From October 20th – December 8th, ICNC partnered with the United States Institute of Peace to deliver an online course, Civil Resistance and Dynamics of Nonviolent Conflict. I was the primary designer of the course and, with the help of three of my colleagues, co-facilitated the eight-week course for 15 participants from all over the world and from a variety of professional backgrounds. We had participants from Italy, Spain, Ghana, Egypt, West Papua, and the United States. We had participants working for small NGOs, large international institutions, and graduate students.
This was the first fully online course that ICNC and USIP had ever facilitated and I can say with confidence that it was a success. One of the participants, who is an educator herself, in their final evaluation shared that her experience taking this course was, “adult learning at it’s best.” To highlight some of the ways the course was designed I reference a blog posting titled, 5 Ways to Enhance Your Social Presence in Online Courses. I came across this article soon after the course ended and was pleased to see that we incorporated pretty much all of these suggestions. Continue reading to learn more…
The first best practice is to include socializing activities at the beginning of the course to get participants to gel and start forming a sense of community. This was something I experience as on online learner when I took the Learning to Teach Online course through Sheffield College in the UK and was sure to incorporate it into the USIP/ICNC course. Instead of jumping right into the content of the course, the first couple forums and activities were designed to get people to introduce themselves to one another, sharing things about themselves beyond just where they work and where they are from, but also other more fun and personal bits of information like what they do for fun on the weekends. We then also asked folks to reply to others in the forum space if they read something they had in common or wanted to learn more about another participant’s extracurricular activities.
I think the other key thing about the icebreakers is that its an opportunity for people to experiment with the online learning space – in this case the forums. It gives them a low-stress opportunity to type and share something with everybody else. The participants are not immediately asked to provide analysis or reflection on new content, which can be overwhelming and a bit intimidating at the beginning of an online course when a participant may not yet be comfortable with using online learning tools and knows that other people (whom they probably have not met) are going to be reading their posts. Starting with something light, easy, and fun is an effective way to ease people into the learning community and to develop a level of comfort using some of the learning tools, such as a forum.
Being present, attentive, and responsive in forums, especially at the beginning of the course, is essential to cultivate buy in and commitment to the course itself. Moderating and facilitating online forum conversations is not as easy as some people may think. Reading participant contributions and then giving a simple, “well done,” reply is simply not enough. Participants need to know that as the facilitator you are reading and valuing their contributions. They know this by how a facilitator helps the conversation progress by posing follow up questions, offering additional resources to further inform someone’s thoughts on a topic, building connections between different sessions in the course, and making linkages between different responses left by other participants. This is very time consuming and requires a close reading of what people are sharing. I firmly believe that in online learning, if the facilitator demonstrates that she/he is doing the deeper level thinking and putting in the effort to build and create a conversation as opposed to just posting individual answers to a question without much regard to other people’s contributions, that the participants will follow. Its all about setting the tone and modeling the expectations that are set for the learners. If its not modeled at the very beginning of the course, you can see the substance and rigor of participant learning start to dwindle.
We were lucky to have 4 facilitators for this course. If I had been the only person facilitating the time commitment would have been much greater. The key is that teaching an online course requires just as much time as an in-person course, if not more time. Ergo, if the course is being facilitated by someone with many other things on his/her plate (full time job, other courses, etc.) additional facilitators may be necessary so that quality conversations can flourish. The three other facilitators for the course – two of which work at ICNC and the other at USIP, also have their full time job responsibilities, so sharing the workload allowed us to focus on select forum conversations and exercises while at the same time bringing in our different areas of expertise into the course.
Another tip from the post was to use various forms of media. A lot of online courses rely heavily on basic text, which has the benefit of not requiring a fast internet connection for downloading. However, a heavily text-based course can be dry, boring, and fail to appeal to learners whose reading and writing skills may not be at a level where they feel they can best engage with the material.
Each week included an assortment of materials text, images, and videos, all of which were sequenced in a logical manner in
So, at the beginning of each week, the facilitators and I recorded a 10-20 minute video where were reflected on some of the contributions and insights that were shared in the respective forum conversations we were moderating. We made a specific attempt to refer to people by name, explain how we thought their contributions helped advance the conversation, and thanked them for the thought they put into their post. We also used the video to draw connections between the different week’s topics. In other words, we would explain how the material from the previous session flowed into and connected with the upcoming session so that the sequence of ideas and materials were made clear to the learners. Here is an example of one of the videos I put together to welcome people into session 6 of the course.
Many of the participants in their evaluations said they really appreciated the videos each week, not only for specifically acknowledging the contributions they made, but also for how the facilitators summarized and wrapped up the each forum conversation by picking out key points that were made. I must say that it was also a good learning exercise for the facilitators because it required that we spent considerable time reflecting on all the posts that were in our respective forums, and then putting together a coherent synopsis of what that reflection was.
The video above also mentions the game, People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance, which is a turn-based, strategy, computer game that helps people explore the analytical and organizational elements of nonviolent movements. This was another form of media that participants found quite interesting. One piece of constructive feedback we received was to actually introduce the game into the course earlier on so they could be given more time to play it and apply what they were learning into the experience.
Another form of media we us throughout the course were audio podcasts. One of the sessions included several audio clips from Dr. Matthew Levinger from USIP talking about the conflict curve. One of the facilitators also incorporated podcasts into some of the forum conversations. Some of the participant forum contributions were connected to areas of research on which folks at USIP were specializing. So Dominic went and did some short audio interviews with some of his colleagues responding to and addressing some of the issues brought up in the forum and posted them. I thought this was a great way to bring in experts who may not be a consistent part of the course, but are given an opportunity to contribute and enhance the learning where its most relevant.
Another thing I learned from my friend and colleague, Dominic, was to use well-placed and powerful pictures and images to enhance the visual appeal of the learning platform. As was mentioned earlier, we used Moodle for the course’s online learning platform, which gives course designers a fair amount of stylistic flexibility. When I had first starting constructing the outline of course, setting up the different sessions on the course “home page” it was very text heavy and included little to no pictures. He encouraged me to capture the theme of each session with a picture. This made the whole course look much more exciting and gave me an interesting exercise for each session – to go out and find that picture that I felt captured the theme and would get people excited to delve into the content. Below is an screen grab from one of the session intros.
Click here to download the written version of the course syllabus.