information-sharing. Experience and practice is mandatory in the acquisition of moderating skills. '
To place this facilitation exercise on the scale of Salmon's model, I would say we reached the second stage: stage one being access and motivation (at least two other members of the group are exploring SL); the second being online socialisation (familiarising with the learning environment).
Although not a particularly good example of a successful facilitation exercise because of time and inexperience, it was successful in initiating the exploration of a new medium for online learning and teaching. It was personally satisfying as I met a number of people from Koru (Kiwi Educators Group) and other sites who have helped me, shown me the strong sense of community within SL, and opened up avenues for further discussion and possible collaboration both in teaching and research. I believe it is an exciting medium for learning and teaching, and although there is still a lot of work to be done to develop the pedagogical framework for effective learning and teaching in SL, I am encouraged that the results of Petersen's study that 'demonstrate that the application of virtual worlds in CALL offers new opportunities to engage learners in the kind of interaction that may facilitate the development of second language competences'.
It would have been good if I had had more time to investigate and plan for the facilitation exercise, but I learnt a lot and it has opened up an area that I will continue to explore for learning, teaching and assessment of development of language and intercultural competence.
Australian Flexible Learning Framework (2003). Effective Online Facilitation: Australian Flexible Learning Quick Guide Series (2003). Retrieved on 26 August, 2007 from http://pre2005.flexiblelearning.net.au/guides/facilitation.html
Petersen, M. (2005). Learning interaction in an avatar-based virtual environment: a preliminary study. PacCALL Journal Volume 1 No. 1 Summer 2005, Pp. 29-40. Retrieved 10 November, 2007 from http://www.paccall.org/Journal/PacCALL-Journal-2005-1-1.html
Salmon, G. (2004). The 5-stage model. Retrieved from http://www.atimon.com/e-moderating/5stage.shtml