Archive for the 'online facilitation' Category

Jul 27 2016

Learning While Building eLearning: #4 Lessons from the Pilot

Scholar Project - 2This is the last of four pieces reflecting on the experiences of Emilio, a subject matter expert who was tasked with converting his successful F2F training into an elearning offering. This one focuses on the lessons learned from the pilot and we are pulling in Cheryl Frankiewicz, the project manager. You can find the context in part 1 ,  part 2 and part 3. (Disclaimer: I was an adviser to the project and my condition of participation was the ability to do this series of blog posts, because there is really useful knowledge to share, both within the colleague’s organization and more widely. So I said I’d add the blog reflections – without pay – if I could share them.)

Nancy: Emilio and Cheryl, what is your advice for someone else embarking on this process?

Emilio: Solve the prep work for the launch. Pay a lot of attention to the very important thing you do in every single project, no matter what it is. Getting the process of getting the people there. The enrollment, selecting a good partner and being on top of your partner so that nothing goes wrong in this introduction process. The key thing is to get the people there at the start of your course. That has to go flawless. If it starts flawless, it is almost a piece of cake to do a good learning course. Then everything flows easily.

Cheryl: I would encourage others who embark on this process to start by revisiting their objectives and making sure that they measure the most important learning outcomes. Once the objectives are clear, focused and measurable, it’s much easier to make wise choices about which content and activities to include in the course design. Interaction is just as important in elearning as in F2F learning, but that doesn’t mean that all the interaction that takes place in the face-to-face environment should be transferred to the online environment. Attention spans are more limited and the demands on learners’ time are greater in an online environment, so you have to be careful not to include so much interaction that it becomes overwhelming to learners.

If you haven’t facilitated online before, take an elearning facilitation course before you deliver for the first time. I took one before I delivered my first online training and it was worth every penny I paid. Not only did I get useful tips on how to manage participation in a virtual environment, but I also had the opportunity to practice them before going “live”.  The big surprise for me was how much I depended on participants’ body language for feedback in a F2F environment, and how lost I felt online without it. The course helped me identify other strategies for gathering and giving feedback online. Emilio wanted to take one of these courses but his travel schedule didn’t allow it.

One other recommendation I’d make is to plan for regular communication with learners. In a F2F setting, facilitators don’t have to think about how this will happen because they are in constant contact with learners, but in an elearning environment, extra effort has to be made to design and time communication in a way that helps keep participants on track and motivated to participate. Regular bulletins from the facilitator that remind participants what is happening in a given week or unit are a valuable tool for accomplishing this. These bulletins can also highlight key lessons learned or insightful contributions from participants during the previous week. The review can help re-engage those that have fallen behind, and the recognition can help motivate quality participation in the future.

Nancy: Emilio, I have done quite a bit of work with your organization around learning, facilitating and elearning. As you think about your experiences and the experiences you’ve learned from other colleagues doing elearning in FAO, what capacity is needed to do this sort of work in an organization like yours?

Emilio: We have our own elearning team at FAO doing their own projects for specific groups. Their services are relatively expensive.  If I were to do with them the same thing I did with MEDA I would have likely paid more. And they have a limited number of people. They don’t have enough capacity to be service providers to the rest of the organization. We have so many different units. Our organization is structured so that we have to provide services to each other and we have to pay for them.

Nancy: I know there is a lot of talent spread through the organization, but it is not clear that they are aware of each other, talk to each other, learn and support each other.

Emilio: You are right. I have a  colleague doing a training. She decided to work with Unitar. She is thrilled with the experience. Then she started talking about her very different needs and experiences. From what she tells me I would not be inclined to use that model. I would have to have something different.  It is hard at the end of the day to come up with a corporate, very well coordinated approach to this elearning, to cultivate that knowledge among all of FAO’s staff, or at least expand it as much as possible.

But you are right, the result is we don’t leverage, learn from each other, from a very valuable experience a colleague is having and have to go through painful process of learning myself.

Cheryl, how about you? What is your advice?

