This course will introduce you to the skills required of affiliated guides on open online courses and, in particular, how to support learners online.
What is an affiliated guide?
An affiliated guide is a person who will work with the course’s Lead Educator (academic author) during presentation of the course to support both the facilitators and the learners. Affiliated guides will join in the chat and engage with learners’ conversations that have been encouraged by the facilitators, therefore helping the learners to contribute and communicate in a positive and controlled way. Depending on their knowledge and experience, affiliated guides will also be allocated discussions by the Lead Educator in order to create and support exciting conversations and comments where both affiliated guides and learners can explore and extend ideas.
Although open online courses can attract a large number of learners, many don’t engage with other learners in discussion areas and forums. Affiliated guides are tasked with engaging with the learners in a friendly, informal way to pose open questions, threading together discussions and supporting the facilitators in moving the discussion forward to develop and deepen the learners’ learning and social learning skills.
Benefits of being an affiliated guide
You should become an affiliated guide if you are keen to motivate and encourage other learners, and can use your own organisational and communication skills to support their learning – particularly within an online environment. The focus of this role is on support and conversation rather than teaching or subject knowledge.
From being an affiliated guide you will:
For this course you are asked to do four things:
After studying this course, you should be able to:
understand the role of the affiliated guide within the context of online conversations
demonstrate knowledge of the organisational, technical and communication skills required of a successful affiliated guide
communicate effectively online with learners, paying attention to their diverse needs and backgrounds
suggest further areas of study for learners, promoting relevant Open University content
reflect on and apply different approaches to your role as an affiliated guide depending on the context.
(Approximate timing: 45 minutes)
As well as doing practical activities, you are encouraged and advised to keep a reflective learning log on this course. This is not a compulsory activity but is extremely helpful, because an important aspect of your role as an affiliated guide is to be able to reflect on and learn from what you are doing.
As you work through the course, it will be useful to look back on your notes.
Reflection is defined as an activity that involves learning from your experiences by critically reviewing your actions, considering the impact of those actions and planning what you would do in similar situations in the future. Reflection can sometimes seem quite a difficult (and perhaps not very relevant) activity for someone who deals with lots of quickly changing situations and challenges, such as those you might come across in an online conversation. However, reflection provides an excellent way for you as an affiliated guide to better understand what is happening and how you might be able to do things differently in future.An extremely simple way of reflecting on your role is to use a three-question approach:
Thinking back over your experience in online conversations, is there a time when something went wrong? This could be something such as no one responding to a particular message or a learner misunderstanding a message posted by another learner.
Use the questions and prompts below to review what happened or what you did and consider the impact. You may wish to note down your thoughts in your learning log.
Then, thinking about your role as an affiliated guide, plan what you would do in the future. Note this in your log too.
If you would like to know more about reflection, the Infed website has some useful sections.
(Approximate timing: 1 hour)
In this section you will consider the skills and competencies needed by an affiliated guide, how the role works, and how to set expectations for the learners.
The roles and responsibilities of an affiliated guide will vary from relatively simple tasks, such as involving yourself in the online conversation, right through to giving learners encouragement and supporting the course facilitators. The nature of these roles will also vary as the course develops or as new people join. They can be summarised as involving five key stages, drawn from research into e-moderating (Salmon, 2000).
|Skills||Affiliated guide role|
|Motivating||Making learners feel welcome by being a friendly presence|
|Socialising||Joining in conversations, encouraging learners to interact and helping to establish a community feeling|
|Exchanging information||Exploring and extending ideas in discussions, bringing in relevant information|
|Constructing knowledge||Encouraging and supporting the learners’ exploration of discussion topics|
|Developing learning||Supporting learners in their critical thinking and their learning reflection|
|Encouraging further study||Suggesting additional study available on OpenLearn or Open University courses|
It might be helpful to think of these in terms of:
|Technical skills||Communication and social skills||Supporting skills|
|Posting comments and receiving replies||Encouraging participation||
Constructively adding to discussions
Encouraging further study
The list of skills you have come up with will be things that you do, such as posting comments, while others will be about how you interact with people. These ‘doing’ skills are often referred to as hard skills, whereas the skills associated with getting on with people are called soft skills. Although it can sometimes be difficult to decide which skills are hard and soft, remember that hard skills tend to produce something concrete, such as a message or a summary of a discussion.
