What do we mean by engagement online? Reprise from 2009

What do we mean by engagement online? was one of those old blog posts that keeps surfacing. Tomorrow I’m doing a web meeting with a group of people who are designing, stewarding and facilitating globally distributed online communities of work, practice and information sharing. I’ve been revisiting old posts and thought this one from 2009  was worth a re-run. By the way, there is great stuff in the comments from 2009, so I’m also copying that below. What, in your experience, has changed since then? What is the same?

What do we mean by engagement online?

doodleheartCandace Whitehead, the Facilitator Support Specialist for the Florida Online Reading Professional Development project  funded by the Florida DOE and housed at the University of Central Florida  http://forpd.ucf.edu contacted me last month inviting me to participate in a web meeting with the cohort of online facilitators working in learning and particularly around literacy issues. The chance to have a conversation with practitioners is always an automatic YES for me. When we talked, Candace suggested the topic of “engagement.” This blog post is a little bit of “thinking out loud” prior to our conversation later this month.

Some rough definitions…

First, it is helpful to clarify what we mean by “engagement” online or offline. For me, it ranges from active participation in a group activity, to the subtle and often invisible internal engagement of listening, thinking, or taking and using what one hears from a group and applying it within or outside of that group. One one end you have very visible ways to observe and measure engagement. At the other end you rarely even know it exists.

I also believe that we engage with people AND with content. So when we talk about “encouraging engagement online” we should be clear what type of engagement we are talking about.  They are different!

That said, I think MOST engagement in both online and offline groups tends towards the invisible side. Think of the quiet person at the party or lecture, the kid on the fringe of the group playing. They are having an experience of being with a group, of experiencing the communications (verbal and non verbal) of the group.

This engagement may be perceived as positive and/or negative. We must let go of the romantic notion that all engagement is positive to the individual and the group as well as the expectation that all online engagement is positive. It isn’t. Trust me on this one!

So why should we care about engagement?
Particularly in the context of learning?

Well, my guess is no engagement = no chance of learning with others or from content. Again, this hinges on my belief that we learn through engagement both with people and content or the myriad of combinations. Many of us learn just fine by ourselves. Many of us need the social aspect of engagement with others to learn, work and play. I’ll leave the academics and people smarter than me to put the proof on the table. I’ll state as a practitioner, engagement is important for learning for individuals and groups. Period.

How do we encourage engagement online?

Now that some very crude and un-scientific definitions of engagement are on the table, let’s look at how we, as facilitators, can encourage engagement online. And how we encourage specific types of engagement in the service of learning.  For this blog post, I’ll focus on social engagement, rather than solo learner engagement with content. Because this is what I suspect Candace is looking for!

Social engagementimaginethepossibilities

First, remember and use what we know about offline engagement. While these may manifest differently online, we should not forget them. And it is odd, but we often do forget them!

  • Address people by name – they are more likely to respond than a generalized comment thrown out to the group. For example, in a web meeting, toss questions both to the group and to individuals.
  • Acknowledge and reciprocate contributions given to you as an individual and to the group. This is especially critical for first time contributions. Online, it is a way to indicate that you “heard” someone, which might be a subtle nod offline.
  • Ask good questions …. and then shut up and let people answer them! I fail at this one often because I love to ANSWER questions.  This is where self awareness and even separation between the role of facilitator and “knowledgable person” (some say “expert.” I resist that a bit.).
  • Paraphrase unclear contributions to check for meaning (if you are lost, it is a good chance someone else is!)
  • Vary the modality or media to accomodate different needs of participants. Be aware that the way you like to  communicate may or may not reflect the needs of others. Vary and see the response to get a sense of what works for individuals and the group. There are always trade offs to accomodate both.
  • Nibble. Break up delivery of content and intersperse activities. For synchronous engagements, consider 7-10 minute chunks in your plan. Online, resist the urge to offer pages to read and think in terms of paragraphs. People generally learn in smaller bites. Think of the overeating trap at buffets! Not so nice, even if you grabbed three lobsters, two steaks, a pile of asparagus and 5 chocolate desserts.
  • Role model passsion, and your own engagement.

Now, how does this change online? There are two areas that beg for some deeper exploration about engagement, one on the software or tool side and the other on the process side. They are very related, so I’m going to mix them up a bit.

