Browse Tag by online facilitation

5-steps for online activities that work

a network of illustrated people indicating how people collaborate remotely
Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Have you hesitated to set collaborative tasks outside the live online sessions because you’re not confident people will participate? Have you done so but had mixed results?

An online learning programme is most effective when you blend live (synchronous) and self-paced (asynchronous) activities. This doesn’t mean that quality discussion and collaboration is confined to the live online sessions.

In this post I share my 5 step strategy for creating and facilitating asynchronous activities.

There are many benefits for including self-paced activities: getting everyone together at one time may be difficult; you may have global teams or shift workers who would benefit from collaborating with others normally outside of their time zone; it gives time to reflect and apply etc. These are only some of the many reasons we should be building these into our learning programmes.

Don’t be mistaken that all your learners will be motivated enough to make the effort when left to their own devices. Let’s be honest… would you? I know there were times when I haven’t. Procrastination is human nature. We all need some accountability, encouragement and guidance at some point. Your learners are no different.

I’ve done a few MOOCs (massive open online course) in my time … well, when I’ve said I’ve done a few MOOCS, I’ve started many but completed very few. Why? Although they were all very well structured, had great content and peer discussion forums, the lack of tutor involvement and feedback on discussions was seriously lacking. Of course, this was not surprising when the MOOCs are free. Real human support is a premium service – it’s expensive and time consuming to provide.

If you want your learners to invest their time and effort to participate together in self-paced learning activities, you must invest your time too.

My 5-step strategy

This can be a challenge for those new to facilitating self-paced online learning so here are 5 of my strategies I’ve used successfully when planning and running self-paced online learning experiences.

  1. Set expectations
  2. Give direction
  3. Observe activity
  4. Encourage and coach
  5. Wrap it up

1. Set expectations

Tell your learners, as early as possible, what their course activities will be each week, what activities will be collaborative and how much time they will be expected to put in. Repeat it several times in the early stages e.g., in the general course information, in the learner study guide, in any welcome message and again in the first live online session if this kick-starts the course.

This may seem too repetitive but, believe me, from my past experience, learners miss this important information and have not diarised anything other than dates and times of live sessions. Of course, they don’t do this deliberately – like us all, they are busy with their day-to-day work; very likely, their manager or administrator booked them onto the course. Once you have their contact details, get that information out to them as soon as possible and make it succinct and clear.

2. Give direction

Hook the learner in with an engaging, brief and meaningful title. Help motivate them so they are keen to participate. Think short catchy headlines. Being mandatory is not enough – motivation comes from an emotional connection.

Follow up with the goal and a brief explanation of the how the activity will work and what the learners should do.

Trigger discussion and collaboration e.g., pose a problem, give links for research, give an example, ask a question etc

Let them know what minimum and/or maximum output you expect e.g., how many slides/pages/words, peer feedback posts etc

Be specific in how your learners should respond, using what tools and how long they should spend. Set a realistic deadline.  Remember that the benefit of self-paced learning is that they can be flexible with their time. Allow people enough time to read peer work, research and respond as they work around their day-to-day work and home life.

Make it easy for your learners to carry out their tasks; their effort should go into learning. Make sure they have all the tools (and guidance on using them), templates and links. I recommend you also include links to where they are to submit their work even though it may already be obvious.

Explain what they can expect from you and how you will support them. They’ll appreciate knowing when to expect responses to activities, assignments and messages. They will be equally appreciate knowing you will be there for them when they they need help.

This brings me to the final 3 strategies – what you will do as the facilitator.

3. Observe activity

Just as you would in the physical classroom, you need to monitor progress whilst allowing your learners space to collaborate. Contrary what you might think, you can use your observation skills – you’ll just use them differently. Observing asynchronous tasks online is less obtrusive than in the classroom when your physical presence can interrupt discussions.

You can ‘lurk’ unseen while they talk in text chat, message board and forums etc. This would not come as a surprise because you’ve explained that you will be checking in regularly and will be around to support.

This doesn’t mean you need to be constantly online. Set aside moderation time regularly and make notes that you might need to summarise at the end of the activity.  You’ll need to manage your time well and it can be useful to block times in when you plan to do this. Write down any interesting points and ideas they share; you’ll need these later. If you are using an LMS/VLE, tracking software can only record marks and completion otherwise, keep your own records.

