Dialogue and facilitation in open and ‘closed’ courses

We recently closed out week 2 of the open section of #msloc430  and week 5 of the “closed” course for students enrolled in the on-site version of the course (part of their studies in the Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change (MSLOC) at Northwestern University).

Both courses are now starting to run on somewhat parallel tracks – topics, questions to ponder, issues to work through.

I am trying to get a read on both communities and in doing so becoming more conscious of the differences in what I (in a facilitator/instructor role) pay attention to and what I think about doing. Or not doing.

In the ‘closed” course I have an unambiguous formal role (instructor) and a defined set of learning outcomes to achieve by the end of the course. There are assignments and grades. The design and facilitation challenge is to establish an environment in which we all explore topics together as a community and do so by solving authentic problems.

Much of my effort in the first few weeks of these ‘closed” courses is to get a read on the online community condition. Are students talking to each other in online conversations – trying to unpack the course topics and content – or are they simply talking to me in a query-and-response pattern (e.g., they write something to no one in particular, expecting the instructor to read it and respond).

I know I become very conscious of where I weigh in (in online dialogue) and how I do it. I spend more effort explicitly calling out positive forms of open communication. In this current class there are long and funny conversations about course content that include references to scenes from The Matrix and Mean Girls. Remember – this is as class about enterprise social networking. The level of engagement in this particular class is really outstanding.

But at the same time there is a very specific set of learning outcomes to be achieved by the end of the course. I do find myself thinking about exactly how, and when, I nudge dialogue toward more critical thinking on specific content.  Or guide the conversation toward synthesizing concepts that move us toward the end-of-the-course objectives. Often I do this by posing questions – but those questions often have a clear directional intent behind them.

In the open section of the course I have less – intensity? – behind my online contributions that are intended to create a path for learners to explore.

I could, I suppose, try to use exactly the same level of intensity in both instances. But that seems in this instance counterproductive.

Here’s why.

The open community is comprised of self-directed, self-motivated learners who apparently have no other reason to participate in the activities other than personal or professional development. Underneath that apparent motivation is another, I think, more important one: The motivation to work through a question or topic with someone else who is also motivated to work through that same question or topic.

And the question or topic could very well be one that I – as designer of the open event – never imagined. And that’s ok.

In the closed class it is a sign of engagement when participants take a side trip to explore how social norms in Mean Girls might or might not be similar to social norms exhibited in communities of practice. But at some point my facilitation switch kicks on and I post some question intended to bring the class back to the course context and objectives (understanding communities-of-practice is one of them).

I wouldn’t do that in the open course. I’d just let it go and let the participants develop it as they wish. They may have just found what they came to the open section for: A learning partner to think with.