Facilitating Synchronous Sessions

Site: SCoPE - BCcampus Learning + Teaching
Group: Facilitating Learning Online - Synchronous FEB2017-OER
Book: Facilitating Synchronous Sessions
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Date: Sunday, 3 July 2022, 7:57 PM

Synchronous facilitation skills

Facilitating in synchronous online environments is something that is fairly new to many of us. Jones & Gallen, in their 2016 article (referenced below) note that "unlike face-to-face teaching, few [of us] have experience of being taught through synchronous communication methods" (p. 623). So here we are, learning new skills that many of us haven't experienced as a learner. Nothing like signing up for a challenge!

In the same article, Jones & Gallen indicate that "it is useful to make a distinction between development of technical competence and the development of practices which facilitate effective learning using such tools" (p. 616). So as facilitators in these environments we must not only learn and enhance our technical skills that we would use synchronously online, but facilitation skills as well.

But are all skills that we should employ in these types of environments "new" skills? Many skills (or at least the philosophies that lay behind them) that we have developed for use in face to face teaching can translate to the online environment, either in asynchronous or synchronous settings, but some say that there are also new skills to learn.

First, take a look at this list of facilitation skills and strategies that we also feature in the Facilitating Learning Online - Fundamentals course - which supports people in learning how to teach asynchronously online. While this list does feature a few items that clearly indicate that they are meant to be employed across the duration of a longer, asynchronous online course, there are many items that would still be considered best practice in synchronous online facilitation as well. Some examples are:

  • Welcoming learners
  • Developing own technical skills
  • Fostering a safe and supportive learning environment
  • Using humour
  • Modelling effective discussion strategies

And more! In fact we could argue that over 95% of that list could be also applied to facilitating synchronously online, even though the list was written about facilitating asynchronously online.

Yet Jennifer Hofmann, President of InSync Training, a corporation which specializes in "virtual training", argues that there are multiple skills for synchronous online facilitation, which are different than what is needed in the face to face classroom. In her article, "Virtually There: Developing the Competencies of Virtual Classroom Facilitators", she lists the following areas as crucial for "virtual trainers" to be skilled in:

  1. Digital Literacy: The ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share and create content using information technologies and the Internet
  2. Virtual Classroom Fluency: The ability to gauge the success of a virtual activity or conversation by reading digital cues and managing simultaneous conversations.
  3. Cultural Intelligence: The ability to consider the audience and facilitate interactions that are inclusive and provide needed support for the culturally diverse global audience.
  4. Time Management: The ability to manage a virtual event in such a way that participants are engaged, desired outcomes are met, and a strict timetable is adhered to.
  5. Application of Adult Learning Principles: The ability to analyze a blended learning design to ensure the principles of Adult Learning are upheld and program objectives are met.

Reference:

Mark H. Jones & Anne-Marie Gallen (2016) Peer observation, feedback and reflection for development of practice in synchronous online teaching, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 53:6, 616-626. (Note: This optional resource is not openly available on the Internet but if you are part of an educational institution you may be able to find it through your library's electronic system.)

From session open to close

Let's look now at what facilitation looks like in a synchronous online environment, from the beginning of a "typical" session (if there is one) to the end.

Note: The following categories correspond to the Facilitation Session Guide that is included in the Course Overview. If you are a Practicing Facilitator you will use the Guide to help plan your session and if you are a Reviewing Participant you will use the Guide to help you give feedback to Practicing Facilitators on their sessions.

Session Lead Up

You will want to make decisions about what the "lead up" to your online session looks like just before you start at the planned time. As the facilitator you should arrive early to the platform to set up the environment and make sure you're ready, especially technically (e.g. upload slides, do audio check to test your headset and sound). Decide whether you will talk informally with arriving participants as they come into the virtual room (tends to work for more casual settings), or remain silent and have on screen instructions for arriving participants (perhaps useful for more formal settings). Only you can decide what feels right as a lead up for your particular session.

Session Opening

How will you begin your session? A confident start with a warm welcome is a great idea, that is, after you've turned on the record button! (If you are choosing to record your session.) Incorporate participant check-ins or introductions depending on the purpose and goals of your session and the time that you have. As you begin your session it is a good idea to turn on your video feed so that people can see you and connect with you as a live human being. :-) (You may indicate to others to do the same, keeping in mind that later you may have to ask people to turn off their videos if the connection seems slow, or the number of people present are too many for the number of video feeds that can be on at one time.) In your opening, you may wish to cover any norms or "ground rules" that you'd like the group to adhere to during the session. A common norm in web conferencing, for example, is for people to keep their mics turned off unless they are actively speaking.

Purpose and Objectives

It's a good idea to briefly address the purpose of the session and the session objectives or outcomes so that your participants know what to expect. Indicating an agenda may also be very relevant here.

Active, Participatory Learning

You will now be facilitating your session plan encouraging active, participatory learning. Hopefully you've designed a good balance of interactive activities to keep people awake and engaged! Watch your session plan and the clock closely during your session because - just like when facilitating face to face - you may need to make decisions around either encouraging or reigning in the conversation according to the time you have.

And, just like we talked about in the first week of the course, we hope that you've chosen to get a little creative in your session using some of the interactive tools that your platform has available, but we hope that you've thought about a good reason for why you are using those tools, and not just because they are fun and cool! :-) Keep in mind that sometimes using too many tools that are new to participants can be somewhat stressful for them, so try to find the right balance for your group that stretches them and helps them participate in your session but doesn't overwhelm.

