headset hanging near apple mouse and keyboard

Photo by Michael Soledad on Unsplash

In Part 1 of this four post series on creating online learning, I gave a very brief overview of the different types of online learning that exist as well as decisions you need to make when you first set out to create online learning. In this Part 2 post I’ll talk about some basics of creating learning experiences over web conferencing environments (sometimes also called synchronous online learning).

First let’s talk about what web conferencing is, so that we’re all clear. Web conferencing is when people gather in a web-based space at the same time and can hear and see each other. Such gatherings often have a facilitator who is responsible for guiding the group’s process during the learning experience. Tools such as Zoom, Skype, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra and WebEx are all web conferencing platforms, offering audio and video capabilities for people to meet and learn. These tools allow us to gather in virtual rooms and give us the ability to see and hear each other in real time.

Web conferencing sessions can be layered into a longer, asynchronous online course or form an entire online course on their own. A course over web conferencing could be one session or multiple sessions over many weeks. One of the limitations of web conferencing sessions is that they are synchronous, meaning everybody has to show up in the online room at the same place and the same time. This sometimes works against the reason why people sometimes sign up for online learning (so they can learn at their own pace and when they feel like it) and it, logistically, is sometimes hard to pick a time when all learners can attend, especially when you’re working across time zones. (This happened to me recently when I facilitated an online course with participants in it from coast to coast.) The time-boundedness of this type of online learning means we need a strong reason for why we want to create learning experiences over web conferencing environments; we have to make them worth it for people to attend. (This often means being really intent on creating active and participatory sessions, not just presentations or lectures, because we could have just created a video for the latter and sent it to people to watch on their own time.)

However, even though there are limitations to consider when planning learning experiences over web conferencing, there are great advantages to this mode of online learning. One big one is that we can usually see and hear everyone in the group over this type of platform, which allows us to hold meaningful discussions and activities, very similar to how we might do it in a face-to-face learning environment. Web conferencing also allows us to gather people together who may be geographically dispersed, which might help us glean the benefits of learning with a culturally diverse group of participants as well.

Just as I advised in the first post in this series, you’ll want to get clear on the purpose for your session and the outcomes you want participants to be able to achieve by the end of the session. Purpose and outcomes provide the foundation for the creation of any learning experience in any mode; web conferencing is no different. Consider who your participants are and the benefits and barriers they may experience if you hold your learning experience via web conferencing.

Get to know your web conferencing platform as well as you can. Use social media to ask people in your network to help you test the software if this would help. I took advantage of this kind of crowdsourcing last year when I needed to design a web conferencing session on Webex, a platform I hadn’t used in several years. I asked in my facilitators group if anyone would be willing to test the platform with me, and a colleague came forward. We spent about an hour testing all aspects of the software. This helped me get to know the platform’s capabilities so I could design a really engaging and interactive session.

Many web conferencing tools offer the ability to:

  • share audio and video
  • use a collaborative whiteboard that all participants can view/draw on/write on
  • share slide decks
  • put participants in virtual breakout rooms
  • ask participants polling questions
  • share our desktop or an application on our desktop
  • have participants raise their virutal hand
  • have a live text chat with others in the room, either as a group or privately 1:1

Keep in mind, however, that not all platforms have the same capabilities. Test the platform to know what it can do and get comfortable with it. Once you’re familiar with your platform’s tools, you can design the learning experience. Think about ways to build community with and amongst the participants. This often includes making time for both facilitator and participant introductions and inviting participants to turn on their video cameras – if you’ve got the bandwidth to support this – because it’s more engaging for all. If your participants are not familiar with how to use the platform, build in time to teach them how to use it as you go along. It can also help if you give them little tips on how to act in the session, such as inviting them to keep their mics on to talk openly as a small group or, in larger groups, potentially asking participants to keep their mics off until they raise their hand and are invited to contribute something to the discussion. Teach people about using their microphone actively, to turn it off when they have to cough or are experiencing background noise and to turn it on to participate in the group’s discussion.

As you design your session, keep your goal of creating and facilitating active, participatory learning top of mind. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you design:

  • How can I “share the air” with participants? How can I make sure that facilitators are not the only ones talking?
  • How can I create situations where participants are able to share their experience, to contribute to group learning?
  • Are there ways I can use the platform’s tools to contribute to an active learning experience, that are appropriate to my intended learning outcomes?
  • How can I balance content sharing from facilitators with discussion or other participant activities?
  • How can I “chunk” sections of the plan into short pieces, to keep the agenda moving and participants involved?
  • How can I engage my participants visually and auditorily during the session?

As I’ve already mentioned, do everything you can to make your web conferencing/synchronous online session an active and engaging experience for everyone, not a presentation or lecture. You can even design your slide deck differently for use in web conferencing-based learning experiences, because if participants have the ability to write or type on your slides, the deck can look very different than it would if you were using it to support a face-to-face learning experience.

Enlist the help of a co-facilitator or a producer to help you run the session if you can. There is a lot to pay attention to when facilitating in web conferencing environments and sometimes more sets of eyes help you pay attention to everything that is going on and make for a smoother experience.

These ideas, of course, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to knowing how to create and facilitate effective learning experiences in web conferencing environments. But I hope they give you some idea of where to start and inspire you to want to create participatory experiences using the interactive tools of the platforms as best you can. Good luck!

Note: Some of what I included in this blog post is text from a course called Facilitating Learning Online (FLO) Synchronous, an online course I created a few years ago that helps people learn how to teach synchronously online. FLO Synchronous is available as a free open educational resources (OER) via the BCcampus SCoPE site. The content resource in Week 1 called Preparing for Synchronous Sessions expands on the content in this blog post even more deeply. If you would like me to offer a version of FLO Synchronous (or similar) for your institution or organization, please get in touch.

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