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Synchronous Scheduling Trips in Larger Distributed Groups
Updated December 2003
Jonathan Finkelstein
Executive Producer, LearningTimes.org, http://www.learningtimes.org
Founder. The LearningTimes Network, http://www.learningtimes.net

Setting a date for a real-time, online event with a large group can result in a mammoth collection of emails in a somewhat tedious exchange of calendar availabilities. We saw this when the over 1000 member Onlinefacilitation Yahoo group tried to self organize for a synchronous tool tour offered by member Robin Good (To read the thread, start here). It can be hard to set a time and date that works for all who want to participate. Here are a few suggestions to help schedule events like this. I'll hope that others will add their own guidance on this topic.

For our list of suggestions, let's assume that:

  1. attendance at the live online event is *not* mandatory, but is an open invitation to a working group or team;
  1. the potential number of participants (or the number of people invited) may be quite large; and
  1. let's also make the very important pedagogical assumption that there is an extremely valid reason that the session is being delivered live to begin with (versus recorded or offered in some other asynchronous manner).

So, some guidelines:

  • The facilitator can use "offline" means (outside of the main discussion area) to gauge good meeting times from a few likely attendees, and then pick a time that works for that core, representative group. Others will then be able to make it, or they won't.
  • The facilitator can simply set a date that works for his or her schedule, and then just stick to it.
  • The facilitator can set more than one time for the event, and offer to repeat the session at two or more times. To accommodate the broadest time zone range possible, the alternate time(s) should consider the waking hours of the other half of the planet.
  • The facilitator can use a web-based polling feature to gauge best times for the most members of the group. The facilitator can start with a set of times that work for him or her (and perhaps a small group of participants). The poll closes in a short, but reasonable amount of time, and the date (or dates) with the most votes are officially confirmed and published. (You can't take too long to schedule these events, or else people who were available when the thread started become unavailable at the selected time.)

The web-based area of the Yahoo Groups has such a polling feature, which would come in handy if this approach were used. (There's also things like e-vite, which could be used to record invitation acceptances, although I personally do not use that tool.)

There will always be people who can't attend. For this reason, the facilitator should plan, when possible, to:

  • Provide minutes or a general summary of the online event for those who could not participate. The facilitator can certainly ask for a volunteer or two to take on this role, so he/she can focus on leading the event.
  • Offer a bandwidth-friendly, web-accessible recording of the event that can easily be viewed/heard online.

The list of suggestions can be somewhat different if the event entails mandatory attendance (i.e. compliance training, student courses, company meetings, etc.). We can craft that list together another time. :)

We're doing something similar to the jungle safari that Robin is leading in the http://www.LearningTimes.org (LT) community. Starting in January, several volunteers are leading "Toolsday" sessions in the live LT Meeting Room, in which a different community member chooses and leads us on an expedition of a different collaboration activity or tool. A rubric is now being developed by the group through which these tools will be selected for review and then assessed during the live Toolsday sessions.

The first batch of Toolsday sessions are set on Tuesdays (imagine that!), at 12:00 noon EST (New York Time). By having the same time for each event in the series, it makes scheduling straightforward. It also means that our friends in Australia either need to be awake at an odd hour, or they will need to see the recording later. For this reason, we have an open invitation for members on the other half of the planet to initiate a series that dovetails with the first Toolsdays, but that begins at a more reasonable time each day. Ultimately, the two groups would then share their unique experiences asynchrononously (via full online meeting recordings, summaries and listservs), and we all have twice the fun!

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