Your Many Roles as an Online Course Facilitator

In helping many instructors make the transition to online learning over the years, I usually hear similar comments in the debrief after their first experience facilitating such a course. A common theme that emerges is that they found that they could have a deeper and more meaningful interchange of ideas, perspectives and arguments with and between students in an online course than is usually afforded in a classroom-based course. This is especially true when contrasting with high-enrolment courses held on campus.

Asynchronous discussions in an online course can take place 24 hours a day over the course of a semester, and are not crammed into a 10-minute window at the end of a lecture, or within a 45-minute weekly tutorial or seminar session. So the opportunity for deeper engagement does exist.

However, this does not happen by accident. Good online facilitators need to be a regular presence in their courses. They don’t have to be online all day and respond instantly to every question or posting, but checking in at least once a day lets the class know that they are there, they are paying attention, and they are guiding the ship so to speak.

There are many roles played by online facilitators. Here is a brief run-down:

Tone Setter

A facilitator models good online behaviour in everything she/he does. A good facilitator:

  • Establishes a safe, open, non-threatening, comfortable, respectful, constructive, and inclusive environment that encourages open participation;
  • Helps the class define norms and codes of conduct and models these;
  • Helps the class build trust among each other;
  • Injects humour into the proceedings when and where needed.

Task Master

Sometimes the facilitator needs to play the role of task master, helping ensure that the class does not veer too far off track and stays focused on the topic at hand and on the stated course objectives. This also involves reminding the class of important deadlines and helping ensure that all their important tasks are completed in a timely matter in order to maintain the pace of the course.

Catalyst and Prober

A very important role for a facilitator is to spur their students on to think more deeply about the topics, issues, challenges, etc., they are examining. A good facilitator is always asking the provocative questions that encourage critical or creative thinking among the class. Socratic questioning gets learners to go beyond the obvious and to think more deeply and to critically re-examine their own thinking from time to time.


A good facilitator can help a class find consensus on key issues. They are able to weave together areas of agreement among the class and find the common ground. This often involves summarizing or encapsulating discussions and stating these back to students. Facilitators also make linkages between various topics and themes and provide the relevant segues to the next topic or task at hand for the class.


Often times the facilitator needs to ensure that the energy and enthusiasm of the class is maintained. This is especially the case for a two-semester course that will experience natural ups and downs during its long schedule. It is important that the facilitator celebrate class progress, accomplishments and key milestones. Simple words of encouragement and support and validation go a long way during a long course.


There are times that the facilitator needs to help mediate and resolve disputes within a class. Of course, students can be empowered to do this themselves via the adoption of an agreed-upon class contract around their vision, goals, procedures, and community norms, rules, and netiquette, etc. However, there may be times that a facilitator needs to intervene to ensure that disputes do not fester and undermine the ability of the class to function properly. Often times, this may involve talking to some students offline to either get to the bottom of things or to address particularly negative online behaviours directly one-on-one.

Final Thoughts

One tip I like to pass on to instructors as they set out on their first online course is to ensure that they not “over facilitate.” If a facilitator is too quick to jump in to each and every discussion, they are in danger of possibly stifling debate and interaction among students.

And I always find it is helpful to have a grading rubric that clearly lays out expectations for discussion participation. Good rubrics clearly lay out what makes for a good original posting and a good reply to another’s posting. And the emphasis is always on quality over quantity.

I never soft-sell instructors on how much work is involved in teaching an online course. To do it well takes a large degree of effort. However, it is not necessarily more effort than if you were teaching in the classroom, just a different type of effort that is more spread out over the length of the course. The time not spent lecturing at students can be used to interact with students.

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