Thursday, March 6, 2008

Facilitating online learning communities.

Facilitating online learning communities

Facilitating a meeting of midwives and midwifery educator in second life
Meeting the requirements of assignment 4

Considering what to do
As I pondered what activity I might engage in to facilitate an online learning community my thoughts went towards hosting a meeting of midwives in second life. I was introduced to second life as a part of this course and had developed a love/hate
relationship with it as can be seen from previous postings
. None the less I have felt from the very beginning that there is potential here for midwifery collaboration, midwifery meetings and continuing professional development activities as well as scenario or problem based learning.

I am involved principally in teaching the first year midwifery student undergraduate program at Otago Polytechnic. Our course is already delivered in seminar blocks however it is moving into a more distance based learning program next year and I will be involved in preparing this for the students. So I am interested in anything that could help to get students together to facilitate a sense of a learning community. Communities of practice have been identified as important aspects of learning in practice (Boud & Middleton, 2003: Fahey & Monaghan, 2005; Rogers, 1983; Tolson, McAloon, Hotchkiss & Schofield, 2005; Wenger, 2006). Educational researchers have also identified the importance of facilitation and community to an enhanced learning experience in schools (Roberts & Pruit, 2003) and in tertiary study (Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, Chinn, 2007). Others debate the benefits of teaching or facilitating learning which has been a feature of this course with some vigorous debates on the topic. Case, Harper, Tilley and Wiens (1994) argue that facilitating and teaching are not mutually exclusive but occur together. They suggest that teaching is facilitative when the intention of the teaching is to empower and support students. A feature of facilitation is shared control between lecturers and students over what and how they learn (Case et al., 1994). Hmelo-Silver (2006) discuss student learning as a constructive, collaborative process where students are given goals which scaffold to challenge the students at varying levels. Once students have investigated an area a small teaching sessions may be delivered by ‘experts’ who engage the students in conversation or deliver small lectures, providing rationale for the processes the students have been engaged in. Leigh has challenged us to facilitate learning as opposed to teaching. My understanding of his argument is that the two cannot co-exist at the same time. While a facilitator may also be a teacher they cannot teach and facilitate but they may facilitate a session where someone else teaches as occurred throughout this course with the small 10 minute lectures we experienced through Elluminate. I also have a interest as a rural midwife in midwifery professional development. I investigated this issue from the perspective of how midwives inform practice for my recently completed Master in Midwifery thesis (McIntosh, 2007). My findings suggested that rural midwives in New Zealand value coming together and sharing information, so this is another reason to look at the potential for second life .

We live in a rapidly changing world. Communication technology continues to advance in leaps and bounds (Leiner, Cerf, Clark, Kahn, Kleinrock& Lynch, 2003); it is hard to keep up, while at the same time, we are hearing about dwindling natural resources and increasing costs of travel around the world. In recent years we have become accustomed to conferences, with expert speakers in our field attending, and simulating interest and learning. Would it be possible to have a similar experience in Second-Life? Could we hold a conference with various workshops and plenary sessions in this environment? I had no way of knowing and decided to see if I could arrange a group of interested midwives who might be interested in exploring this further.

Planning the event
I was very new to second life and barely had the ability to move in a straight line so I approached this exercise with a high level of caution. I was very lucky to have the support of Clare Atkins one of the administrators of Koru Island and the kiwi educators meeting place. She offered to give me assistance with anything I needed, including a place for the meeting, a slide show projector and assistance with managing the whole process. This was a major benefit, and helped to make sure things went smoothly. I also had the support of my friend and colleague Sarah Stewart, who has equal skill to my own in Second-life but offered whatever support she could. Just meeting up with her a few time in second life and brain storming how the session might go and who I might invite was a huge help.

I advertised the meeting on my blog. I do have a good amount of traffic on my blog but I do not know how much of that is midwives, so I obviously needed to advertise elsewhere as well. I put a notice out on a midwifery research email list that I had recently joined. This stimulated a good amount of interest and led to a connection with a midwife from the UK (Sufia shepherd in SL) who had good Second-Life skills and was able to help Sarah and I set up a midwives group in second life. Several midwifery educators and researchers, mostly from the UK and Canada expressed interest in attending however there were also one or two from Australia, a couple from Michigan and one other midwife from New Zealand who also expressed interest. I had no idea how many might eventually make it into second life and attend the meeting. My initial attempt at setting a date was not acceptable to some as it coincided with the mid-term holiday in the UK. The date I finally settled on coincided with Mothers day in the UK but I do not think this affected attendance at all.