It is also likely that these skills may change over time, with technical and communication skills required at the start of the conversation or when new people join, and the supporting skills required more as learners become involved.
If you need some more information on what type of skills count as ‘soft skills’, an online careers advice service, MindTools, has some useful guidance on this.
Hard skills that you are good at might include managing the technical side of the forum, such as posting messages and being able to write effectively. Soft skills that you are good at might include being a friendly online presence and being positive about learners’ contributions. In terms of skills you need to improve, it could be that you are less good at knowing when to flag up a possible issue to a facilitator.
Registered learners on open online courses are defined as ‘learners’ and not ‘students’. They will have a huge variety of reasons for studying. Some will be trying out learning to see if they want to embark on further study, while others will use the course to continue or supplement their study; some will have an academic background, whereas others will have no experience of higher education. They will be based all over the UK – and, possibly, all over the world – and English may not be their first language. These starting points are helpful to bear in mind as you engage with learners.
As well as being spaces for learning, forums and discussions are also social spaces. The learners enrolled on this course will be from a diverse background both culturally and educationally. This diverse mix adds to the wealth of experience and discussion that will take place during the conversation and in the presentation of their work.
You need to be aware that assumptions and misinterpretations can be a particular issue in an online environment devoid of visual and non-verbal clues, such as approving smiles and nods. Such misinterpretations can be made as much about the people posting messages as they can about the messages they post. As such, it is important not to jump to conclusions about what people mean or understand, or about the type of person they are.
This does not mean that you will not make judgements about people or what they write. As part of your role as an affiliated guide to support the course facilitators, you will need to assess whether the messages being posted are appropriate to the nature and population of the audience, and when an issue needs to be flagged up.
In order to do this you need to understand how such assumptions and misinterpretations might be avoided. Work in the field of anthropology (Hogan-Garcia, 2003) suggests that there are a number of competencies or skills that are helpful in overcoming perceived assumptions based on racial, cultural, educational or social background.
These cultural competencies are:
Look again at the list of skills you identified in Activity 2 for the role of the affiliated guide. How much of an overlap is there between your list and this list of cultural competencies above?
You may wish to update your reflections from Activity 2 in your learning log.
A number of the competencies identified by Hogan-Garcia are described in somewhat academic terms, so you may have had to consider what they mean in terms of your own experience of online conversations. However, there is still likely to be a high degree of overlap between the lists.
All these skills or competencies fall under social and communication skills, and emphasise the importance of appropriate social interaction online.
When preparing for the role of an affiliated guide, you need to consider what that might mean in terms of your time commitment and also your relationship with other learners.
Most of the online conversations that you will be guiding will be in an asynchronous environment. This means that learners will hardly ever be communicating with each other at the same time. Asynchronous conversations can sometimes have less energy than either synchronous or face-to-face settings, but they do allow a high degree of flexibility as learners dip in and out of discussions.
A drawback for the affiliated guide, however, is that your role can seem never-ending, as you may feel you are having repeated conversations. Therefore it is important that you are realistic about the amount of time you spend online and also that you manage the expectations of learners. For example, you should let the learners know roughly how often and at what times they can expect a response from you. There may also be opportunities in larger conversations to work together with another guide to manage the workload.
Your relationship with learners is mainly about your presence as a supportive and encouraging ‘friend’. You are not a tutor or facilitator, so can be seen as a ‘less formal’ member of the course team. Therefore, it is important that you set yourself realistic boundaries about your role and to make sure that the learners are aware of this at the start.
In addition, there may be other people involved in the course. There may be an instructor present from time to time; this will most likely be an academic who was involved in the creation of the course, or a presenter of the video lectures. The instructor may be present for a feature session as part of the learners’ activities. There will also be the course facilitators (part of your role is to support them) and you may also work with other affiliated guides and/or guides.
Using the skills and competencies required of an affiliated guide as a starting point, draw up a table of five tasks that the role involves and five tasks that it does not involve.
Table 3 shows some examples to get you started.
|What the affiliated guide role does involve||What the affiliated guide role does not involve|
|Supporting the course facilitators||Teaching|
|Maintaining a friendly and supportive online presence||Policing any disputes that arise|
(Approximate timing: 2.5 hours)
One of your main roles as an affiliated guide will be to encourage online conversation. This section deals with the technical, social and communication skills required.
