Facilitating Collaboration in Open and Flexible Learning

Dr Abdel Halim Sykes, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University

Open and flexible learning is a burgeoning force in education around the world, which is having profound effects on the role and responsibilities of teachers and learners. Teachers are increasingly required to be adaptive in their role and are coming to terms with new demands and responsibilities, the most significant of which is the transition from teacher to facilitator. Learners also are being faced with shifts in what they are expected to do and how they are required to perform learning activities, particularly in the areas of collaboration and problem-based learning. Each of these trends is intertwined and, therefore, affect teacher-learner and learner-learner relationships. This brief article will address some of these issues.


From Teacher to Facilitator

In the realm of open and flexible learning, teachers should not be seen as a tutors, instructors or fonts of knowledge on the periphery of learning activities. Instead, they must participate in the learning process by facilitating interaction among learners. This is particularly the case when teaching occurs online. Indeed, Fitzpatrick and Davies (2003) suggest teachers ‘abandon traditional roles and act more as guides and mentors, exploring the new media themselves as learners and thus acting as role models for their learners’ (p.4). This role as teacher-learner and facilitator may be novel and unfamiliar to teachers who have little experience beyond the traditional classroom; and it is a role which many find daunting.

Teacher-facilitators need to be able to ‘identify the significant differences and similarities between face-to-face and online learning and teaching contexts’ and be skilled in identifying  ‘strategies and techniques to facilitate online learning and help students exploit the advantages in relation to both independent and collaborative learning’ (Bennett and Marsh, 2002, p.16). These abilities are just two of a gamut of roles and responsibilities effective facilitators must assume if they are to be successful in inseminating and encouraging meaningful learning experiences. This is particularly true when it comes to facilitating online learning.

According to Goodyear et al. (2001), the roles of the online teacher are:

  • content facilitator
  • process facilitator
  • adviser-counsellor
  • assessor
  • researcher
  • technologist
  • manager-administrator

Integral to the roles listed above is the need to engage learners on a range of levels. Perhaps the most challenging role for facilitators is to build, maintain and sustain learner motivation throughout a course of study. One way to do this is for facilitators to ‘teach creatively and develop a personal (and personable) teaching style in an online medium that has fewer/different modes of communication compared to the more familiar face-to-face setting’ (Lamy and Hampel, 2007, p. 63). Both the quality and frequency of engagement with learners can affect their levels of motivation and sense of security on their learning journey.

Early research in the field by McLoughlin and Oliver (1999) indicates the importance of forging and encouraging bonding between learners in online groups to ‘ensure that learning is meaningful, socially based and supportive of cognitive outcomes’ (p.40). However, this study reveals that although facilitators who took a social approach successfully fostered learner-learner interaction, and those who took a cognitive approach helped improve their learners knowledge, none of the facilitators in the study were able to integrate both approaches (Lamy and Hampel, 2007, p.63). Therefore, it is essential that facilitators who have a tendency towards a social approach be more aware of and adopt cognitive strategies, and vice versa, in order to achieve a balance that is likely to result in cohesive learning groups that meet the demands of their respective courses, and thereby achieve success.


Collaborative Learning

One of the key goals of facilitators in open and flexible learning is the promotion of learner autonomy whether in the form of independent or collaborative learning. In most cases, facilitators are the initial points of contact in the formation of groups involved in collaborative learning. However, they must not assume the role of centrality in learner groups: for if collaborative learning is to be meaningful, learners must achieve group goals by working together without the direct involvement of the facilitator. In this way, learners can develop a sense of trust and respect for each other and value the role each plays in the collaborative effort.  Facilitators must resist the urge to intervene or ensconce themselves in the collaborative endeavour to avoid assuming, wittingly or unwittingly, a leading role: resulting in the stifling of learner autonomy.

Panitz (2001) suggests there are three core sets of benefits of collaborative learning: academic, social and psychological.

The academic benefits include:

  • promotion of critical thinking skills;
  • active involvement of students in the learning process;
  • modelling of appropriate problem-solving techniques;
  • motivation of students in specific curriculum; and
  • improvement in results.

The social benefits include:

  • development of a social support system for students;
  • promotion of understanding and accepting diversity among students and teachers;
  • establishment of a positive atmosphere for modelling and practising collaboration; and
  • development of learning communities.