Cheryl: Don’t aim for the moon in your beta test. Aim to learn. As Emilio mentioned, only 41% of those who registered for the course actually completed it. But 100% of those who completed  it said they would recommend it to their colleagues. Learning happened, and more learning will happen the next time around because Emilio and his team are observant, open to learning, and patient with themselves and the process.

Make sure you bring together a good team of people who can cover all the bases that need to be covered when converting a F2F training into an elearning offering. Don’t expect that any one person is going to be your subject matter expert, instructional designer, programmer, learning strategist, platform troubleshooter and project manager all in one. Ultimately, a team of six people contributed to this conversion, none of us working on it full time, but all of us contributing expertise in a particular area. Make sure that someone on the team takes responsibility for organizing the work and keeping your timeline on track. And avoid the temptation to outsource everything because you’ll miss the opportunity to learn how to do it yourself. Emilio’s probably not ready to develop his next course entirely in-house, but he and Milica have built the capacity to maintain and adapt the courses that now exist.

Speaking of adaptation, one last piece of advice is to take advantage of the opportunities that elearning provides to monitor how participants are learning as they are learning and make adjustments to the course design as you go along. Emilio mentioned earlier that the feedback he received in the office hours helped him adjust the course materials, but our analysis of the quiz, final exam and evaluation results also helped us identify which concepts could be better explained, and which objectives could be better supported. We monitored how, when and where learners engaged (and did not engage) and this is helping Emilio to improve his next offering of the course. For example, we learned that participants who did not complete the course tended to follow one of two patterns: approximately one-third logged in only once or twice and did not finish even the first module; the other two-thirds participated fairly regularly and completed module 2, but then dropped out. With this information, and with feedback from participants who completed the course, Emilio is revising the design of the Module 2 group work, and he and Milica are planning to follow up more quickly with inactive participants during the first module of the course to identify if there are any barriers to participation that they might help learners address.

Here’s mine (Nancy)…

I’m really glad the decision was made to have a beta test which helps us sharpen the content, process, assessment and technology. The example of understanding how the exam was graded shows that there are always technical things to learn, and the careful attention to assessment as it relates to learning objectives helped us learn a lot.

We learned some things about the process of having a marketing partner, the importance of lead time and a very real need to  do some pre-course orientation for the learners about the technology and course expectations. We have talked about developing some short videos and having a short “week 0” prior to the actual start of the course to ensure the tech is working for learners before we dive so quickly into content and community building.

We need to get the participation rate higher because I’m convinced that is key to successful completion – look at the people who participated in the office hours — they stayed engaged and completed! I think this starts with a clearer ramp up and explicit expectations (including pre-course communications), regular emails during the course and refinement of our pre-course learner survey that would help the facilitator understand the learners a bit before the course.

That said, there were SO many things to pay attention to, it was easy to spend less time on the social aspects of learning: initial engagement with the learners, building a learning community (which is difficult in three weeks and limited expectation of learner hours), and helping learners contextualize the content to their contexts. I had warned Emilio beforehand that facilitating online learning is a bit different than teaching face to face. The learning management system delivers a lot of the content. The real role is connecting learners to the content and to each other.  

Thanks to Emilio, Cheryl, FAO and MEDA for supporting these four blog reflections!

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Jul 25 2016

Learning While Building eLearning: Part 3 – Facilitating Online

Scholar Project -8This is the third of four pieces reflecting on the experiences of Emilio, a subject matter expert who was tasked with converting his successful F2F training into an elearning offering. This one focuses on the facilitation aspects of the course! You can find the context in part 1 , and part 2. (Disclaimer: I was an adviser to the project and my condition of participation was the ability to do this series of blog posts, because there is really useful knowledge to share, both within the colleague’s organization and more widely. So I said I’d add the blog reflections – without pay – if I could share them.)

I want to kick this off with a quote from the amazing Beck Tench talking about facilitating online learning:

Learning and change are super complex. Consider we may never know the effects of our work. Every snapshot lacks context in some way. Proceed with listening, kindness, observation, and experimentation. Accept that there will be uncertainty, as in all things, and move forward anyway.