Keep an eye on individual activity or lack of it. People don’t always ask for help. Use your expert judgement for when you may need to move the the next step on an individual basis. If you don’t observe, you won’t be aware.

4. Encourage and coach

Whilst it’s important to keep your distance, learners will benefit from your encouragement every now and then. You could join in the conversation occasionally, which is especially useful if the ideas dry up or to bring the conversation back on track.

Give feedback on progress so far and give time checks and reminders if progress has slowed down. “I’m loving the ideas so far…” or “ we have 2 days before we bring this to a close so you might want to choose a volunteer to post your findings” are a couple of examples of what you might say.

The personal touch is important; a phone or Zoom call can help when giving feedback to individuals who need extra support.

5. Wrap it up

If you’ve ever participated in online discussions, whether on course forums, in live text, on Twitter chats or in WhatsApp, you’ll know how difficult it is for individuals to keep up with all the conversations. This is especially true when the chat is very active.  Learners don’t have the time to trawl through the conversations to pick out key learning points; they may miss them.

Review the discussion by summarising key points, pulling together common themes. Looking at discussions holistically can often highlight connections not seen by the individuals contributing. You might feel it appropriate to highlight specific contributions and list any resources people have shared etc.

To round off the activity, signpost them to their next step. It’s useful to provide a link to anything you would like them to complete next and to any resources.  If the next activity is a live online session, then a link to this would be useful if it’s already been scheduled, otherwise, link to the details.

That’s a lot of work!

Yep, indeed it is. But so is facilitating learning live online and in the classroom. Isn’t that our job as learning facilitators? The powers that be in senior management may think that your job is done once your learners have left the live online environment. You become invisible, you can’t easily record ‘training’ hours, scheduling live training around it is a nightmare for administrators but that’s a subject for another day.

I hope my strategies for running successful asynchronous online activities have given you some ideas.

If you’ve been running self-paced learning experiences already, why not share some of your tips and strategies. If you would like to chat through some ideas, drop me a line on email, Twitter or LinkedIn.

7 pre-performance rituals for a live online session

A very tidy computer work desk with two monitors and two closed laptops, notebook, phone, mouse, keyboard and small camera ready for the working day.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Olympic champion, Katarina Johnson-Thompson counts to 12 before doing the high jump and sets all her kit out the night before in the order she will wear them.

Tennis superstar Rafael Nadal has many rituals during a match: how he places is bottles, using a towel after each shot and his pre-shot touching ritual.

In our archery competition days, both my hubby and I had our own shot routine. I’m not superstitious in the least but a set routine helped me focus and get into the zone.  

Pre-performance preparation

Why do people have rituals before a performance? Some think it is superstition; that if they don’t carry out these rituals something will go wrong. For others it’s more about creating a routine to give a sense of calm and focus before a performance – I’m the latter.

You’ll not be surprised to know that any member of the performing arts will have their routines to prepare them ace their performance. They focus on preparing the voice, the body and the mind to help ace their performance and quieten those butterflies in the stomach.

The live online facilitator (equally applicable to the in-person trainer) is no different. We ‘perform’. We have to ‘show up’ bright and breezy, leaving any stresses and baggage at the virtual door.

My 7 pre-session rituals

I like to make sure I do part of my routine the night before my session especially if I have an early session to run. I’m not a morning person so as much preparation I can do ahead of time the better. But even if I have set everything up read the night before, I will still run through final checks in the hour before my session starts.

  1. Set up my workstation
  2. Check what’s behind me
  3. Check my tech
  4. Check my training materials and tasks
  5. Warm up and energise
  6. Log-in and prepare the virtual room
  7. Chill time

So let’s see what helps me at each stage.

1. Set up my workstation

This is something I try to do the night before and double check some things again before each session.