I made a posting on my blog very early in the planning of this event providing instructions about what to do and how to get online in Second-life. I found some useful YourTube videos which were very helpful. I followed this up with several more postings find tuning instructions regarding timing etc. I found a program on the internet which provided world times which was also very useful. I also emailed several times on the research forum email list, but I was very cautious about this as I did not want to misuse this valuable resource by making unnecessary postings. No one complained however and it has been a great way to promote the event and keep in touch with people.

I had to consider what my goals were for this event and how I was going to do it. I knew that most of the people attending would be fairly new to second life and so I did not want to be moving them around too much. At the same time I wanted them to get a feel for the potential and have the ability to interact with one another. I met up with Clare the week before the meeting and we decided that we would try using voice communication rather that typing everything. This might make the meeting flow better but would mean that not everything would be transcribe as would occur if the communication was purely text based. I wanted the meeting to be as unstructured as possible as this is the basis of facilitation, as described above. However I felt that I needed some structure given that everyone was new to the environment and I had some concern that communication might not flow. As a midwife I should have known better. Midwives do not usually have a problem communicating with one another.

Clare (Arwenna) suggested I prepare a slide for when the group arrived to help them get started with voice communication. This was a great idea and I do think it helped most participants although some my not have realised it was there. I also decided to make a few slides outlining the aims of the meeting. I believe that this still could fall within the realms of facilitation however Leigh has suggested that at this point it became more of a teaching session. Perhaps I did do a bit too much here. My initial power point was quite brief but then I thought I should perhaps add something about where my interest in this had come from, mentioning my Masters Thesis and perhaps outlining my academic credentials for this. Perhaps this was little self serving, not really necessary and getting into teaching mode.

I told everyone that I would keep an eye on when they came online and would teleport them to the venue for the meeting. I asked them to be patient if I did not get to them as soon they came online. I also prepared a list of everyone who had given me their details, Bronwyn and Debbie Corder had agreed to come along and offered to keep an eye on this for me. I am not sure but I think they may have teleported one or two in. Merrolee Penman had also said she would like to come and I co-opted her to keep notes of what was happening.

Sarah and I hoped to be physically in the same place for the meeting to offer moral support to one another. This proved impossible as the broadband at her house could not handle two computers in second-life together. We also tried the computers at Polytech but they were much too slow. This is an indication of the power and technology required to run this program.

The evening before the meeting while I was online I met up with a couple of the midwives who had hoped to come along. One from Vancouver did not make it to the meeting but it was good to speak with her then.

Finally on the day of the meeting I discovered that there was a new version of Second-Life available. I downloaded this onto both of my computers and got it running. I had two computers available to me as I was very worried about the reliability of my computer. The new version works well on my newer computer but not so good on the old one. I wonder if it is more graphics intensive

The meeting

I met Clare at the Kiwi educators meeting place and she loaded up my new slides for me. This was not without some hiccoughs and I admire her patience as I tried to get the slides renamed etc. In the end we reloaded the whole lot. There is a very small cost involved in loading slides onto second life, but it is next to nothing really.

People started to arrive almost immediately. Some seemed to teleport in themselves, but may have been assisted by Bronwyn and Debbie. Most I saw come online and I teleported them in. I had to keep my window of contacts open which limited my view of the group that had assembled. One arrived with her ‘newbies’ torch in hand, a good indication that this was her first excursion into second life. With help from Clare I managed to get everyone in and seated. Not everyone who had said they might come did but some of my colleagues from this course came and we had a good attendance.
I think I counted 15 people at one time,4 from this course and the rest midwives, educators, researchers and academics. Most stayed for the duration of the meeting, about an hour and a half.

We started off by having to do some sound adjustments. One participant was very loud but managed to turn down, it was still not optimal but it was good enough. Another popped in with some heavy breathing sounds from time to time, I wonder if this was Merrolee and her shift key? Everyone seemed to be able to hear what was being said but one or two could not speak and so they communicated through text.