The first task of an affiliated guide is to help and encourage learners to contribute to the conversations that have been encouraged by the facilitators.
You will therefore need to introduce yourself and respond to learners’ introductory postings, helping to emphasise your role as a friendly ‘face’ and foster a sense of community.
You could join in the threads and extend conversations with the learners by:
Your messages encourage people to continue conversations and join in. They should be:
Profiles offer the opportunity to find out a little about each person and get a sense of who they are. In your profile you will need a brief note about yourself, your specialisms, the area you live in, your hobbies, etc.
It is not a CV, so it is best to keep it short and sweet. Providing a photo isn’t obligatory, but it can help people feel that they are communicating with a real person and so create a friendly atmosphere online. You should not, however, provide any personal information such as your address or telephone number.
Throughout your conversations with learners your tone should be friendly and welcoming. If any conversations start to show a lack of respect of other learners’ opinions, or bad language, you may wish to comment about standards or the code of conduct for the platform you are working on. You may need to flag up these sorts of situations for a facilitator. There will be more on this subject later in the course.
In every online course, active participation is optional. Numbers of participants may vary with the appeal and relevance of the discussion. Many learners will simply read comments left by others – which is perfectly acceptable, as those learners are still progressing on their learning journeys.
Your role as an affiliated guide is defined by the size of the group and the expectations of their participation.
In many courses there may be hundreds or even thousands of comments posted at each stage, which can mean that knowing where to start can feel a bit daunting. Use the filters within the comments and discussion sections to help.
You can filter the comments by:
Sometimes learners are not clear as to how to use and navigate these discussions, making some comments appear disjointed. Part of your role as an affiliated guide is to encourage learners to read and engage with these online discussions, so it is important to steer them in the right direction.
You can do this by doing the following:
It is important that learners start with the most recent comments first
Remind learners that they do not need (and should not be encouraged) to read all contributions.
If learners mention any confusion or frustration with the comments or discussion stream, it may be helpful and reassuring to restate some of the points listed above.
It’s good practice to get into the habit of responding promptly to the learners’ messages in the initial stages of their online experience. This helps to build their confidence and reassures them that someone is really out there.
Keeping discussions moving along and encouraging learners to continue contributing is a key skill of the affiliated guide’s role. Therefore, it is important to keep an eye on replies and comments. For instance, if you notice that a learner has initially contributed but not any longer, you may wish to try to encourage them back into interaction.
To help with this you may be able to follow your learners or sign up to receive emails to see what they have commented on.
It can be difficult to follow a debate in an online conversation because it may take place over days or weeks, with many dead ends along the way. You can help to maintain interest in the conversation by occasionally summarising major points to refocus learners’ attention, or add another comment or opinion to the discussion.
Sometimes it might be necessary to flag a post in a discussion for either editing or removal by a facilitator. It’s a good idea to make a plan of what you will do in this situation. You may consider flagging a post if the learner is:
In each of these cases, once you have flagged the post for a facilitator, they will decide on the action depending on the details of the post.
If you are unsure as to whether a post should be flagged or not, it is always better to bring it to a facilitator’s attention rather than not.
You might notice different patterns of behaviour from people online. These behaviours will have a huge influence on both how you interact and also how the learners interact with each other.