I love this quote because it reminds us that facilitating online learning is about the teacher’s expertise. And about engagement. And about our stance as an online facilitator – something I think is often invisible or ignored.  Emilio stepped into that stance with a lot of grace, tolerance for the unknown and comfort with trying, learning, and even with a little failure. In my experience this is not that common!

Nancy:  Let’s talk a bit about stepping into reality, the launch of the course. This was your first time facilitating an online learning course. What happened?

Emilio: The beginning was very stressful. There was a moment where I had to reset my vision that I had created at the beginning of this project. We thought we had everything planned by the Thursday before the course. We were prepared to send a message out  to the people who had signed up for the course, expecting them to register on the actual Moodle site, and begin surfing the site and get fully on board on the first Monday of the course.

Then our partner failed to send us the list of participants in time and we had to postpone the launch. Once we got the list, we sent the welcome message on a Thursday. And yet by Monday people had not surfed the website and registered. I had to say, “wait wait, convince yourself, just don’t get frustrated.” This is what we were paying for: a pilot to experience everything, anything that can go wrong. It is better to experience it now. Next time we will do it better. That will be the real start.

This process takes a little bit of emotional intelligence. You can’t lose your focus. You have to learn in the experience. Don’t focus on the idea that this is the official worldwide launch of your elearning program, but a learning experience. So it was not a big deal. Just a couple of hours of freaking out.

Nancy: Now that you have had the experience what reflections do you have about moving and facilitating your successful F2F course? How did you engage people?

Emilio: Other than wanting to respond more quickly? (Laughter: Emilio was amazing – he was not only teaching online for the first time, but he was doing it WHILE he was on the road for work!) Here are some of my lessons.

First, what should I do about participants that belong to a group not responding to each other? I see the first person in that group posts and gets no response. I wondered, should I intervene? I wondered about how to  group participants in some way, to point out some challenges and invite others to react. But I didn’t hoping they would eventually engage. There were two groups where no one commented at all. If I were to do it again I would immediately ask others to post something.  

Nancy: There are more experiments with gamification in online, where, for example, you get points towards badges for responses. I’m not always sure of the long term benefit of these kinds of incentives and if they actually support the learning, but they appear to get people engaged in the moment. Maybe it can trigger learner socialization quicker and be something useful to explore.  Because as you noted, participation in the design of this course assumes people will interact with each other. So socialization of the group is the first step towards that participation, and later is essential for successful group work.

Emilio: Second, I can teach from anywhere. I could see that in our pilot. I was travelling like crazy. Another take away is the real leverage of technology. I could be doing different things in different places in the world and still deliver a course. You see people are learning from anywhere. If you compare that to level of effort for a F2F course, it is a trade off. But the value is there and you as an officer, can become much more productive. Once you invest in the up front work of design and planning, which was more than I expected.

There are some challenges to this anytime/anywhere though! I feel a bit guilty. I could have done a better job dedicating a bit more time overall. Once I woke up I did not realize the time difference in the office hours and had to wake up at 3am. There are a couple of times I knew I was responding two days later. I know that shouldn’t happen, how I wanted it to be. I wanted to respond within 24 hours.

Emilio: Third, include a synchronous element. The most effective tool I feel I had was our weekly synchronous “Office Hours.”  They gave me an opportunity to introduce a dose of F2F interaction which is fantastic.

During the office hours I got a chance to interact with the participants. They would post several questions. The sharing the screen was super critical. I surfed and took them where we wanted to go, to a question related to a graph or slide and explain it. You can sense by the comments – “oh yes, thank you this clarifies a lot.” We quickly solved problems.

Also, just by hearing their questions I could pinpoint those slides where the message may not be that clear and I would edit a couple of things right away. So it helped me get clearer as well.

We tried to record and post the recordings for those who could not attend due to work or time zones, but we had some technical problems. We will try and fix that next time. But I will also really encourage the participants to attend, because it brings the passion for the subject matter and the collegiality which is needed for the group work and active participation. The people who attended office hours were also the people who completed the course!

Some ideas for next time is to expand the use of office hours to help better set up the groups and the process for the group work. Maybe teams could have a private chat or meeting once a week and I could use some questions to help them get to know each other in the context of the course. That leads to my fourth learning: group work requires building relationships. Our group exercises need to be reconsidered (design) and I need to figure out how to get people comfortable enough with each other to actually engage in the group work.