  • Second laptop to log in as guest
  • Connect working laptop to external monitor(s), keyboard and mouse (makes life easier)
  • Connect a second large external monitor if possible (my mission control)
  • Make sure my bluetooth headsets are on charge and have a spare to hand
  • Pens and notepad
  • Lighting position (you don’t need professional ones but make sure you are well lit)
  • External webcam (inbuilt webcams aren’t always great quality; if you are an iPhone users, check out the Camo app)
  • Session script (I like to print a copy as well as have a digital copy on a second screen)
  • Glass of water and full water bottle
  • Tissues (you never know when you are caught out by a sneeze)

2. Check what’s behind me

For a balanced professional and approachable environment, I am aware of what your participants will see behind me when on camera.

  • Declutter
  • Check what’s in shot
  • Reposition objects e.g. plants, books  

3. Check my tech

At least hour before my first session of the day is due to start, I run my tech checks. This is where the tech gremlins can invade. Even if you do all the right checks, technology often has a mind of its own but there are things you can do to minimise tech disruption.

  • Check all is connected properly
  • Reboot my laptop/PC and the second laptop to join as a guest
  • Run speed test
  • Headset is charged and ready
  • Webcam working (privacy shutter open if using my inbuilt one)
  • Turn off notifications
  • Turn phone to silent (or off)
  • Close all applications you won’t be using (the may cause problems with your network)

4. Check training material and tasks

I will make sure my training materials such as session notes, slides, exercises are all correct at least the night before my session. Sometimes, there may be a tweak you need to add on the day.

I try not to look at my general emails before a session. I can easily get caught up in something that distracts me. I create a rule on my email client to group course participants into a specific folder, this help keep my focus when doing pre-session email checks.

  • Update slides with participant names, dates of next session etc
  • Copy files I will use to a folder on desktop for easy use (it makes my life so much easier)
  • Check my email for any apologies or questions from participants
  • Set up and minimise third part apps e.g. Jamboard, Menitimeter, etc for activities

5. Warm up and energise 

I take inspiration from stage performance warm-ups for my routine here. These are especially helpful for my early sessions. Sometimes, the first time I might speak in the morning is when I say hello online. Stretches do me good between sessions and in breaks in sessions too. Often a little karaoke to something upbeat combines my vocal warm up with my exercise – I just can’t stand still when a good tune is playing.

  • Get in a few stretches
  • Do a little deep breathing
  • Vocal exercises to warm up the voice and loosen the muscles

6. Log in and prepare the virtual room 

This is my routine 30 to 40 minutes before I open the welcome session 15 minutes before the session start time. However, unless you have prevented participants from joining until a specific time, be prepared that some may want to join very early. I’ve had people join 30 minutes early while I’m still in the middle of my set up routine. That can throw a curve ball so it’s useful to have a digital or printed checklist you can tick off. Although these are not rituals as such, I do like to do them in a set order. Not out of superstition but I am less likely to forget a step. I also like to refer to a printed checklist I can tick off just in case I get interrupted.

  • Log into session
  • Check my webcam feed – final check of how the background looks
  • Reposition lighting to check no reflection in my glasses
  • Check my audio is working
  • Check/amend settings for the session (even if the system remembers the settings, I like to be doubly sure)
  • Set up breakout rooms (if using)
  • Set up / cue up polls (if using)
  • Check files and applications prepared earlier share ok
  • Upload Welcome session slides if separate from session slides
  • Upload main session slides and test
  • Cue up recording window for a quick click when ready to record
  • Arrange windows/pods as preferred across my multi screen set up
  • Send session invite reminder to participants

6. Chill time

If you have planned things well and you don’t get any really early joiners, you, as I, should enjoy a little mellow time. A little breathing space to get into the zone. This is the time I go and make myself a cup of tea and take back to my desk. A hot honey and lemon keeps my throat going if I have several sessions during the day too. I also avoid eating anything this soon before the session. I’ve made that mistake before and end up coughing.

  • I grab a hot drink but not anything to eat
  • Smile – it boosts my mood and gets me into a positive mindset
  • Adjust posture and get comfortable 
  • Focus on your participants – it’s not about you
  • Change my choice of music to a sedate instrumental or quiet classical
  • Now I’m ready for when my co-host arrives (if I have one for the session) and to welcome early bird participants.

Share your rituals

Everyone has their own rituals and routine. What do you recognise you do from my list? What might you try? What tips can you share that have helped you get ready for your sessions.