Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Facilitating in a virtual classroom.

Today I did something I've never done before.  I facilitated in a virtual classroom.  The students in the classroom were spread out over the Northern Territory and Western Australia and I was in my home in Melbourne!  Technology is providing some amazing opportunities and I'm quickly learning that the more versatile I am as a facilitator, the more people are likely to want to hire me.

In case you're wondering what a virtual classroom is, it's like a webinar, but this term usually applies to meetings, rather than learning situations.  There's a web based platform which provides the visual component and participants can interact by pointing, writing and highlighting.  This is accompanied by voice, either using VOIP (voice over internet protocol) or a good old fashioned conference call.  Web cams can also come into play and provide visibility of participants.

The material I was delivering today is material I am extremely familiar with.  I've been facilitating the program regularly in a face to face classroom situation over the last nine months.  Usually the program runs for a whole day, but in the virtual classroom it has been redesigned to be delivered as five 1 hour modules.  With some good design work and really thinking about the "essence" of each part, it's an impressive transition.

A few things made it really work for me today:

1. Early reminders for all participants about etiquette for participating.  Mostly this was similar to good practice for telephone conferences - say your name when you speak, use your mute button when you're not speaking.  It was up to me as facilitator to model good behaviour and gently, consistently, remind participants.  Years of practise chairing telephone conferences came in very handy!

2. Patience as participants learn how to use the platform.  It was important for me to have a thorough understanding too so that I could incorporate instructions regularly.

3.  A fear free approach to silence.  This learning environment requires some heavy duty multi-tasking for everyone.  Some people are better than others at doing this.  It's important to remember that participants need to hear the question, think about the question, come up with an answer and then use the tools to share their answer. All of this is happening in the silence.  In the facilitator's chair, the time taken before the first response appears can feel like hours.  To participants it's much shorter - they have a lot to do!

The word "facilitator" comes from the French word faciliter which means "to render easy" and from the Latin word facilis meaning "easy".  I always carry awareness of the meaning of the word with me as I approach any facilitation work.  Today, I really saw it come to life.  

The best thing of all was the level of engagement among the group.  Incredible, considering how far apart we all were!

Are you harnessing technology to support your people in creative and effective ways?  

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