Nancy: Yes, that is really hard, particularly when the participants have allocated an hour a day for three weeks and there is a lot of material to cover!

Emilio: Fifth, don’t do this alone! Milica was my assistant and she was always there. One time I could not log into the office hours and Melicia took care of it. In hindsight, we should have included her earlier in the facilitation conversations and planning. Part of the team. You and the other consultants Cheryl, Terri and everyone were very helpful.

Nancy: What was the facilitation highlight for you?

Emilio:  The first and second Office Hours were critical. The course was mostly asynchronous. I knew people were coming in. I logged in and I saw people logging in and that made it real. There are people there! They had interest, and were  asking questions, actually reading the slides. I could see the numbers (page views). But until you talk to them, see them asking questions, it is hard to see if they really are reading the material. When we held our weekly synchronous Office Hours, this became much more real.

Nancy: So would you keep doing this?

Emilio: Absolutely yes, I’ll keep doing this. Reflecting on it now, and putting into perspective from an administration standpoint,  what I produced during those four weeks of the course, there is an increase in efficiency. I delivered a course – granted for 7 people – but while I was working Bangkok, Mexico and then Peru. Pretty impressive. Amazing, yeah. I had good connectivity fortunately.

Up Next: Reflections from the whole team

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Mar 18 2015

A Webinar on Facilitating with Technology With 36 Co-Presenters

NancyAtWorkOver the past few years I have enjoyed being part of the MAFN Webinars. MAFN is the Mid Atlantic Facilitator’s Network. They offer both online and offline professional development gatherings. Last Friday, Amy Lenzo, Nancy Settle-Murphy and I were ostensibly the “presenters.” I think I want to shed that title. May I be done with presenting, please? And by the end, I realized it was a conversation with 36… so they are all presenters too!

We designed the 90 minutes to minimize the presentation and maximize the engagement. I appreciated both Amy, Nancy and the great MAFN team of Michael, Dan, Fran and Meaghan — all ready to try new things and stretch ourselves.

We each had 5 minutes, then we were, as they say, off to the races. (You can see the five questions here in the PDF –> The Edge o fOnline Facilitation MAFN March2015 4 Blog.) In this case, it was a chat race. (At least it felt that way to some folks. I love it. Maybe I was a chat racehorse in my past life?) We then finished this first section with the following question:

HighestAspirationforOnlineEngagement

There were 36 participants (maybe a few less with a couple of duplicate log ins, etc.) and there was this amazing chat stream of ideas. So fertile and interesting. I wanted to share the key points.

  • How can we network our intelligence to solve the huge problems facing the world/us?
  • For on-line engagement to be as powerful and impacting as any face-to-face activity.
  • Better connect with people all over the world.
  • . . that it might be superior in some respects to face-to-face engagement
  • People feel like they are in the same room even though they are notaspirations
  • Making deeper (non-trivial) connections with people at a distance
  • For participants to feel energized and that they have had an experience
  • To “level-set” the stakeholders’ understanding of the problem or challenge that all are facing.
  • When the offline culture is not very participatory – using online/virtual to create exchange and relationships and change the culture a little bit.
  • I think work has to meet human social needs.  Online engagement is quite powerful because it can bring  people together socially around quite microspecific topics and concerns
  • People feel a sense of community, leave with  decisions and catalyze action
  • To introduce & discuss the change process in a positive energising atmosphere when some people are resistant to change
  • Participants learn, understand, and feel connected to one another
  • Superior to face-to-face in some ways because many people can “talk at once”.  Appeals to some participants who might be hesitant to speak in a standard classroom
  • Downplay power distances
  • People actually “hearing” the words others were saying; a participant once exclaimed: We were using the same words but we did NOT mean the same thing
  • People who are not technically minded can participate easily and are engaged
  • Human connection across geography with powerful problem-solving
  • Doing strategic planning for a global association on-line (different time zones, cultures, etc., in addition to all the normal human differences)
  • Online engagement feels like in-person engagement
  • Environments that are truly connected – where each of us feel deeply connected to ourselves – our own thoughts and bodies and full selves; to each other; to the natural environment and to the larger world we’re part of. Intimacy and Scale.
  • That it truly engage and lead to the desired outcomes
  • The technology is secondary – the community and results are foremost
  • Create a level playing field so all can contribute to the best of their ability
  • Speed and access to expertise
  • Every voice contributes
  • Making on-line meeting not just a one-off  — so make it a practice that folks will get comfortable with over time (it won’t happen the first time, magically)
  • The fact that the presenters can’t “keep u” means this is more participation than would be possible in person
  • The challenge with online is that the human connection is mediated and distorted by technology. My aspiration is that the technology would feel invisible, or better yet, would be a catalyst for connection.
  • Highest aspiration:  hold onto the social aspect of learning
  • My highest aspiration is connection. Task completion is secondary.
  • Shared meaning … Having folks all proclaim: “I see, hear, & feel and understand.”

