The central role of facilitators

Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Adult Education for Social Change is intended for students wishing to pursue a career in adult education and as preparation for further academic study through a PhD programme. The Consortium is composed by University of Glasgow, University of Malta, Maynooth University, Tallinn University, Open University of Cyprus.

Author: Van Khanh Pham, EMJMD in Adult Education for Social Change. See contributors page


I've engaged in digital learning not only as a participant in educational programs but also as a critical observer of the practice of digital learning in preparation for my future work as an educator. I'd like to discuss critical thinking in online learning and how the seemingly irrelevant concept of creating a safe co-learning community could help reinforce it.

At first glance, online education appears to fail to promote critical thinking; however, it can actually do the opposite. Critical thinking typically emerges from the interactive processes of students' reasoning and their practice of applying knowledge to create their own meaning, which we are used to seeing in a face-to-face setting. However, I would argue the practice of critical thinking is not dependent on the mode of instruction (online vs. in-person), rather on the principles behind it. Critical thinking necessitates a level of engagement, self-confidence, and self- (and diversity)-awareness that is impossible to achieve in a rigid power hierarchy between facilitator and learners in the lecture-based environment. Therefore, and based on my experience, it is only possible and manageable to foster critical thinking by cultivating a safe space that promotes inclusion and the freedom to make mistakes; and developing educational opportunities as a collective experience.

I was astounded by how the instructor mindfully facilitated that safe co-learning community in one of my virtual classes. As the first step, he was aware of the kaleidoscope of diverse intersectionality, experiences, and psychological-social acquisition and elaboration among learners. With that acknowledgment, he designed the course with great care. This was translated into the absence of British slang and colloquialism in the course; rather, the language of instruction was kept more concrete and directive in recognition that most students speak English as a second language. Or that the course materials went beyond blocks of text and included visual and auditory illustrations and quizzes to accommodate the needs of acclaimed visual and auditory learners. During the facilitation, the instructor employed the Community of Inquiry Framework to increase engagement and dialogue by encouraging individual and group reflection on learning experiences, expanding opportunities for collaborative content creation, and, ultimately, joint knowledge construction. He welcomed all forms of self-expression, including drawing, mind-mapping, video-essay, and photo-voice. He assigned and encouraged students to converse and interact via various mediums such as blogging, discussion boards, and group projects, aided by his prompt personalised feedback. That intense interaction fostered a sense of community among students, especially "the other '' students, myself included, who might feel isolated or even excluded from the learning process. Even though I had periods of negligence, I eventually built up a strong learning relationship with many peers, in which I dared to voice my opinions and challenge others with constructive responses. Thus, critical thinking was practised without the instructor addressing it directly in class.

I believe that when students can spend less energy trying to exist and fit in within a rigid educational structure, they will be better able to interact with the course in a way that suits them. And it is through these interactions critical thinking can flourish, whether in an online or offline setting.

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