The following is based upon the very recent experience of hastily moving a one-day face-to-face programme module online to support home-based participants, combined with the use of Zoom for facilitating webinars and on-line action learning sets over the last year or so (and on other similar platforms prior to that). There are some points that are very specific to Zoom, but most of the ‘tips’ would apply to using any webinar platform for online programme/workshop delivery. I hope some of it is interesting, thought-provoking and helpful.
- Technological – don’t assume everyone has a strong and reliable internet connection. For example, it takes a lot of bandwidth to run audio, video and screen-share at the same time. And if participants have family members at home also using the internet, their bandwidth may be reduced even further.
- Psychological – this refers to concentration spans and screen blindness. As programme makers and advertisers know, when passively engaging with small screens it takes a lot of stimulus and variety to maintain a viewer’s attention. Even in face-to-face teaching concentration spans can be a lot shorter than we might imagine, even for well-motivated learners. Another consideration is screen blindness. The results of studies show an average five-fold drop in blink rate during VDU use, in normal healthy subjects. After prolonged use this can result in a ‘looking without seeing’ phenomenon.
2. Domestic distractions
Dogs, cats, children, partners, postal workers, washing machines and home deliveries – these are just some of the realities of home-working. These distractions can be pleasant (e.g. someone unobtrusively bringing a participant a hot drink) or disruptive (e.g. young children going into emotional meltdown), but either way they are a reality that needs to be acknowledged. Furthermore, people who are new to home-working may not have worked out fully their strategies for dealing with potential distractions. Kindness and acceptance is important here, and an upfront discussion of these issues as part of the ground rules at the start of a session can help to put people at ease.
3. Share resources on another platform
Using a separate e-platform to share learning resources, materials and readings enables participants to engage with these both before and synchronously during the session/programme, as well as having access to them afterwards. An Advance HE Connect group works remarkably well for this, and is easier to set-up and manage than it, perhaps, first appears. Alternatively, sharing a Dropbox folder with a password and an expiry date is another very effective approach. Numbering items is a simple way of being able to reference them efficiently (“please open item 7 in the programme resources”).
4. Audio only
This is about ensuring inclusion. For various reasons, technological and otherwise, some participants may join the Zoom meeting with audio only. If most of the other participants have sound and video, it can be easy to forget about the audio only colleagues, particularly if they are more reserved in making contributions. For this reason it is a good idea to make a note to yourself to more deliberately include them.
5. Slice it up with plenty of breaks
Be prepared to take far more frequent breaks than you would normally. We know that for more passive learning in lectures it is important to slice up the time with activities, discussions, game-based exercises, sense-making and reflection. These same good practices are very important for on-line engagement. Linked to the points on concentration spans and screen blindness mentioned above (1), physically standing-up and moving around is a great way of resetting the brain. “Let’s have a five-minute stretch break,” is a great thing to offer in addition to your longer planned breaks.
6. Gameshow host
Now, this may or may not marry with your personal facilitation style, but the reality is that the facilitator on-line may very well need to inject a lot of personal energy into the interactions. An example of this might be to bring someone into the conversation and to give people ‘their turn’ – e.g. “Nuna, talk us through how you have been approaching this at Manchester Met?”
7. Socialise the group
Early participation is an established good practice in all forms of teaching as is activating prior learning and advance organisers. Giving an on-line group an opportunity to each speak at the start of the session is very important, particularly if they have not met or worked together before. This goes beyond simply making the introductions and might include:
- Name, role, institution and work area/discipline
- How you are feeling today
- Reasons for interest in subject/topic
- A personal learning goal or objective for the session (what they would like to get from it)
- Responding to a specific question (related to the subject at hand or an icebreaker)
- An update on what has happened or progress made since we last met
- Describe where you are (home or office surroundings)
A key principle of early participation is that if people get to speak at an early stage, they will be more likely to contribute later. For a new group in particular, it may be helpful to send them the early participation/introduce yourself questions in advance.
8. Plan your breakouts
Using the breakout rooms in Zoom is a very effective way of bringing a workshop-style to an on-line session. Small groups can have discussions, respond to exercises or look at case studies. In terms of the technology, Zoom can do this automatically for you – you just input the number of rooms and the system automatically allocates an equal number of participants and sends them pop-up invites. Alternatively, you can manually assign participants to rooms if you want to control the configuration.
This takes planning as it is a stressful thing to do in the moment and it is easy to make mistakes (I inadvertently sent one participant to a room on their own for fifteen minutes…!). As the session host you can visit each of the rooms to monitor progress, ask and respond to questions, etc. Do this sparingly, though, otherwise it can feel like ‘big brother is watching’. As with any learning exercise, face-to-face or on-line, think through and give clear instructions on how you would like participants to respond and feedback after the discussion. The feedback is likely to be less free flowing on-line, so structuring it will definitely help.
9. Stand if you can
If you have a sit-stand or yo-yo desk (something that is strongly recommended for home offices to help with posture, concentration, creativity, health and wellbeing), then why not move to a standing position for some of the session, or alternate between sitting and standing for sessions within a longer online programme? Standing brings you fresh energy and enables a greater range of physical and vocal expression. It also feels more dynamic and is a welcome escape from being hunched over a desk.
10. Half-day max
Less is more when it comes to active, synchronous on-line learning. A well-engaged half-day is likely to result in stronger learning and impact than a full-day which exhausts the participants and leaves them feeling overwhelmed. To add further value to the session a flipped approach could be considered. This might involve, for example, some pre-reading combined with reflective questions or ‘things to watch for and observe’, or the use of a diagnostic questionnaire. A flipped approach should be designed to help ensure participants enjoy the highest quality of discussion-based learning when they come together on-line, with their awareness raised and their consciousness primed.
The above combines my own reflections and observations with some established good practices. Your approach and experiences may well differ, so feel free to take from the above whatever is useful and build upon it to create your own set of guidance or golden rules!
Doug Parkin is Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE.