Research into the Facilitation of K-12 Online Learning

Matt Irvin, University of South Carolina

The most successful online students are independent, intrinsically motivated, self-regulating learners, with effective time-management, reading, writing, and information searching skills (Land et al., 2003; Parker, 1999). However, many students are still learning such skills and require support to be successful. In order to address this need, providers of K-12 online courses often rely on the teacher-facilitator model. In this model, a local staff member serves as on-site facilitator or mentor to support students. Typically, facilitators are present or check in with students during class periods, operate and troubleshoot equipment, distribute instructional materials, answer students’ questions, and communicate with online instructors (Keane et al., 2010). Facilitators may also communicate with parents, address plagiarism, cheating, and student inactivity (U.S. Department of Education, 2007), help students develop organization and study skills (Harms et al., 2006), and facilitate in-class activities (Barbour & Mulcahy, 2004; O’Dwyer, Carey, & Kleiman, 2007).

The role of facilitators is different from online instructors in several respects (Irvin, Hannum, Farmer, de la Varre, & Keane, 2009). First, facilitators are often directly available to students and may even be physically present when students are at a school computer and online during a schools’ scheduled period for students to be working on their online class. In contrast, online instructors are in a remote location, are not physically present, and may or may not be online or directly accessible during the time students are online and working on their class. Second, facilitators differ from online instructors as facilitators do not teach content. Moreover, facilitators are not expected to have the requisite knowledge or skills to teach content. Instructors are primarily responsible for course design and delivery of content. However, instructors may ask facilitators to help check the completion of or to grade some tasks. Finally, facilitators are typically expected to help students with technical issues. For example, facilitators’ responsibilities include trying to solve computer problems, accessing assistance if needed, knowing how to contact the technical support for their school and the course provider. Online instructors also help students with these issues when they can, but it is often difficult for instructors to provide the necessary assistance.

Most research on online learning has focused on the online teacher. Thus, less is known about local factors including the level of support from facilitators (Cavanaugh, Barbour, & Clark, 2009). Nonetheless, researchers have found that facilitators are critical to providing students the necessary support and guidance (Roblyer, Freeman, Stabler, & Schneidmiller, 2007). Other researchers have found that facilitators were vital in reducing dropout in online courses (Charania et al., 2008; Roblyer, 2006). Some research has begun to examine the roles facilitators may serve beyond administrative and technical support because this is often insufficient for helping students succeed in online courses. For example, Barbour and Mulcahy (2009) found that facilitators in rural areas of Canada greatly contribute to the success of distance education, often going beyond what is contractually expected of staff, and incorporating content-based support. Harms et al. (2006) recognized that when facilitators have multiple students in the local classroom they could help build community and also “serve an important role by providing an immediate, personal, face-to-face communication option who can act as problem-solver, mentor and friend.” de la Varre, Keane, and Irvin (2011) interviewed facilitators for and online instructors of students taking an advanced online course in rural high schools across the U.S. They found that facilitators contributed to students’ educational experience in the online course primarily by supporting and encouraging students as well as setting the learning climate. Furthermore, facilitators were reportedly more involved in direct instruction than the online instructors were aware. In sum, facilitators may increasingly play more of a central role in the success of students in and directly address several important aspects of online courses.


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Barbour, M. K., & Mulcahy, D. (2009). Beyond volunteerism and good will: Examining the commitment of school-based teachers to distance education. In I. Gibson et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of the annual conference of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (779-784). Norfolk, VA: AACE.

Cavanaugh, C. S., Barbour, M. K., & Clark, T. (2009). Research and practice in K-12 online learning: A review of open access literature. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(1). Retrieved from

Charania, A., Davis, N., Wortmann, K., Schoeny, Z., Cohen, S., & Alexander, C. (2008). Assessing Pre-service Teachers’ Competence as a Virtual Schooling Site Facilitator. In K. McFerrin et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2008. Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

de la Varre, C., Keane, J., & Irvin, M. J. (2011). Dual perspectives on the contribution of on-site facilitators to teaching presence in a blended learning environment. The Journal of Distance Education, 25(3). Retrieved from

Harms, C. M., Niederhauser, D. S., Davis, N. E., Roblyer, M. D., & Gilbert, S. B. (2006). Educating educators for virtual schooling: Communicating roles and responsibilities. The Electronic Journal of Communication, 16(1 & 2). Retrieved from

Irvin, M. J., Hannum, W. H., Farmer, T. W., de la Varre, C., & Keane, J. (2009). Supporting online learning for Advanced Placement students in small rural schools: Conceptual foundations and intervention components of the Facilitator Preparation Program. The Rural Educator, 31(1), 29-36. Retrieved from

Keane, J., de la Varre, C., Irvin, M. J., & Hannum, W. (2008). Learner-centered social support: Enhancing online distance education for underserved rural high school students in the United States. In Whitton, N., & McPherson, M. (Eds). Rethinking the Digital Divide: Research Proceedings of the 15th Association for Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C 2008) (pp. 39-48).

Land, D., Nwadei, A., Stufflebeam, S., & Olaka, C. (2003). Socio-technical system advancements: making distance learning changes that count. USDLA Journal, 17(1). Retrieved from JAN03_Issue/article03.html

O'Dwyer, L. M., Carey, R., & Kleiman, G. (2007). A study of the effectiveness of the Louisiana Algebra I online course. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 39(3), 289-306.

Parker, A. (1999). A study of variables that predict dropout from distance education. International Journal of Educational Technology, 1(2), 1-10.

Roblyer, M. D. (2006). Virtually successful: Defeating the dropout problem through online school programs. Phi Delta Kappan, 88, 31-36.

Roblyer, M. D., Freeman, J., Stabler, M., & Schneidmiller, J. (2007). External evaluation of the Alabama ACCESS initiative: Phase 3 report. Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Education (2007). Office of Innovation and Improvement, Connecting Students to Advanced Courses Online. Washington, DC: Author.


de la Varre, C., Keane, J., & Irvin, M. J. (2011). Dual perspectives on the contribution of on-site facilitators to teaching presence in a blended learning environment. The Journal of Distance Education, 25(3). Retrieved from


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Blogging Activity

Select one of the following sets of questions and post an entry on your blog about those questions:

1. Have you ever been or have you known someone who has been a facilitator? What was that experience like for you or them? In what ways does your or their experience reflect and/or conflict with the research and text discussed above.

2. Do you agree that facilitators play an important role in online learning? Why or why not?