These 30+ people aren’t thinking small and I was encouraged and delighted. And from there, the conversation proceeded, mostly in chat and the rest of us with mic access sprinting to keep up became a cauldron of ideas and insights. The group segued from aspirations to questions and how to’s. Within the ideas there were also the meta comments about being challenged being in a text only environment, the pace, the sense of both richness and chaos. It is interesting to read back through the chat and try and pick out some key threads, and to discern where people are “coming” from with their insights. Some are clearly self-defined as trainers, others as facilitators. Some carry the context of the type of organization they work for, and others as consultants range across contexts.

Here are a few examples:

  • What we notice and aspire too is obviously informed by WHAT we do. There were trainers in the group. People embedded in and in the context of organizations and their constraints. Consultants who ranged across contexts. This informs the type of “how-to” people sought or suggested.
  • Everyone is interested in technology, but often in very different ways. Some want to know about the latest technologies. Others are interested in the impact of technology on our interactions. This quote really drew me in after someone talked about the way technology can distort our experiences: ” The presence of technology DOES change and effect the HUMAN experience and connection.” This segued into a conversation about how technology can/might not level the playing field. We are just beginning to really dig into these issues, and move beyond thinking of technology as a tool. I confess I’m getting tired of “what is the best tool for X” conversations and am ready for deeper explorations into the impacts of our technological environments, regardless of what tool is/isn’t available/acceptable/affordable! (Not to diminish those issues.) This is a great topper to this idea that one of my 36 co-presenters shared: “The way the hammer shapes the hand” — Jackson Browne, Casino Nation.
  • We all struggle. Priceless: “My 20th century mind has been struggling to make meaning and order from the chaos of this group chat.” My observation? It is not related so much to age, but I don’t have data to support my hypothesis (says this 56 year old.) The issue for me from the stress of volume is what is lost, as one person wrote, without reflection. (Slow down, Nancy, slow down!) Clearly I’m not the only one with this issue: “I have not been building in enough reflection time in my webinars.  I think it’s because I can’t tell when people have lost interest or when they are thinking.  Could be an insecurity issue for me.  Need to work on that!”

There was a lot more and I’m attaching a file with my semi-Sorted Chat Notes.

But here is the capper:

CAN WE DO THIS AGAIN NEXT WEEK PLEASE AND TALK ABOUT THE NEW QUESTIONS?

I love my 36 co-presenters! Co-creators! Co-labborators! Thank you, one and all. You help me…

thinkmoreradically

2 responses so far

Nov 17 2014

Beyond the Webinar

The earthLet me confess right up front: I really don’t like webinars. Too often they feel “done unto me.” I am powerless, at the mercy of the organizers. I may have access to a chat room (Thank Goodness!) But more often than not, these are content delivery mechanisms with token participant interaction in the form of crowded Q&A segments or polls with varying degrees of relevance. What is worse is that I have been a perpetrator of these practices so I continue to try and change my evil ways.

