Friday 29 May 2020

Facilitating online workshops

I was not a fan of the idea of running the kinds of workshops that I normally facilitate online. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by how effective they can be - and somewhat moved by how valuable some have found them to be in these extraordinary times.

So I thought I would record a few of the things that I have learned, that seem to make them run rather more effectively than I had imagined; and also a few things I have learned by attending online events that have worked rather less well...  I also have an unresolved question, which I'll get to later.

The first thing is to recognise that this is a different type of engagement and plan accordingly - don't simply do online what you would have done face-to-face.

One of the limitations is people's attention span in listening to one person. I can hold an audience for a good while when face to face; but don't attempt to do so online (I have sat through some poor presentations that involved hours of lecturing - which would probably have worked well live, as the presenters are experts and have interesting material, but really doesn't work online.)

Therefore, I prepare even more assiduously: I work out what I can send in advance for people to read (and make that as brief and clear as possible). I don't, however, assume that everyone will have read it... Also, I decide what questions it will be most helpful for people to discuss in smaller groups, to engage with the material of the session and apply it to their own situation.

Then I start the session by getting everyone to check in and talk, early on. A question about why the topic is important to them is one good way. With a very large group, I may put people into separate online rooms in smaller groups for this.

I try to be particularly clear about the agenda, and the structure of the session, including the questions that they will be asked to discuss in groups. I may also have circulated this in advance. I also tell them about the protocols of online sessions, particularly that all should be muted in the main sessions except when they are talking. I also mention that it is helpful if they post any questions in the chat, or use the 'raise hand' icon, rather than simply interrupt the session

Next, I give a quick introduction to the topic, recapitulating the advance reading, (sometimes by sharing a couple of slides) and then put them into groups quite quickly, with a clear question, or set of questions, to discuss. I make sure to tell them how long they have in the groups, and tend to message the groups at the halfway point, and again towards the end of each small group session, to give them a time-check. One thing I learned the hard way, is that once in groups, they can't see any slides I may be showing: and my questions were on my slides...  So now, I have taken to posting the questions into the chat box.

I tend not to drop into groups, as arriving in the middle of a discussion invariably causes everyone to stop talking; so I trust people to have sensible conversations without me having to check on them.

When people re-convene in plenary, I either ask to hear briefly from each individual (in a smaller meeting) or from each group (in a larger meeting). I then try to summarise the main themes that emerge.

Normally, I will then have another topic and another question: so I follow the same pattern: a brief intro, group work, and feedback. And I close the session by checking if there are any unanswered questions, concerns etc, thanking them for their participation, and telling them what happens next.

And now, here's the unresolved question.

If you want someone to feel that you are really listening to them, it is most helpful to look directly at the camera on your machine: then they will experience you looking directly at them; however, if you do that, you actually see them slightly peripherally - so may miss some of the subtleties of their non-verbal cues.  So what is the best option?...  I continue to ponder (and experiment)...

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