  • speakincolorOffline we have non-verbals and body language to assess the state of people in the room. Online we have to do this with both software and process. From a process standpoint we cannot assume we know the state of the others in the group.
    • For example, silence may mean someone is shy, angry or their microphone doesn’t work –> each of these begs a different facilitation strategy. Process wise, we have to ask more often, to “check in. Build this into your process, especially at the start of an interaction when people don’t know each other and technology issues may not yet be sorted out.
    • Use the metrics tools in the software you are using to keep an eye on page views, online indicators, and other measure that can at least tell you if someone has logged on.
    • Use “text” and visual “body language” online in your own communications to help others enrich their use of text.   Yes, even emoticons,  no matter if you don’t like them yourself. They can give tone to text, especially for people who are less experienced at clear writing. (For example: “I am leaned forward towards my screen, devouring this thread, but I’m not sure I undersand fully what you mean by XYZ ” as compared to “What do you mean?” – which could be read in a serious or mocking tone and perhaps leave the other person thinking you don’t care.) I like including images and small audio clips to help assure we are “hearing” each other accurately.


  • Time is different online. People who are always on and respond quickly experience online interaction differently than those who log on less frequently. (Gilly Salmon called this  ” snowflake time“.) The latter can experience a sense of overwhelm and being “left behind.” Make this dynamic visible to the group and encourage the fast posters to slow down a bit and the others to log on a bit more frequently. Understand that if this gap persists, the group may  splinter. If that is the reality, consider sub groups and weave ideas between them as their facilitator.
  • Punctuate time. Alternate synchronous with asynchronous as a way to keep the “heartbeat” of a group going. Like a first time runner, groups “heartbeats” have to be faster at first to build relationships, establish norms and patterns of interaction. Over time as the runner “trains” the heart beats slower. So with the group.  For example in a three week online workshop I like a  minimum of one synchronous telecon interspersed with asynchronous activity. This is a simple matter of attention – which we always find is in short supply!

Yikes, this is getting long.  And I haven’t even touched on identity! Maybe it is time to stop and ask how you engage others online? Share with us your useful practices and tips!

Blog Comments from 2009

  1. Janeon 08 Sep 2009 at 1:51 pm edit this

    Hi Nancy,
    Great comments and insights. An area that strikes me about online communities versus face to face meetings is the power of questions, provocative statements or interesting artefacts. It’s interesting to see how a question can transform a group – a powerful question can take on a life of it’s own re-energizing a dormant group. I’ve watched this happen over the years with the online facilitators community. The more controversial, the better – conflict online which seems to be fast and furious provides incredible learning not too mention, engagement.

    Awhile ago, I read about a posting on ebay about antique hair pins. Fascinating to see the number of hits this post received and each time someone added to the knowledge on antique hair pins – (an internal wiki for ebay, I suppose) Who woud have thought a posting on hair pins would have generated so much content and engaged a community of followers. I’m not certain how long the community stayed together but I’m also not certain this matters. Online communities was and wane, dropping in and out of conversations as they please – this peripatetic lifestyle drives dynamic dialogue and ensures engagement – (even if only, fleetingly :-)

  2. […] White of Full Circle Associates has made a very useful blog post asking what we mean by engagement online. Nancy is the preeminent online facilitator, and her answers to her own question are a great outline […]

  3. […] in communities, vocational education and training at 4:51 am by ednavet Nancy White thinks that engagement in any community is on a spectrum from active participation in a group to […]

  4. Marcia Truitton 17 Sep 2009 at 4:27 am edit this

    Your mention of tone is very important. In English classes we were hit with tone and many students did not get the message which is so important in this time of online and text communication. Since voice inflection is missing in online communication participants and facilitators must be very careful with their word choices. Since we are often in such a hurry to finish a task we often are careless with word choice. In face to face communication so many more cues are available.

  5. Cynthiaon 17 Sep 2009 at 8:17 am edit this


    In online learning, one of our hurdles is when we ask our participants to do group activities. Many balk and find reasons why they cannot get together with others for group activities online.

    Seeing your concept of time online (thank you for the visual–it’s awesome), I wonder if you have some insight on quelling these “yeah, but” type responses to group activities in online learning. I think the problem is entangled in the time issue.


  6. Nancy Whiteon 19 Sep 2009 at 4:50 pm edit this

    Marcia, yes yes yes — I think in our hurry we cheat our own communications.

    Cynthia, it is funny you mention this because this ended up be a topic of conversation in an online gathering this past week with a bunch of educators in Florida.