Changing ingrained habits requires some reflection – of self and of the state of the practice of these so-called “webinars.”  Recently I had the chance to offer feedback on a webinar I experienced as a recording.  I’ve edited/generalized my thoughts to share. In a follow up post I’ll reflect on my own practice — this is where I need to cut to the bone!
1. Us/Them: It is logical for an organizer or organizing agency to want to  appear well prepared for sharing their work. We all like folks to know we “did our homework.” We get our slides spiffed up and appropriately formatted for the webinar tool we are given. We time our remarks. We practice speaking clearly and at an appropriate pace.

The challenge this presents is that the end product puts the speaker and/or the organization at the center. We create an us/them dynamic before the event even starts. Think about set ups where the only ones who can use the voice tool to communicate are the organizers. Those who bear the presentation file are in control of the message. The tool administrator(s) control the process (i.e determining that they speak for 60 minutes, then there is Q&A.)

The use of a one way style of presentation reinforces the power dynamics of the speaker/expert/organization as central, and everyone else as “audience.” All too often, the audience is never heard. Is that a good use of precious synchronous time? Why not send out a video or narrated PowerPoint? An online gathering is time better spent as a multi-directional mode of “being together” — even online. This does NOT diminish the importance and value of content we “deliver” to others. Here are some options to consider.

Options:

  • Move away from meetings that are primarily broadcast which holds control with the presenter. Sharing information is essential, but synchronous time should always have significant multi directional interaction. For my colleagues in international development, I think everyone has values of inclusiveness and shared participation. We have to “walk this talk” in webinars as well.
  • Small things can create or break down us/them.  For example don’t just show where you are on a map at the start of a webinar, add dots for all the participants and their locations. Better yet, use a tool that allows them to add their own dots. Help the group see not only you,  but “we” – all the people working together about something we all care deeply about.
  • Because we lack body  language online, it is useful to really scrutinize our language.From the wording in the slides and by the speaker, consider changes in language so that it is more inclusive of the participants.

 

2. Strive for  good practices for learning/engaging online. Webinars in general run the risk of being even less engaging than a dark room face to face with a long PowerPoint. There is a saying in the online facilitation world “A bad meeting F2F is a terrible meeting online.” So we need to be even more attentive to how we structure online engagements to reflect a) how adults learn b) the high risk of losing attention (especially due to multi tasking) and c) the cultural and power diversity inherent in your group. Quality content is important, but it alone is not a reason to use an interactive platform — you can deliver content in many ways. Choosing a synchronous mode, to me,  implies interaction.

Options:

  • Consider keeping online meetings to 60 minutes. If not, do a stretch break every at 30 and 60 minutes. Say “let’s take a 60 second break.” Stand up, stretch, look away from the screen and give your body a moment of respite. We’ll call you back in 60 (90-120) seconds (sometimes a bio break is useful!)
  • A useful rule of thumb is to break up information presentation with some means of audience engagement/participation every 7-15 minutes. Use polls, chat, “red/green/yellow” feedback mechanisms, hand raising, checking for understanding, etc. This may mean you have someone facilitating these other channels if it is too distracting for the host and speakers. (Over time it does get easier, but practice is critical!)
  • Take questions approximately every 15 minutes vs holding at end. People stop listening carefully and are thus less prepared to ask questions after longer periods of time. (They are also more prone to multitasking, etc.)
  • Don’t just deliver information – use narrative. Stories hold our attention better than a series of bullet points. In fact, ditch those boring slides unless you are using the printed information to make it easier for people coming from a different first language.
  • Deliver the useful content in a different manner and use the webmeeting entirely for questions and interactions. Send a recording introducing the team. Send a narrated PowerPoint about the topic. Keep these content packages smaller. For example, if you were trying to give an overview of a portfolio of projects, you could break it up into some sub packages. 1) about the team 2) strategy, 3) project descriptions, 4) monitoring and evaluation strategy, etc.
  • Secondary tip: Do not think of these information products as polished products — don’t waste energy overproducing. That sucks the human element out of it. Imperfection is a door to engagement… seriously. Moments of uncertainty, tough questions — these engage the participants.
  • Stay relaxed as a narrator and speak at useful pace for understanding, particularly for those who have English as a second (or third, fourth) language. Keep that human touch. Add little bits of personal information and affect. Be human.
  • Let participants ask question verbally, not just in chat if possible. While there are many technical complications and sometimes the burden of accents on unclear audio channels, voice brings again brings in that human element. (Video does too, but there are bandwidth considerations. When you can, consider using it.)
  • Encourage collective note taking in the chat room or with complementary tool. When people share this task, they listen more carefully and the begin to learn about each others strengths and insights as people add additional information or annotations.
  • When someone asks a question, note who asked the question. This helps everyone see that people are heard, even if the audio option is not practical (for various reasons, no mic, etc. )  At the end of the call, specifically thank by name those who asked questions to encourage the behavior for future interactions.
  • In Q&A sections, consider a visual to help people pay attention. Use the whiteboard for noting the questions, answers, links that refer to what has been spoken about, etc.