|Visits once a week, lots of activity, then disappears again until next week, or even the week after!||Facilitators will nudge learners by email to encourage them to repeat their visits. Comment positively on the learner’s subsequent posts to further motivation.|
|Steady – visits most days for a short time.||The facilitators will be encouraging these learners to support others – especially those that post very little. Try and post positive comments when the learners achieve this.|
|Always catching up: completes two weeks in one session, then disappears again for some time.||The facilitators will suggest helpful ideas and summarise topics to help these learners. Join in any posts and comments to positively encourage the learners’ contributions.|
|Visits once a week, reading and contributing little.||The facilitator will check that the learner can access the content correctly. Help to boost the learner’s confidence with positive, encouraging and friendly comments.|
|Inclined to post disembodied comments in a random way.||The facilitators will be helping to steer this learner in a more structured direction. Help by supporting the learner with relevant responses.|
|Lives online; a prolific message writer who responds very rapidly.||The facilitator will try to give these learners structured and specific roles. Support by including references to relevant comments from other learners to help integration.|
|Tendency to dominate discussion at certain times.||The facilitator will offer structured roles for this learner. Again, try to support and encourage the learner to reflect on other learners’ comments.|
|Steals ideas without acknowledging.||The facilitator will reinforce the importance of individual ideas. Support by actively including these learners when posting comments that acknowledge others.|
|Intelligent, a good communicator and playful online.||The facilitator will ensure that these learners acknowledge and work well with others. Support by trying to keep the learner on a relevant topic.|
It is important to bear in mind that these participation types are a way of understanding a vast array of different online behaviours, and so are inevitably very simplified. As such, you may have come across other ‘types’ than those mentioned above, or have found that the same people exhibit different behaviours at different times.
Socialising is a key stage of being an affiliated guide. It involves helping learners to get to know each other, develop mutual respect and establish a community, by being a constant friendly presence. You will know from Activity 6 that patterns of participation and behaviour vary enormously.
The majority of the communication you will experience as an affiliated guide will be asynchronous in nature. This has the advantage of enabling learners to post messages at any time of the day or night. However, online conversations can lack the energy of face-to-face groups, and learners may dislike the lack of spontaneity or the lack of responsiveness to messages they have posted. They may also struggle to understand the silences and feel a sense of isolation.
Despite these problems, there are ways of communicating effectively in an online environment. The following rules, adapted from Sener Knowledge LLC, are a helpful starting point.
It is important to remember that writing is the main form of communication online and so it is important to write clearly and succinctly. Some ways of achieving this are as follows:
Netiquette simply refers to online etiquette or the practice of courtesy and respect in an online environment. Here is some guidance:
‘Social presence’ refers to the way that individuals represent themselves in their online environment and how learners relate to each other. Social presence is therefore hugely important in helping people communicate effectively. There are three ways in which a person’s social presence can be demonstrated online:
|Affective||Use descriptive words that indicate feeling||I really like what you've done.|
|Express personal values, beliefs and attitudes||
I personally think that ...
In my opinion ...
|Use non-verbal features of language to convey emotion, such as punctuation or emoticons||
|Interactive||Acknowledge others’ messages by referring to them directly||
I like the way you used that example ...
I thought that Maria’s comment was spot on.
|Agree or disagree with others’ messages||
I disagree ...
I don’t share that opinion.
|Offer praise, encouragement or reinforcement to others||
This is a really good discussion.
|Invite responses by asking questions||
Does anyone else have an opinion on this?
How does this relate to your individual situations?
|Cohesive||Address or refer to others by name||That’s interesting, Robert.|
|Use greetings and closure at the beginning and end of messages||
|Refer to the group as ‘we’, ‘ours’||We can’t all agree on this.|
|Reflect on the forum itself||We’ve had a really interesting discussion today.|
No social environment can exist without the occasional moment of conflict. The nature of online conversations, where the content of the message is all-important, means that misunderstandings can sometimes occur and – in the absence of the normal social cues that we rely on – can quickly escalate.
If, at any time, you feel that the discussion is becoming aggressive or inappropriate, or contains a tone that may upset some learners, then you must flag these messages up for a facilitator to action.
Conflict in an online environment can affect an individual and also damage the learning experience for all the learners directly involved, including those learners witnessing the event.
Some behaviour can cause offence where there is no malicious intent. The impact of behaviour on a person affected by it is more relevant that the motive behind it. In these cases it is helpful to ask if a reasonable person could think that the behaviour amounts to conflict, bullying or harassment. In most cases people know, or should know, that remarks or actions are causing offence, and that causing such offence is unacceptable.
Examples of unacceptable behaviour are:
Learners will be required to comply with a code of conduct for the platform that they are learning on. The role of the affiliated guide includes being alert to any comments that you feel are unsuitable or inappropriate, and flagging these up for the facilitators to action.
If you are unsure as to whether certain comments are unsuitable or not – some can tread a very fine line – it is always best to flag them up anyway, and let the facilitators make the decision to action or escalate appropriately.
