I got a lovely email recently from someone who said that she has so appreciated my book because it’s full of great ideas. She asked me if I would share my top five or ten most important points for people to consider when teaching virtually, which I was doing long before the pandemic started. Here are six!
#1 – Be a human
Show up in online spaces (either as the facilitator or participant) as yourself. This includes talking like you talk, showing your personality, and having fun during the session as is appropriate with your topic. Give everyone the best of yourself, especially because they can’t meet you in person and interact with you 1:1 in those “before and after” times if you were learning together in person. Show courage and show vulnerability. Fail forward. Learn from your mistakes.
Because I teach facilitators and faculty members, I often have to tell groups about the mistakes I’m making – which luckily, you won’t have to do if you’re not in my shoes! But it’s still ok to show that you’re fallible. Professionalism doesn’t mean that you have to show up perfect. It does mean that when you make mistakes – because you’re human – you do need to try to learn from them by reflecting on the experience any time you facilitate.
#2 – Allow more time
When designing your virtual session, expect that some things will just take longer. This is especially true if you’re using breakout rooms or using tech platforms with which people aren’t familiar. Plan for this.
Give small groups a couple of minutes extra time in breakout rooms to meet each other before working on the task you’ve given them, and remember to consider the time it takes to return back to the main room.
Also allow for for the time you need to show participants how to use any supporting platform (such as Mural, Google Jamboard, etc.; see #5 below) and potentially have them practice using it before doing the real activity. (You can also send spaces ahead of time for people to practice in before the session; have some fun with this!) Think of how long it might take small groups to use a tech platform to work together during the activity as well.
#3 – Take breaks
Plan short breaks into any session that runs longer than an hour, to give people time to refresh beverages and food, visit the washroom, etc. Remember that inviting people to move their bodies during the session can also give them a break. You could suggest people stand going in and out of breakout rooms, or incorporate a short stretch activity into the session at a time when people might need it the most. Physical breaks give our brains a mental break as well. We need this, participants and facilitators alike.
Also think of ways you can give people visual breaks during this session. This means questioning IF you need a slide deck and, if you do, building an effective one. This would include a minimal amount of slides that are there because you need to show groups something visual, not because you need them to help you remember the content. Break out of long slide deck presentation to more effectively use gallery view (if you’re in Zoom), chat, and other spaces where groups can work.
#4 – Offer options
As I learn more about Universal Design for Learning, I keep challenging myself in how I design options and choice into my learning events. For example, recently I’ve begun adding in a quiet breakout room alternative so that participants can choose to do an activity quietly on their own instead of in a pair, trio or small group. What I’ve seen so far is that no one has taken me up on this offer, but participants express that they appreciate that it was offered and I know it’s there for the next person who needs it.
Take the time to “double design” options that allow people to participate in ways that are comfortable for them. Here’s another example: in a recent workshop I participated in, the facilitator offered that we could either head into breakout rooms to “question storm” verbally with a small group or stay in the main room and use Mentimeter to contribute our questions quietly and individually.
#5 – Use supporting tech platforms
Groups need to work together online. Where are they going to do it? I tend to turn to Google products first: we can easily set up spaces for groups to work together in Slides, Docs or Jamboard. But some organizations here in Canada don’t allow Google products so I use other options. (And sometimes I use others anyway because they simply support the activity more effectively.) I pay into Mural and know people who like Miro; these are both collaborative whiteboarding platforms that offer more flexibility and features than Jamboard (although admittedly they can be more complex to use for some participants). Some of us have also been using the online bulletin board called Padlet for years, and I’ve also appreciated using Mentimeter.
Check out Jane Hart’s Top Tools for Learning, which she publishes every year after surveying education professionals, for more ideas for tech platforms that can support your virtual facilitation.
#6 – Plan with intention
To implement any of the ideas above you need to plan with intention. The more time you take to properly design the learning experience, the more effective it will be. Start with purpose. Why are you holding the session? Then write learning outcomes. What do you intend for participants to be able to know, do or value by the end of the learning experience? Then plan your participatory content and activities to those outcomes. Don’t choose to do activities or use tools because they’re cool, use them because they are going to help participate achieve your stated outcomes.
If you are still building your skills in learning design, you might benefit from reading my book Design to Engage: How to Create and Facilitate a Great Learning Experience For Any Group. Even though its focus is in person learning, much of the strategies work for designing and facilitating virtually as well.