Once I felt we had most people there I started off by asking everyone to say who they were and give wee bit of background on where they were from and what there interest was in second life. This is a good way to help people feel at ease and get them involved. It helps to create an environment conducive to learning (Russell and Russell, 2003). This worked quite well, as I invited people to speak I was working though the list on my contacts screen and was still keeping an eye on people who were still arriving. I missed a couple of people but they let me know that they were still to introduce themselves. After this I presented my slide show presentation. I outlined what I thought some of the benefits and some of the difficulties of meeting in this environment might be. I posed these questions to the group.
• How can we use this?
• What is holding us back?
• What is the future of second life for midwifery education and development?
• Could this be a resource for a midwifery community of practice?
I then opened this up to the group to discuss and some useful discussion did occur.
There was general agreement that the technology is improving all the time. For example using voice communication is a recent development that is making communication much easier. Educational resources in second life are expanding all the time. Problems such as time difference can be overcome in part by providing minutes and transcript.

There was a problem for at least two possibly more people who wanted to participate. One was having difficulty getting going as her system was crashing and did not make it at all. Another tried very hard to get to Koru Island but every time she arrived she crashed and had to leave. Sarah crashed her computer once during the meeting and missed some of the chat. I lost connection and had to reconnect once, which was good for me, I usually do this much more. So problems with the technology are reasonably common with second life. Everyone coming had several other contact details for me including skype, as a back up. When I lost the connection I was able to tell Sarah through skype and she told the group. So making sure potential participants can actually access second life is important but there is not much that can be done if they cannot. Providing an alternative contact in case the technology does not work or breaks down. This may limit the type of student or midiwife that could participate.

Arwenna spoke about the Kiwi educators group and gave everyone membership of this group. She also offered the space for future meetings and offered to escort anyone who wanted to stay on for a while to the Sandbox to practice building skills.

As the meeting was coming to a close most said they would like to meet again. There was mention of having some midwifery topic to discuss which might help some communicate and give a comparison with face to face communication. They also suggested changing the time around to make it easier for the North American group to attend.

Most left after this and a few went to the Sandbox with Arwenna and Isa Goodman, the other administrator of Kiwi educators. They helped the small goup of about 6 or 7 who were left to start building. Arwenna also give the group a box of landmarks to other areas.

Overall I think the meeting was a success. I think this is demonstrated by the willingness to have another meeting. I was a bit surprised at the desire to meet again in a week. I think that might be a bit soon but we will see how this goes. Several people who did not make this meeting have said they will come to the next one.

Having someone available who has skills in second life and group interaction is a big plus and I was very lucky to have Arwenna.

I think the planned strategy of not moving around too much worked well for this first meeting, I think this helped people feel a part of the group and concentrate on talking. Some said thy liked being able to move their camera around while they were sitting and look around. Everyone seemed to manage the environment well.

The strategy of getting people to introduce themselves also worked well. Everyone got a chance to speak at least once and most joined in the later conversation.

On reflection I do think the rest of the slide show was superfluous. Had I just asked the group to talk about benefits and pitfalls I think the communication would have been improved also this would have come from the group, not me. I wonder if I did shut the conversation down by doing this presentation. It also meant I had to concentrate on the screen at this time rather than the group. Leigh has since said I was in teaching mode at this time. After a lot of thought I think I do agree with him. Perhaps I could have kept the conversation going and only used the slideshow if it seemed that conversation was not happening. As adults with considerable experience in education and/or midwifery practice this group were very knowledgeable and could easily have brainstormed these issues themselves without me having to lead them. Knowles (1990) developed the theory of adult learning described as Androgogy. According to this theory adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their learning. They need to be able to experience learning and have the opportunity to make mistakes. I believe I limited this by guiding the content in this way. Friere known for his 'pedagogy of the oppressed' believed in shared learning, building learning communities. He believed that learning occurred through conversation and dialogue (Smith, 2007). I need to consider this for future facilitation, particularly with a group such as this. According to Gilly Salmon's five stage model of moderation I think I was functioning at about level 2 or level 3 for this meeting. I was very focussed on the technology and just getting people sorted. I was not really able to participate in the discussion much at all other than to encourage others to participate. I hope I can move this with the greater understanding that I now have of the medium and where I went wrong with this session and can do better next time.

I wish I had taken more time to close the meeting and make proper arrangements for the next meeting. As the facilitator I should have done this better. I also wanted to raise awareness of the midwives group in second life and did not do this.

I think the timing of the meeting for people from this course was quite good as people were interested in getting back into second life and seeing how it all went.

Plan for the future
After the meeting Clare and Merrolee gave me their notes.
Clare had added some of the verbal conversation into the text script and Merrolee had kept notes. I had to find somewhere to store these. This has led me to create a wikieducator page for the midwives second life group. I have developed this up as another online midwifery resource. I also finally managed to get a picture into wikieducator, something I have been struggling with. I put an note and link to this on my blog and also posted to the midwifery research email list.