    A couple of the things I do with “yea, but” are:

    1. Start with small, well defined collaborative tasks that build up trust, reciprocity and visibility of the value and interdependence of group work. I find people will be less likely to “let down” someone they have gotten to know a bit. The socialization seems to matter (from my experience working with adults.)

    2. Debrief the initial collaboration to identify what made it work/not work. Sometimes I ask tough questions like “what would happen if you did not participate in this activity?” or “what are the consequences of your non-participation.” (social pressure)

    3. If the group is not being generative in the assignment, “flip it.” So ask for work that is counter productive to the desired outcome (which people often find amusing and think I’m joking). So if your goal was to design a lesson for 10th graders on Beethoven, ask them to design the perfect lesson where students would learn nothing. Absolutely nothing. What could faillsafe this goal? They generate the list. Then ask them how many things are in place for failure in the work they are doing now. Prioritise the top one or two things they can do something about and then they redesign their learning context to support, rather than defeat, participation (ask me questions if I did not explain that very well. ) I learned this from Keith McCandless – he calls it TRIZ.

  7. […] via Full Circle Associates » What do we mean by engagement online?. […]

  8. — Informal Learning Blogon 02 Oct 2009 at 4:26 pm edit this

    […] What do we mean by engagement online?- Full Circle, September 8, 2009 […]

  9. […] What do we mean by engagement online? | Full Circle Candace Whitehead, the Facilitator Support Specialist for the Florida Online Reading Professional Development project funded by the Florida DOE and housed at the University of Central Florida http://forpd.ucf.edu contacted me last month inviting me to participate in a web meeting with the cohort of online facilitators working in learning and particularly around literacy issues. The chance to have a conversation with practitioners is always an automatic YES for me. When we talked, Candace suggested the topic of “engagement.” This blog post is a little bit of “thinking out loud” prior to our conversation later this month. (tags: tm_picks IDEA engagement bestpractices online_learning online_facilitation) […]

  10. […] What do we mean by engagement online? | Full Circle […]

  11. Lucy Garrickon 20 Oct 2009 at 11:12 am edit this


    Enjoyed this post – and your experiences are quite helpful as this is the area that fascinates me most in virtual collaboration.

    I have formed a collaborative learning group on Linked to explore this topic in a socially open forum. I hope you and your readers will consider joining and engaging with this group to share your experiences, knowledge and questions.

    Here is a link to the group http://www.linkedin.com/groupInvitation?groupID=2350136&sharedKey=19C1004846E9

    OR once signed into LI, search on groups for Radical Inclusion – Open Virtual Collaboration

    All the best.

  12. Jeff Hurton 22 Oct 2009 at 7:03 am edit this


    Wow, there’s some great stuff here. I’m a meeting and event professional that focuses on the education design of face-to-face and virtual experiences. I’ve been thinking for some time about how to make our face-to-face events more social, allowing more horizontal, peer-to-peer collaborative learning. So much of conference time is spent sitting passively in chairs listening to an expert “sage on the stage.” Participants want more dialogue and less monologue.

    I’ve also been playing with hybrid meetings, integrating the virtual with the face-to-face to extend the learning experience and allow people to engage with each other and the content. So you’re post resonates with me a lot.

    Dr. Davis Fougler calls “snowflake time” “supersynchrony.” He says supersynchronly allows online attendees to control the level of synchrony with parallel interactions, which magnifies learning opportunities and retention. No longer do learners need to use “turn-taking in discussions,” where words follow words, paragraphs follow paragraphs, people taking turns to speak. Instead of following a single one-way linear straight line fixed presentation, online learners have the ability to break and restore communication linearity. They can scroll back from the moment the statements was posted, while interacting presently in the here-and-now, resulting in several conversations happening all at the same time allowing for additional data flow and increased productivity. He and other researchers call this online productivity “bending time” or “hyper time through polylogues.”

    Those of us that say that is information overload, too much information coming at us at once, have not yet mastered what many Gen X & Ys have: information synthesis. Information Synthesizers don’t feel overwhelmed by information – they either use it or they don’t, but they don’t whine that there’s too much. Oh, wait, that’s a different post than this one about engaging with content and people.

    Thanks for being a springboard for more thinking and allowing me to run with some thoughts here.

Where is the Cooperation in International Development and Cooperation

Warning: The following was written in haste, has repetition and can very much stand a good edit. But if I don’t hit post, this won’t go out. Life is busy.

Earlier today my friend and respected KM/KS practitioner Ian Thorpe Tweeted a link to a consultancy announcement.


