Let's face it, we have all experienced good and bad learning environments, and some of the more challenging learning environments I have had were online.
There are so amazing tips out there, and I recently found this blog that talks about Five Essential Skills in an online Environment:
1. Create a Social and Active Learning Community
2. Demonstrate Leadership
3. [Over] Communicate
4. Deal with Conflict
5. Monitor Student Progress and Provide Feedback
So how do we apply these in the volunteer world?
For me, it involves knowing those around me and understanding why they are there, what their interests are, and seeing them as more than a name online. As an instructor I can share a bit about myself as an initial post and ask other volunteers to do the same. The world is quite small, so there is a good chance that people will know people in common, maybe have gone to the same school, or work for the same company.
In order to demonstrate leadership in an online environment with volunteers does require time to be spent, learning about the students, reading their contributions, and encouraging further conversation. It is about challenging them to dig deeper at times, answering questions in a timely and friendly manner, and remembering to thank them for their time and energy spent there.
Communication is the key, and I like the way this blog encourages you to over communicate. In a face to face classroom you can read body language and so can the students, however in an online world you really need to depend on the written word much more so. Therefore, take the time to write group messages, individual feedback, updates, and more. Communicate in a way that you want to encourage volunteers to do with each other and with other members of the organization and you will reap the rewards.
A lot of people shy away from conflict, but this is not going to support the learning environment for everyone. It is important to have ground rules about the community in the beginning and deal with any conflict as it arises. However as this article points out, conflict is usually where the deeper learning is occurring so monitor if it is conflict or if it is growing of ideas. This needs to be done in a respectful manner as it is easy to misinterpret written comments. That being said, it is also important for the volunteers to feel it is a safe place for everyone to voice their thoughts and concerns.
Monitor and provide feedback, this goes back to the communication piece. It is important to show the importance of this dialogue and to provide feedback individually and as a group. With volunteers we have to remember this is something they have taken on above and beyond work and family usually. This doesn't mean that they can't meet timelines, it just means that we have to be considerate and somewhat flexible of their lives, and work with them to accomplish the learning and the tasks required in their roles.