The next meeting time has been posted on my blog, on the wiki, on the midwifery research list and through the Second life midwifery group notices in Second life. I have also individually emailed everyone I have email addresses for. On some feedback form the first group I suggested we choose a topic for this meeting and suggested normal birth as this topic. On the further reflection that I have done here, I have decided to leave this open and let the group decide when we meet. I have that up my sleeve if I need to pull it out.

Once again we will meet at the Kiwi Educators meeting place. I will open the meeting and invite the group to set the agenda. Arwenna had prepared a few places where the group can break off into small groups to have a chat if they wish. I will teleport these groups to these locations to save them all having to walk, or fly, there if they are struggling with moving around. I will leave this very much up to the group this time and see how this goes. I would like the group to identify what they think we could do with this group in the future. I will introduce them to the second-life midwives group and the second-life wiki. I will try to get email addresses from those for whom I do not have these details and will try to get plan and time for the next meeting.


Boud, D., & Middleton, H. (2003). Learning from others at work: communities of practice and informal learning. Journal of Workplace Learning, 15(5), 194-202.

Fahey, C. M., & Monaghan, J. S. (2005). Australian rural midwives: perspectives on continuing professional development [Electronic Version]. Rural and Remote Health, 5. Retrieved 25th June 2006 from

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., Chinn, C. A. (2007) Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschener, Sweller and Clark (2006). Educational psychologist, 42 (2) 99-107

Knowles, M. S. (1990). The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston: Gulf Publishing Company.

Leiner, B. M., Cerf, V. G., Clark, D. D., Kahn, R. E., Kleinrock, L. L., & Lynch, D. C. (2003). A brief history of the internet. Retrieved 26th June, 2004, from

McIntosh, C. (2007) Wise women's web, rural midwives communities of practice. Unpublished masters thesis. Dunedin, Otago Polytechnic.

Roberts, S. M., Pruitt, E. Z. (2003) Schools as professional learning communities. Thousand Oaks: Corwin press. Available online

Russell, L,. Russell, J.(2003) Leading change training. American Society for training and development.

Smith, M. K. (2007) 'Paulo Freire and informal education', the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Last update: December 28, 2007]

Tolson, D., McAloon, M., Hotchkiss, R., & Schofield, I. (2005). Progressing evidence-based practice: an effective nursing model? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 50(2), 124-133.

Wenger, E. (2006). Communities of practice, a brief introduction. Retrieved 29th December 2006, from


Sarah Stewart said...

Fantastic work, Carolyn. It might be interesting for the rest of the team-why don't you send them this link so they can see what you've been doing.


Bronwyn hegarty said...

This is a really good account of your facilitation event on Second Life. anyone reading would feel like they were part of the team planning and experiencing it.

You have provided a very honest critique of the experience and it was no mean feat to organise this event with midwives from around the world in SL. Congratulations on an excellent facilitation.

I feel you are being a bit hard on yourself. For example, you refer to Knowles (1990): "They need to be able to experience learning and have the opportunity to make mistakes. I believe I limited this by guiding the content in this way." There was plenty of opportunity for participants to experience learning and make mistakes as we got to grips with SL.

This is in reference to the PPT presentation - possibly it was a bit long and perhaps just the questions would have been enough. If you did not have some sort of structure, however, there would have been people there wondering what they were there for ...saying "what was the discussion about?"

You were also underestimating the importance of your role in the event by stating "I was functioning at about level 2 or level 3 (Gilly Salmon's five-stage model). This is access and information sharing. I believe that you also demonstrated levels 4 & 5 - knowledge construction and development.

That is: interact in more participative ways and demonstrate active and interactive learning etc. AND became responsible for your own learning through computer-mediated opportunities, became helpful as a guide to newcomers, used constructivist approaches etc (p35, Salmon, 2000).

According to Salmon's (2000) e-moderating competencies (p40) you are at the the top end "creating" "know how to create a useful, relevant online learning community". You are an e-moderator in all aspects of the six competencies - confident, constructive, developmental, facilitating, knowledge sharing and creative.

As you say though, there is always room for improvement in anything. This is not a bad thing. What you have done in bringing together this group of midwives from around the world and facilitating their interaction in SL is exemplary. And they wanted to come back for more. Well done.

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mack said...

This is fascinating.
I’d been taught that left-aligned labels are preferred, to support the prototypical F-shaped eye-tracking heatmap of web browsing. The idea is that it supports easy vertical scanning.
online education

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