There are a few ideas. What are yours?

Also, here are some previous posts about similar issues:

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Mar 04 2014

Faciliplay: Play as an Online Facilitation Technique

Note: Faciliplay: Play as an Online Facilitation Technique was a post I wrote way back in the early life of this blog, before I moved to WordPress. A lot of those posts feel lost, so I’m picking a few and reposting them. Some, like this one on play, need updating or at least contextualizing. This was written in the day when online interaction was centered on discussion forums, so the advice is framed in that context. It is almost quaint.  Today we can imagine and improvise a much broader repertoire of faciliplay. If you have any great examples, please add them in the comments.

Faciliplay: Play as an Online Facilitation Technique (in discussion forums)

by choconancy

First of all, the members of the Fall 1999 Knowledge Ecology University (now defunct) Online Facilitation Course inspired me write this. Their wonderful expressions in “Just Three Words” confirmed what I’ve felt for a while that play can be a liberating, powerful tool for groups and individuals.

The online manifestations for play are varied. Like offline humor, we need to take care that our choices respect or bridge personal and cultural differences. Segmentation of “playful” spaces and activities help maintain topical and project work in the “serious” spaces. The terms “playful” and “serious” don’t need to be so separate, so inviolate. They can be merged with some attention to group dynamics. But that’s for another time.

What I’d like to share here are some resources on incorporating play into your facilitation repertoire for online conference/discussion spaces; a “bag of toys,” if you will, which you can spread out on the “virtual table.” These are primarily for use in asynchronous bulletin boards or discussion forums but if you use your imagination, I bet you can find many other ways to use them.

As background on the use of play in facilitation, you may wish to check out Bernie DeKoven’s “Deep Fun” site at http://www.deepfun.com. Bernie is the author of The Well-Played Game. Bernie has created a playground to share ideas on play for facilitators, therapists and healers.  Check it out. Add your ideas. Let’s play!

Playful Topics

There is a rich tradition in online play topics from social communities across the net. Many of them became “institutions” at such places as the http://www.well.com,  and other communities. Here are some examples:

  • Just One Word/Just Three Words: as the topic explains, each post has a word limitation. This creates a quick interaction opportunity, allows each poster to “riff” of the previous and can spawn some interesting creative runs. Good for freeing up thinking while brainstorming or using other divergent, creative facilitation strategies. Safe place for anyone to post… you don’t have to create a great literary piece to post! If you want to ratchet it up a notch, try approaches like “rhyme two lines:”

It’s better to jump in and try it yourself
Than let a forum linger, closed, on the shelf…

