This article was originally published on January 27, 2018 and updated on December 8, 2019.
Online meetings are becoming more and more common as online audio and video conferencing technology improves. This document will explore components of holding online meetings that new facilitators can take into account when preparing to hold an online meeting with peers or preparing to teach an online course with live video conferencing.
The most obvious difference between in-person and online meeting facilitation is the medium. In-person meetings involve a medium we are all accustomed to inhabiting – good old personal relations which include being able to see, hear, touch, smell and sense the physicality of a meeting facilitator and fellow participants. So much of how we take in material is related to our environment – how comfortable we feel, how nurtured we feel, how connected we feel – and our senses give us much of this information.
In an online environment we lose many of these ways of feeling our learning environment: we are alone, looking at a computer screen. Because of this, all of those other ways of sensing into our level of safety in a learning environment are not available to us. We need to feel safe using alternative forms of receiving information, and it’s the facilitator’s skill and ease of use of technology that offers us this safety. I’ll explore some of these aspects below.
Firstly, the video and audio technology needed to access a meeting should be simple, reliable, inexpensive and offer high quality visual and auditory experiences. Connections in meetings will be hampered if technological concerns are constantly getting in between the facilitator, the participants, and the material. Facilitators need to make it as easy as possible for participants to access online technology, choosing the best technology available (and there is a lot to choose from). A participant’s initial experiences of online technology will set the stage for the learning environment. Many people are fearful of the complexity of online platforms, so the “gift of fearlessness” is something meeting facilitators can offer participants, by making compassionate choices about technology. This includes finding technology that:
- is robust, meaning it doesn’t crash very often (although some crashing may be unavoidable);
- generally offers the minimum functionality needed by participants so they don’t need to wade through functions they’ll never use;
- offers high quality video and audio so that the replacement of in-person viewing and hearing is as good as it possibly can be;
- offers aesthetically-pleasing and easy-to-navigate online materials, which might include a Learning Management System (LMS – online platform for materials) that suits the subject matter and the intended audience.
In addition, it’s important that the teacher has a reliable and updated computer and that their internet connectivity is fast. Internet connectivity that is so variable that the teacher and participants notice audio and/or video delays will affect how safe participants feel. It’s important for teachers to have high quality internet connections so for some teachers, this will mean investing in better internet connectivity services.
Some other notes about using technology:
- Using a good quality headset microphone or table-top microphone is usually preferable to using the microphone built in to a computer. Generally audio is of a higher quality when the microphone is close to the mouth of the speaker.
- Using a microphone that is connected to a computer via a cable, rather than Bluetooth, offers better quality audio.
- Connecting via a cable to a router can offer quicker internet connectivity than using Wi-Fi.
Facilitator Technical Skills
In addition to possessing good technology, an online meeting facilitator needs to know how to use it. Online facilitators may need to be familiar with online and computer applications such as:
- Break-out rooms;
- Participant audio and video controls;
- Online polls;
- Discussion boards;
- Document creation;
- PowerPoint creation;
- File management;
- Desktop window navigation;
- Social media;
- Browser navigation;
- Online search functions;
- Mashup technology like word clouds and wikis.
An online facilitator also needs to understand computing and internet terminology so that they can communicate effectively and efficiently with participants and with any customer support personnel involved in helping with troubleshooting.
As with anyone communicating in writing, online meeting facilitators need to have good spelling and grammar skills. Poor spelling and grammar can be a barrier to participants’ learning and sharing.
Another very practical consideration when thinking about facilitating meetings online is a facilitator’s local environment, i.e. the office or room they will sit in when they meet online. It’s vital that there is a minimum of background noise in a facilitator’s local environment. This is more important than the participants’ level of background noise, as a participant can be muted if necessary while the facilitator cannot.
Also, the backdrop to the view participants have of the facilitator is important. The backdrop should be professional and inviting with no moving parts (like pets, spouses or fellow office mates). A blank wall will suffice, but it can help to “warm up the conversation” if the backdrop includes some subtle artwork, a wall hanging, a bookshelf, a meditation space, or some other reflection of the personality of the teacher and the material they are teaching. The backdrop should be a factor that helps to send the message that this is a nurturing learning and connecting environment.
The meeting facilitator needs to be physically very comfortable in their local environment with good back support, ambient temperature control, leg and foot support, ergonomic desk set-up, and accessibility to a drink or anything else a facilitator needs to be comfortable for the duration of the meeting. Facilitating online meetings can require a lot of attention to detail and quick thinking in responding to technology issues. Minimizing discomfort or distraction in their local environment goes a long way toward supporting facilitators in devoting their attention to the online environment.
Along with the very practical matters mentioned above, online presence is another important factor for meeting facilitators to consider. There are a number of skills an online meeting facilitator needs to use when offering synchronous (real-time) material, to offer participants a learning experience comparable to the in-person experience.
Firstly, facilitators need to be very camera-aware. Looking in the direction of the camera as much as possible and showing appropriate facial expressions in response to participant sharing are key to helping participants feel connected. Given that the only senses participants have to experience a teacher online are sight and hearing, the visual impression they have of that person is important. Facilitators can encourage sharing online by making it clear that they are listening. Responding visually to the nuanced points in a participant’s sharing through nodding, facial expressions and the occasional hand gesture helps participants to feel heard and seen.
One of the special skills required by successful online meeting facilitators is the ability to view their own meeting notes at the same time as they are looking toward the camera. It helps to have notes on screen rather than in a book in front of the facilitator as it is not appropriate for participants to be often looking at the top of the facilitator’s head. Also, it’s distracting to have the noise of rustling papers being picked up by a facilitator’s microphone, another good reason to have on-screen notes.
Facilitators need to practice the multitasking required to view their video meeting, their notes, and any other windows (chat box, participant list box, etc) simultaneously, and need to learn to navigate quickly and smoothly between these windows. In some circumstances, facilitators may need to read and respond briefly to a chat message from an individual while simultaneously talking to the group. Facilitators also need to be very familiar with their own desktop so that when they inevitably minimize or close a window by mistake, they can quickly recover.
Participants are generally forgiving if facilitators spend some time in between components of a meeting rearranging windows and opening up or maximizing new documents, but this needs to be done relatively quickly. If the focus moves from the material to the facilitator’s logistics and stays there for more than about 10-15 seconds, momentum is lost and participants might start to become restless. Bear in mind that 10 seconds might feel like 10 minutes when you are desperately trying to find that missing window! Being transparent with participants and making jokes about any technical problems can help to keep participants connected. If technical issues look as if they will pose a problem that will take longer than 30 seconds to tend to, it might be a good idea for the facilitator to announce a 5-minute stretch break so that participants’ time is respected and the facilitator gets an opportunity to get back on track without the pressure of an audience!
While anyone can hold an online meeting, not everyone can hold an online meeting in a professional way. We, as a society, are in the early stages of offering online meetings and online courses, so as more and more online offerings become available to people, those that are offered professionally will stand out from the crowd. Expectations of quality of experience will rise as online meetings become more the norm than the exception. If we get into good habits from the start, and are aware of offering high standards of online material, we’ll be in a good position to be a facilitator who stands out from the crowd, and who has the best opportunity to make their voice heard.
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