by Jim Pettiward, on May 15, 2014

Facilitating online learning processes in a Virtual Learning Environment

Snapshot: How to use online tools and activities to enhance student learning

| Credit: CC-BY-SA: OpenSourceWay/Flickr
| Credit: CC-BY-SA: OpenSourceWay/Flickr
This article is co-authored with Charl Fregona, University Blended Learning Coordinator and Principal Lecturer in E-learning.

What is facilitation?


To facilitate online learning processes is to create and manage an environment which promotes and enhances learner interactions with materials, activities and communities.  An engaging learning environment can help students achieve the learning and assessment outcomes of a particular module or course.


Most of those who teach in Higher Education will have some experience of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) e.g. Blackboard, Moodle etc. Unfortunately, these learning environments are often simply used as repositories for learning materials - readings, web links, powerpoint lecture slides - rather than in more pedagogically sophisticated ways to promote genuine student engagement with their subject and peers. 


Facilitation in a VLE can and should be much more than just providing content to download.


Lecturers and teaching staff often have a wealth of experience teaching in face-to-face contexts such as lecture theatres, seminar rooms, laboratories or other physical spaces, and as a result feel reasonably confident of their ability to facilitate learning among their students and ensure that learning goals are met.

However, the processes involved in facilitating learning in an online environment, and in successfully integrating online and face-to-face learning processes are different, and many educators will be less experienced in these. Nevertheless, with changing student expectations and increasingly numerous and diverse student cohorts, the importance of understanding and developing new approaches which take these processes into account is hard to dispute.


The way students learn, the places in which they learn and the tools they use for learning are all subject to rapid and profound changes. Some examples of these changes can be found in an interesting piece on new learning environments -  ‘Re-visioning Learning Spaces’ by Simon Atkinson


Online learning

Before looking more closely at some of the strategies and considerations for facilitating online learning processes, you may want to view our post on Models of Distance and Blended Learning for a reminder of some key definitions and online learning models which are relevant in this context.


  Consider your own teaching practice:

  • To what extent would you say that it demonstrates a blended approach? 
  • Do you consider teaching, social and cognitive presence in any activities you ask students to do online? 
  • Do your VLE modules conform to the content repository stereotype, or do you use them in more creative ways to stimulate active learning?










The content below is designed to give you more practical advice and tips on how you can effectively facilitate online learning with your students.

Click on the arrows to access more content

Online learning processes in the VLE

An online learning process could refer to any number of activities. An obvious example is the Discussion forum, perhaps the most widely investigated and written about online learning process. Most VLEs also have Blog, Journal and Wiki tools built in, a facility for setting up and managing groups of students and perhaps a synchronous online communication platform such as Blackboard Collaborate. There are also various tools used for assessment, for example, Turnitin, which checks student work for originality and supports various types of written and audio feedback, or Test and Quiz tools which can provide students with instant feedback. For basic descriptions of these tools, try the University of Huddersfield's Teaching & Learning Innovation Park.

This video from the excellent COFA Online learning series has some excellent suggestions and tips about facilitating online learning to increase student engagement and motivation. There's also find a PDF version:

Below are some links to articles in the Weblearn section of the eMatrix related to facilitating online learning using some of the tools mentioned above. (NB: These are specifically related to facilitating online learning processes using the Blackboard virtual learning environment, although some of the ideas are relevant to any VLE).

Going beyond learning content

Blogs, Journals & Discussions - which to choose?

Moderating Online Discussions

Some online and blended learning case studies

The case studies below may give you an idea of the potential of technology enhanced learning and the myriad ways in which it can be used to increase student engagement.

Effective Practice in a Digital Age (JISC)

(See pages 20 - 40 for Case Studies)

Best Practice Principles of effective online learning

(curated by Helen Walmsley, University of Staffordshire)

More Case Studies from JISC RSCs:

The University of New South Wales COFA Online Gateway has some video case studies 

(click link and scroll down page to find them)

Key to effective facilitation: Quick tips and ideas

  1. Don't choose a particular technology because it's 'sexy' - think about the pedagogy first and how that technology will enable a particular approach.

  2. As you consider online learning processes that could be used to facilitate learning, take the opportunity to reconsider your modules, keeping in mind Biggs' principles of constructive alignment.

  3. Don't try to introduce too many technologies at once. Start small and explain to your students what you are doing and why.

  4. Maintain teacher presence by, for example, commenting (little and often) on discussion boards, student blogs or journals.

  5. Provide scaffolding for learning activities.

  6. Demonstrate your expectations of student online participation during face-to-face sessions.

  7. Keep in mind student diversity - can you use multimedia resources to provide a more 'multimodal' experience for your students? Can an online environment encourage quieter students to contribute more? 


You'll find more tips and ideas for facilitating online learning processes below:  (scroll down for tips on Facilitating Online learning)

Recent approaches to effective blended learning

Edinburgh Napier University have taken an interesting approach with their 3Es Model. It looks at how effective use of technologies for learning can Enhance, Extend and Empower. (see video)


The University of Staffordshire has developed a wiki which has some useful models and ideas for facilitating online learning. For example, have a look at their suggested uses of blogs on their Best Practice Model for blogging page.


These two models are interesting in that they approach the implementation of effective blended learning and facilitation as a developmental process for both tutor and student, starting small and gradually building up the use of online learning processes to empower the student.


The JISC Design Studio also contains useful resources, for example, this page on Transforming Assessment and Feedback.


Online learning processes in the VLE
Some online and blended learning case studies
Key to effective facilitation: Quick tips and ideas
Recent approaches to effective blended learning