I blithely responded:

Now, I was pretty tough on Ian and did not offer any context. Later this morning he posted a really thoughtful blog post on the thinking behind his organization’s desire to have their own internal Knowledge Exchange Toolbox. I started to post a comment, but the comment grew so large I decided a post here was called for.

I’m going to quote a sizable chunk of his post and then my response. But if this interests you, please go read the whole thing.

But, I think there are actually a few good reasons to reinvent or at least adapt.

People working in an organization tend to have more trust, and are thus more likely to use something that has been specifically created for them and has some form of official endorsement. This sounds like “not invented here syndrome” – but it’s not quite that.

The advantages of developing your own toolkit (or platform, strategy, bibliography, taxonomy etc.) include:

  • It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand
  • It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context.
  • The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better.
  • The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects.
  • The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.

Overall these points mean that there is a sense of organizational ownership of the toolbox meaning not only is it officially sanctioned, but also officially supported and adapted to what the organization needs.

Thanks for adding really useful context, Ian. I find your reasoning totally logical. I have also heard it many times at other organizations.

First, can we connect usage to the factors you noted above in the context of ownership? Has anyone objectively looked at how usage of such a tool matters if it is internal or external?

I strongly suspect usage is driven by other, less visible, more informal things like seeing other peers use the tools, having colleagues they value endorse or role model, etc. I don’t have data. But in considering this,  I wonder about our assumptions about

  1. the use of these toolkits in general, and
  2. the importance of the points you make toward use (and improvements going forward).

Or are we just masking or missing the deeper, underlying issues? I really don’t know and I’d really LIKE to know.

I confess, I get totally frustrated when my own clients hire me to do things that are already done. The KS Toolkit came out of that frustration after three separate clients asked for the SAME thing and the differentiating factor was not whether the tool was on a private intranet or public, but branding. Yes, branding. Does that change the value of the toolkit? Should it?  Now, that said, over time the existing Toolkit product needs improvement. And your focus on adaptation is to me SUPER IMPORTANT. The issue of how to create and improve cooperatively sourced products alone deserves another blog post. (Note to self). But lets go back to rationale for internal vs. cooperative, shared resources.

I think a lot of the points you make are right on, but I also worry about some of the underlying causes that make these ideas of “needing internal validation,” “our language” and stuff so important in a field like international development and cooperation. From where I sit, I thought our field has shared goals.   So why do we have these counterproductive insider, invented here, not invented here, we are different from everyone else, etc attitudes? What do they represent? Control? Power? Fear? Territoriality? Reliance on the status quo?

Do we really understand if and why we need our unique products? Or is our vision too limited to see both the value and possibility for, and the mechanisms to cooperatively create, use, and improve resources?

Let me get more specific and look at each of Ian’s reasons for a customized product.

  • It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand. Having a sense of identity and ownership is important. But reinforcing organizational buzzwords and jargon does not help wider cooperation in the development field, no? Why might we want to reinforce this behavior? Think of the “beneficiaries” as well. Doesn’t our insider language and jargon distance us from them? 
  • It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context. This is a compelling argument for internal platforms. Curation, adaptation and tailoring are really useful “value added” to a toolkit. But why not do that adaptation in a public, cooperative platform where others can learn from what you do, particularly those closest to your organizational domains. Why not do it WITH those others? Hm, as I write this, I wonder about shifting from “organizational” context to “practice” or “domain” context. So if tool X is more useful in working with Y population, lets make sure all of us working with Y population have access to that tool adaptation and can contribute towards its ongoing improvement?
  • The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better. I can’t figure out the value of this being internal to an organization. Again, it relates to the practice, no? The global public good here is pretty darn high…
  • The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects. Why can’t this happen in a cooperative platform? Heck, it might even contribute to better interorganization practices as a whole? And who is the arbiter of quality at the tool level when we rarely seem to care or pay attention at the application level where the IMPACT happens, right?
  • The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.  Again, I can imagine this same value on a public/cooperative platform.

Adaptation is an important thing we ignore very often in KM. There is too much sense that replication and scaling are the solution. So I deeply respect this aspect of adaptation that I sense in Ian’s response.

My “yes, and” perspective  is that what you learn/do through adaptation is of value beyond your org. And insights come from beyond your org. And your org exists for public good, right? Why not build more nuanced structures that facilitate open, public, crowdsourced resources, ones that add that layers of adaptation – for example there are other orgs sharing UNICEF’s targets and goals who might also benefit from this need to improve tools.

