From e-tutor to e-facilitator: 4 things to un-learn

E-tutoring and e-facilitating are terms that are frequently used interchangeably, yet it’s important to differentiate because they are based on different paradigms.

E-tutors – just like tutors – work at universities or other formal education organisations. A (e-)tutor might also help you with learning to play guitar, or a new language, etc. Tutors provide direct instruction and help students with their practice. In a more formal context they prepare for assessment as well. In this environment we talk about ‘lessons’, ‘tutorials’ or ‘courses’. The learners are called ‘students’.

On the other hand, e-facilitators – just like facilitators of face-to-face workshops – have a much more complex role. They act as guides and encourage participants (avoid the term ‘student’ because it is misplaced here) to take initiative and tap into their own experiences to solve problems. There is no formal assessment. Usually the focus is on empowerment and building the skills to empower others.

Typically the design of an e-course in a formal education/tutoring context is very different to an e-workshop. This is because the types of outcomes are very different.

The most commonly used online equivalent of the face-to-face university lecture is a ‘content + discussion forum’ model. Instructions are most often along the lines of “read these papers first and contribute to the discussion in the forum next”.

In contrast, the online equivalent of a (participatory) face-to-face workshop should be based on collaborative problem-based learning principles. Content plays a secondary role. The focus is on ‘doing’ and solving problems together with people in similar professional situations.

The fundamentally different approach to learning design impacts on the range of skills involved to effectively support these models. It is therefore essential to differentiate between e-tutoring and e-facilitating.

If you have been an e-tutor before, these are some of the things you will need to unlearn when starting a new role as an e-facilitator:

1. Be a ‘guide on the side’ instead of a ‘sage on stage’

A ‘sage on stage’ tutor has the philosophy that s/he has knowledge to ‘give’ learners who would benefit from this.  Conversely, a ‘guide on the side’ is a facilitator who helps learners discover knowledge and steer them in ways that would help them. A while back I wrote about how an e-learning designer needs to be a guide on the side.

If your e-workshop has been designed according to good practice (i.e. incorporating principles of social contructivism), then it supports the ‘guide on the side’ facilitation paradigm.

2. Adapt your online tone

E-tutors with experience in providing support in academic environments often find it hard to write more informally in eWorkshops. By ‘informal’ I don’t mean messy. We still need good structure, punctuation and grammar. However, in eWorkshops it’s important to get rid of the jargon and write clear short sentences that are friendly and warm.

Because eWorkshops are asynchronous, they rely on written communication. Make it easy – and engaging – for the participants by ‘writing for the ear’. Yes, it’s written but we want it be ‘heard’ so that we all get a real feeling of being there.

Along the same lines, listen – don’t watch. Listening requires a very different approach to online communication than watching.

3. Stop the assessment mania

Universities in particular tend to make every written ‘evidence’ assessable. Any contribution in an online course forum is evaluated against assessment criteria. It doesn’t feel safe for learners to do or say anything that goes outside the framework carefully outlined by the tutor.

As a result, the online space that emerges is not one that could potentially replicate lively debates typical of a good face-to-face session. A lost opportunity… and one of the reasons why so many people dislike online learning at universities and higher education in general.

In eWorkshops there are no grades and no marking schemes – very similar to face-to-face workshops. The focus is often on empowerment of people who can make a difference at their work places. E-facilitators use tailored communication strategies and feedback to empower participants in their workshops.

4. Adapt your response strategy

Responding to learners in an active eWorkshop is really a balancing act and not easy to get right. Problem-based learning requires a different approach to communication and support than a typical discussion forum.

Although interrupting is not an issue in asynchronous conversations, e-facilitators can still be tempted to jump into the conversations too early. The facilitator’s insights or experiences are not central, and they may even compete with the process. Holding back can create a culture that recognises the benefits to learners of sharing the responsibility for constructing knowledge and learning more (and deeper) as a result.

However, good e-facilitation is very hands-on. So interventions need to be timely to avoid that teams ‘wallow in the shallows’. E-facilitators have a very visible helping hand and have a high ‘presence’.

If you would like to learn more, you might want to consider joining the next e-facilitation workshop. It’s a 5 week online workshop and requires a commitment of 5 hours per week, whenever it suits you (no webinars). There is more information on the training page on the website. Feel free to contact me and/or forward this to anyone else who would find this training useful.

The e-facilitation workshop is not only for e-facilitators. Training managers and course designers benefit too. It’s also an excellent introduction to the eWorkshop model. So even if you’re not involved in the delivery of courses or online workshops, you will find this learning experience meaningful.

Let’s put the brakes on tests in adult learning
2015 GOLD LearnX Impact Award for Best Online Facilitator!


1 Comment. Leave new

  • Anouk, thanks for the post. About this as you called it ‘online tone’ – I believe that writing in a less formal way (but without exaggeration) is always beneficial. It just puts you in a good light meaning you’re not considered to be the one who always knows better but the one who appreciates others opinions and feedback.


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