Technical Skill and Comfort

During your session you will simultaneously have to facilitate AND competently manage the technical environment. (Or share this between co-facilitators!) The goal is that you feel adept with the technology and you help support your participants in feeling adept with it too. You may need to give your participants brief instructions about how to use the platform if they are new to it. (Perhaps you could poll them to gauge their comfort level before or at the beginning of the session so you know where they are at.) Remember, if things go wrong, keep as calm as you can. You can always ask for assistance from your participants if you really get stuck. To mitigate any mishaps, it's a good idea to:

a) spend time well ahead of the session practicing in the platform by yourself or with a co-facilitator or helper, and

b) thinking through what you'd do if the technology doesn't work in certain ways. What's your backup plan?

Visual and Technical Resources

Slide decks

If you're planning on using a PowerPoint slide deck for your session, make sure you adhere to best practices around putting together slides. (You may enjoy Seth Godin's blog post Really Bad PowerPoint.) Ensure your slides are clear, uncluttered and appealing. And break out of that mold that you may be used to when using slides in a face to face environment! In the synchronous online classroom your participants have the ability to interact with your slides, so think about how you can incorporate some that participants can do something with. For example, can they draw on them? Type a word or short phrase? Highlight something? Circle images on your slide that may describe how they're feeling or think about something? Indicate where they might be on some continuum that you've provided by drawing a line on the screen?

Note that when you upload a PowerPoint deck to Blackboard Collaborate it removes all the animations, transitions, etc. The file is transformed into images and links are no longer clickable. You will also want to check the type of document that you are able to upload in your technical platform. For example, in Blackboard Collaborate you can upload PowerPoint slides but not Word documents.

Modes

Keep in mind that sometimes platforms have different "modes" that you can use to your advantage. For example, Blackboard Collaborate has not only a whiteboard mode which allows you to interact with the whiteboard using the toolbar and show PowerPoint decks, but a web tour and an application sharing mode as well. This means that you can visit a website together (web tour) or share your desktop (application sharing) if you wish. Check the platform that you're using to see what the possibilities are. The website for that particular platform should have help files or videos which can help you become familiar with its features.

Headsets

A technical "must have" when facilitating in synchronous online environments is a headset. Often, computer speakers and a built-in computer microphone don't lead to the best sound quality for you or others. Invest in a headset that helps eliminate the dreaded "voice bouncing back" scenario!

Communication

As always, communication skills are important to be aware of when facilitating. Try to maintain an awareness about how you are communicating with your participants as you are facilitating. What do you look like on camera when your video feed is on? Do you look confident and comfortable and dressed typically for your work environment or do you look and sound like you just got out of bed? ;-) What about your tone of voice - is it clear and measured? Is your pace effective? You want to feel "authentically you" as you facilitate online but you also may have to purposely focus on maintaining a certain level of energy, just like you would if you were facilitating in person. Don't forget to use humour if it comes naturally to you (and it's appropriate in the situation).

Co-facilitation

By this point, if you are working with a co-facilitator or producer for the session, you would have already discussed roles and responsibilities. But recognize that sometimes we co-facilitators can forget our roles and "take" someone else's slides to lead, for instance! (It happens to the best of us.) If your co-facilitator jumps in to do a part of the session that you were supposed to do (or you do), just go with the flow. If you are both very familiar with the session plan and are prepared ahead of time to lead any piece of the plan, then this won't be a stumbling block for either of you.

Session Closing

Just like you would in person, provide a summary or wrap-up activity such as a "check out" to close the session. Thank the participants for coming. You may need to indicate follow up or next steps items, or let participants know that an evaluation will be sent to them.

Lastly, don't forget to stop the recorder at an appropriate point. Make sure all participants have exited the room and then close the session properly.


If you'd like an additional resource to review about preparing for and facilitating a synchronous session, see "5 Techniques to Deliver an Effective Virtual Class" from CindyHuggett.com. The resource provides some useful communication strategies to help engage your participants, along with other key tips.

Advice from seasoned facilitators

We've gone "to the trenches" to bring you some best practice tips from people who are actively facilitating in synchronous online environments. The following audio clips are short pieces of advice about facilitating synchronous online sessions from "seasoned" facilitators from different kinds of organizational contexts. Each clip is approximately 2-4 minutes long.

Tip: You may wish to have a pen and paper or an electronic note-taking device handy as you listen to these files, to capture the advice that you want to remember.

John McLeod, CEO and Lead Instructional Designer, PathWise Solutions Inc.:

Trish Wells, Senior Instructional Designer and Training Leader, MAXIMUS Canada:

Maureen Sullivan, President and Lead Facilitator, NECI:

Gita Badiyan, Managing Director, Kiva Corporate Solutions:

Eric Bigrigg, Instructional Designer, Royal Roads University:

Terri Bateman, Distance Learning Facilitator at North Island College and contract Instructional Designer:

Just for fun

Did we mention that humour is a great skill to use when facilitating synchronously online? Just for fun, watch this clip of what sometimes goes awry in a video conferencing environment and what that might look like if it happened in person.

You may recognize some of these trip-ups! (And how do you think you could mitigate or eliminate them with your session?)