If you look back to the different stages of guiding and the skills required, you will see that they focus on being a friendly presence and supporting learners to focus on tasks, explore and discuss issues, and reflect on their learning. As an affiliated guide your role is not to teach learners or offer formal advice on their studies, but you can encourage them to share ideas and respond to and reflect on existing posts.
Contributing to a conversation that has an academic purpose can be quite daunting for learners. They could be attempting to write in a way that sounds academic while not being offensive, and be painfully aware that whatever they write has an alarming permanency and is directed towards a largely unknown audience. Your role as an affiliated guide is to encourage learners to participate in the conversation and see it as a safe environment to learn in.
There are a number of elements that have been identified as being of importance in supporting effective learning groups (Cole et al, 1990).
Drawing on the elements identified by Cole et al. (1990) above, think of an encouraging way to respond to each of these scenarios. You may wish to record this response in your learning log.
A lot of learners may not be aware of the range of academic qualifications and courses that The Open University offers, let alone the vast amount of free study resources available on platforms such as OpenLearn.
As an affiliated guide, it is extremely important that you help facilitators encourage learners – not only with the study of their chosen course, but also to promote other areas of study within The Open University that they might find interesting or beneficial.
As discussed previously, learners on MOOCs will have a wide range of study experiences. Some will be supplementing their study, or have an academic background. Others will have no experience of higher education, or may not have embarked on any study for an extremely long time.
It is vital to try and gauge the level or type of study that learners would be comfortable with. You may have been able to deduce from conversations and introductions outlined in Section 3.1 what their experience is, which will help enable you to make suggestions.
Even a brief conversation with a learner about their learning experience should enable you to gauge a basic view, and monitoring their patterns of participation (Section 3.4) may underline confidence issues or lack of understanding of the internet.
For instance, a learner who mentions that they have a BSc in chemistry may not find the OpenLearn course Essay and report writing skills particularly useful, but might be interested in seeing the range of academic modules and qualifications available in The Open University’s Science section.
Conversely, a learner who reveals that they are nervous as they haven’t studied since they were 16 may run a mile if you direct them towards academic modules. However, they could benefit from a suggestion of trying the OpenLearn course Learning to learn.
The important thing is to be able to make an informed choice when directing learners to further study and promoting OU resources:
Have a look at the following example:
Robert hasn’t studied for 20 years since he left school, and feels he hasn’t had any experience with note-taking. He is worried that he won’t know which parts he should be concentrating on.
Now, take a look at the following three scenarios, and from looking through OpenLearn, The Open University courses and perhaps ‘Welcome to OpenLearn: Free learning from The Open University’, think of a suggestion(s) for further learning for each of the people in these scenarios.
You may wish to record this response in your learning log.
(Approximate timing: 45 minutes)
This next stage of the course is to plan how you will put all the things you have learned into practice. To do this you will be using SMART objectives to develop an action plan (see Table 6), which will help you through the planning process and make it more manageable.
|Specific||Your objectives should be precise and well-defined.|
|Measurable||Your objectives should be written in a way that makes it clear when you have achieved that objective and also allows you to monitor progress towards it.|
|Achievable||The objectives you set should be things that you are capable of doing.|
|Relevant||Your objectives should be relevant to what you want to achieve.|
|Time-limited||There should be a deadline for the objective to be met.|
Look back at the activities you have done during this course and the notes in your learning log, if you have kept one.
Identify five key SMART objectives that will help you when you become an affiliated guide. See Table 7 for an example.
|Sample objective||Post three encouraging responses to learners who haven’t received a response from their peers after one week.|
The role of the affiliated guide is pivotal in the learning experience offered in open online courses, and in supporting the course facilitators. The wide array of people with different backgrounds and expectations who participate in the course means that an affiliated guide needs to be organised and friendly, and has to encourage everyone to take part.
Throughout this course you will have reflected on what it means to guide online conversations in this context, learned best practice methods in dealing with difficult situations and applied this learning in your action plan. You have also built your knowledge of the organisational, technical and communication skills required to be a successful affiliated guide.
If you have been recruited to be an affiliated guide on the FutureLearn platform, read the ‘How it works’ page for more background on it.
Next, you will need to take the end-of-course assessment to gain recognition of your successful completion of this course.
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