I fully know that what I’m suggesting is not easy. We have learned through the KSToolkit.org that people DO have different needs, need the material organized or expressed differently. But those reasons don’t appear to be organizational. They appear to be driven by the users context and practice. And that these contexts and practices vary WITHIN organizations, and are often shared ACROSS organizations. And cooperatively creating and supporting a shared resource doesn’t fit into most organizational process or budgeting parameters, so when we see things like the KSToolkit.org we are seeing the work of committed individuals who make things happen, often in spite of their organizations. (And deep bow to all of you, including Ian who has been a toolkit supporter.)

I think there is a much larger, more valuable proposition of opening up some of this work across organizations and getting off the  focus on our organizations. Lets focus on our goals and the ultimate reason we are doing this. So every human being has the right to and access to food, clean water, housing, education and human dignity.

So what are the barriers? What is it we are really avoiding by sharing this “knowledge infrastructure?” Is it convenience? When we work for global public good, what is the cost of this “convenience?” What is keeping us from shifting towards more cooperative and networked structures which can tap a potentially broader and more diverse set of expertise, share the burden of refinement, adaptation, improvement and just simply reduce this recreation? We all need and benefit from the process of adapting and improving tools.  Many of the tools in a Knowledge Exchange toolkit will have relevance to wider audiences. At the same time, so much of what is in these toolkits is not rocket science. What IS rocket sciences is the organizational shifts and changes that actually enable people to USE this stuff. Toolkits are just a resource. And this opens another Pandora’s box for another blog post!

I’ll say it. Lets start breaking down more walls instead of using what is convenient and conventional to maintain the status quo. And a little starting point like KM and KS toolkits seems like an ideal laboratory to find new, cooperative, networked ways to maximize value and minimize waste. Let’s recreate and improve together. Otherwise we are supporting wheel reinvention.

And Ian, thanks for lighting me up to write about this today. You have helped me clarify my thinking. The next two things we need to consider is what it takes to cooperatively create global public goods (and a lot of good people have been doing some great work in other domains from which we can learn), and how to move the tools from toolboxes into practice!

via Why we sometimes need to reinvent the wheel | KM on a dollar a day.

Break Something Once a Week

If you haven’t explored Brainpickings, DO. Inspiration galore. Here is one I grabbed late last year to share…

Andy Warhol meditates:I broke something and realized I should break something once a week to remind me how fragile life is. It was a good plastic ring from the twenties.

via The Best History Books of 2012 | Brain Pickings.

So what am I going to break this week? This month? This year? Here are a few ideas percolating.

  • Break some social media habits (like Facebook!)
  • Break out of my blogging slump and try some new approaches to loose up some ideas that are circling in my head. Avoid circling the drain…
  • Break some bad eating/lifestyle habits — typical new years stuff. But I’ve been making progress.
  • Break out of some of my consulting habits (hm, breaking habits seems to be showing up as I brainstorm…)

So how will this remind me about life and its fragility? It’s power? I don’t think I’ve fully “gotten” Warhol yet.

What about you? What will you pay attention to breaking?

ICRISAT, Panterachu & Hyderabad India

Meditation Group at the Shiva Temple on ICRISAT CampusIMG_3954Sunrise over the ICRISAT campusWheel of the SunIMG_3959Ganesh
CynthiaIMG_3969TPT CenterIMG_3973IMG_3975Sorghum
SorghumIMG_3987Sorghum (sp?)Sorghum (sp?)Pidgeon PeasBreakfast
Lunch!Figuring Out the Impact PathwayOur meditation altarLessons Learned from the Zoom GameIMG_4058Front end of Impact Pathway Wed Morning

Hyderabad December 2012, a set on Flickr.

I was a bit shocked to notice I had not posted on my blog since mid October. Since then I have been to Vancouver, BC, Italy, Washington DC, India and now back to DC. So at the least I thought I’d wave to y’all and share some pictures!

KM Singapore Graphic Facilitation Workshop

It makes no sense to fly all the way to Singapore just for a keynote, so the good folks at Straits Knowledge and IKMS set me up to offer a graphic facilitation pre-conference workshop prior to KMSingapore (#KMSG). 12 folks joined me to explore how we productively use visuals as we facilitate in our work. After some visual introductions, we did the classic “I Can Draw” exercises, then worked on basic visual vocabularies. With that under our belts, we explored how we can use these visual skills in a variety of facilitation settings. You can see the full agenda here. Below are some images from the workshop, including our use of the visual practice “river of life” as a workshop evaluation tool.