  • The Never-Ending Story/Limericks, and other Continuation Topics: Group creation of a story, poem or limerick draws people back because they want to see how the next person has built on their contribution. This also demonstrates how responding to others and reciprocity can help build the group. Plus, it can be a creative kick in the pants. In watching these topic grow, a facilitator can also get an idea of what type of team player each participant might be. There will be those who will adhere to the story line, and those who always veer. Both are important parts of a group. But it’s nice to know who is who, eh?
  • Community History Topics: Online architect Amy Jo Kim is a strong proponent of a community “backstory” or history. By providing space for the group to record and comment on the history, to actually create it, you can provide ownership and a place to be “seen” by the community through specific additions to the record.
  • Bars/Grills/Coffeeshops: Hanging out, shooting the breeze, playing around with simulacrums of food and drink is very engaging for a portion of your group. These places are safe spots to let us slowly reveal more about ourselves, both in and out of our “task” or “work/business” concepts. They provide some metaphorical “body language.” 
  • What Are You Reading/Eating/Thinking: Easy places to drop information, have fun without a high intellectual or time overhead. And get great tips on new books, movies or chocolate recipies. Good for longer term communities and groups. These topics don’t build the critical mass in shorter, time-delimited settings unless, of course, it is a topic about chocolate (only kidding…) 
  • Confess and Be Absolved: Sometimes you just need to get it off your chest. Master storyteller Paul Beleserene of Vancouver BC started this topic in the old Electric Minds. It was a people magnet. It could be funny, poignant, it could be a safe way to apologize to a fellow community member. And Paul, as host, absolved every single person and sent him or her on their way feeling just a little bit better about themselves. I confess I still love this topic.

Playful Applications of Interaction Spaces

  • Bulletin Boards/Forums/Discussions: Consider creating a segment of your online space for play to ensure it doesn’t jeopardize your “serious” topics. Not everyone likes to goof around. Make sure your names reflect the purpose of those spaces.
  • Chat: Provide open chat room areas for people to spontaneously chat and get to know, talk about non-project issues or just goof around. Schedule chat times for the group as a coffee klatch or cocktail party as a “get to know” function.
  • Instant Messengers: Quick compliments, silly one liners or a quick emoticon wink can create deeper context for your more serious, recorded activities in a conference. Find a place to share IM contacts.

Playful Communications Tools

  • Emoticons: There are tons of emoticons that serve as text “body language.” Some disdain them, but it is helpful to include a little 😉 if you are using irony or sarcasm in the space where tone and facial expression are absent. Here are a few along with some acronyms commonly used online:

🙂 or 🙂 are smiley faces composed of a colon and a right parenthesis mark

😉 or 😉 or or ;-> is a more tongue in cheek smile, wink, employing a semi-colon
:O = surprised face (and there are hundreds of variations)

<g> = grin

D or 😀 = big grin

:/ or :-/ = chagrin, disappointment, etc.

🙁 or 🙁 = frown

btw = by the way

imo = in my opinion (or imho = in my humble opinion)

rotfl = rolling on the floor laughing

lol = laughing out loud

For more emoticons, see Emoticons: Online Body Language

  • Images and Fonts: Sometimes adding a little color or images to a communication can help enhance a message. Here is one of my favorite animated gifs that a member of one of my online communities made in reference to people getting a wee bit too touchy about issues and feeling attacked:

  Image courtesy of Steve Ruano, ©1999 (alas, gif is gone!)

  • Snarfs and Post-a-thons: These are really down-and-dirty techniques that are not for just any online interaction space, but for die-hard online addicts. Most often found in purely social communities, they can inspire quite intense participation and engagement. Now, definitions! A snarf is a post with a particularly toothsome number. Century snarfs (100, 200, 300) are pretty common in big, public communities. Big K’s (1,000’s) are rarer and more prized. Then there are the other odd number combinations which include repeat numbers (555, or the infamous Karen Valentine snarf — 222), numbers with other significance (777, 69) or sometimes people like to snarf numbers that have personal significance like birthdays (51558) or anniversaries. It is totally silly. It can catch like wildfire. It can also destroy the experience for those who do not like snarfing. Consider yourself warned.Post-A-Thons are group efforts to drive up the number of posts in a topic. Again, this is a social community thing. Don’t ask me. I’ve done it. I confess. I really burned out a wrist one weekend trying to get 7,000 posts in one topic as a form of social protest to site management’ capricious decisions at a community that will go unnamed. But you would be amazed how it builds a group over a short period of time. Kind of like a strong, addictive drug. Again, you’ve been warned…. 😉

The best way to understand these playful applications is to visit some online communities and join in. (ALAS, so many of these are gone!) Check out http://www.electricminds.org, (especially the Playground conference),http://www.salon.com (click on Table Talk) or http://www.utne.com . And have fun!

Image of purple lady from Jeffrey Zeldman Presents

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