The psychological benefits are:

  • increase in students’ self-esteem;
  • reduction in student anxiety; and
  • development of positive attitudes towards teachers.

Learners need to take ownership of a task, and collaborative activities can help less confident learners take the first steps in developing autonomy. Mangenot and Nissen (2006) state autonomy in collaborative learning is ‘the capacity of a group to manage itself on three levels: a socio-affective level (getting along with others), a sociocognitive level (resolving problems together), and an organizational level (planning, monitoring, and evaluating work)’ (p.604). It is facilitators’ duty to promote and encourage learner autonomy on all three levels without becoming unduly involved themselves. However, based on their research, Mangenot and Nissen (2006) warn that collaborative course design does not necessarily result in successful collaboration. Facilitators need time to monitor groups and support learners in developing the sociocognitive skills required for meaningful collaboration to occur. Moreover, learners need to understand the purpose and role of collaborative activities, especially if they are assessed on individual performance rather than on the outcome of collaboration.


Problem-based Learning

An effective way for facilitators to engender and encourage collaboration is by adopting problem-based learning (PBL), which is a method that ‘encourages active construction of knowledge through personal inquiry, the use of problems to form disequilibrium and subsequent accommodating inquiry, as well as social negotiation and work with peers’ (Oliver, 2000, p.6). Through PBL, facilitators can present learners with scenarios and real-world problems to stretch their knowledge and test their application of skills. Online multimodal environments, such as virtual worlds, offer a tremendous resource for facilitators and learners alike for engaging in complex PBL tasks (Lamy and Hampel, 2007, p. 72). Presenting learners with meaningful problem-solving tasks and affording them the autonomy to search and inquire rather than providing formal instruction makes learning interactive and dynamic (Ruschoff and Ritter, 2001). PBL requires learners to reflect, research, analyse and devise solutions: all of which can be monitored by a facilitator from an appropriate distance, who can identify which skills need to be taught and promoted for the learners to complete the task autonomously.



This brief article has touched on the transition of the educator from teacher to facilitator, and briefly noted the implications the latter role has in learner collaboration and problem-based learning. It raised issues that are of concern to both teachers and learners in the context of open and flexible learning.



Bennett, S. and Marsh, D. (2002) On Being an Online Tutor, Innovations in Education and Teaching International 39(1), 14-20

Fitzpatrick, A. and Davies, G. (eds) (2003) The Impact of Information and Communications technologies on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and on the Role of Teachers of Foreign Languages: A Report Commissioned by the Directorate General of Education and Culture (online publication): http://ec.europe.eu/education/policies/lang/doc/ict.pdf

Goodyear, P., Salmon, G., Spector, M., Steeples, C. and Tickner, S. (2001) Competencies of Online Teaching: A Special Report, Educational Technology Research and Development 49(1), 65-72

Lamy, M-N, and Hampel, R. (2007) Online Communication in Language Learning and Teaching, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Mangenot, F. and Nissen, E. (2006) Collective Activity and Tutor Involvement in E-learning Environments for Language Teachers and Learners, The Calico Journal, 23(3), 601-21

McLoughlin, C. and Oliver, R. (1999) ‘Pedagogic Roles and Dynamics in Telematics Environments’, in M. Selinger and J. Pearson (eds), Telematics in Education: Trends and Issues, Amsterdam: Pergamon, pp.32-50

Oliver, K.M. (2000) Methods for Developing Constructivist Learning on the Web, Educational Technology XL(6), 5-18

Panitz, T. (2001) The Case for Student-Centered Instruction via Collaborative Learning Paradigms (online resource): http://home.cpaecod.net/~tpanitz/tedsarticles/coopbenefits.htm

Ruschoff, B. and Ritter, M. (2001) Technology-enhanced Language Learning: Construction of Knowledge and Template-based Learning in the Foreign Language Classroom, Computer Assisted Language Learning 14(3/4), 219-32


About tlcunisim

This is the TLC UniSIM blog: the virtual community space for associates and faculty members to share ideas on teaching and learning. This blog is edited by Dr. Abdel Halim Sykes, Lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University, Singapore.
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