Nov 16 2014

What do we mean by engagement online? Reprise from 20019

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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 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 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

    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.

3 responses so far

Nov 10 2014

Ask Me Anything: Knowledge Sharing Through Peer Interviews

This is the third post in a series about how we learn from our work. The first one is here and the second here.

The popular Internet discussion site, has a practice called “Ask Me Anything.”( It is a discussion thread where either some notable is invited in or a member offers their expertise and the other members can ask them, well, anything! It is so popular it even has a mobile app so you can follow the AMAs. Some of the AMA’s are amazing… the insights that emerge when someone asks us a question seem to leap over anything we can prepare. I’ve done a ton of keynote talks, and the best ones have been when someone interviews me. They pull out things I had no idea I knew, and I was able to express them naturally and easily.

What is it about someone asking us questions that surfaces great, sharable knowledge?

This is the question that is part of the second of two experiments we are running with the of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grantees of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program. (Read about the first one here.)We have started interviewing ourselves on the KM team, and have offered to interview any grantee to help tease out and share their insights with other grantees and stakeholders. It is a simple, low risk experiment to learn together and share knowledge

Our hypothesis, or Theory of Change, for the peer interviews is fourfold.

  1. HSLWe are often unconscious about what we know (see Dave Snowden’s great piece on “we know more than we can say and we say more than we can write.”) When someone asks us to “tell them a story” about our work, we are able to on the spot reflect, surface and share insights that might otherwise just stay stuck in our heads.
  2. We are short on time so we are reluctant or unable to stop, reflect, write and share. For whatever reasons. If someone can ask us and even help us write it up, we may be able to jump over that barrier.
  3. Pithy write ups of the insights can be valuable ways to cross pollinate learning in a grant portfolio, particularly if they come in small bites in greater frequency than the formal knowledge sharing instruments of regular reports and journal articles.
  4. Interviewing each other is a generative practice. This is because people like to know they have been heard. Not to freak out my dear science brethren and sisters, but the Dalai Lama once said that human beings “need to be heard, seen and loved, and in that order.” (As quoted in a story from Mark Jones, told to Peggy Holman and noted in her book, “Engaging Emergence.”) In the work world, we often swap in “respected” for loved, because talking about love at work seems taboo in many of our cultures. ;-) All the same, when we take the time to interview each other, to listen and to capture the insights, two things happen. One is the person who speaks often makes concrete, as they speak, thinking that was not yet fully formed or articulated. The second is that when people are heard, they are more likely to offer their knowledge in the future. So interviewing becomes a generative practice.

So far I have interviewed our KM team leader, Pete Cranston. On my to do list is to interview our client, the BDS portfolio lead (who is a pretty freaking amazingly open guy, so I look forward to this), and, after our last call (see blog post 2) I want to follow up with one of the grantees who is asking this same question: how do we surface and share our learnings more effectively. He calls it “process learning.” Some folks call it “working out loud.”

So another experiment has begun. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, do you have any stories or insights about peer interviewing as a learning and knowledge sharing method? Please, share them in the comments!

11 responses so far

Nov 07 2014

Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons – Words to Live By

The work of Elinor Ostrom comes up again and again as I engage with people from different parts of my diverse network. This is always an indicator to PAY ATTENTION. Here is a brief summary of Ostrom’s * Principles for Managing a Commons via “On the Commons.” This has been in my draft file for too long, so I’m getting it OUT!

A classic example of this was her field research in a Swiss village where farmers tend private plots for crops but share a communal meadow to graze their cows. While this would appear a perfect model to prove the tragedy-of-the-commons theory, Ostrom discovered that in reality there were no problems with overgrazing. That is because of a common agreement among villagers that one is allowed to graze more cows on the meadow than they can care for over the winter—a rule that dates back to 1517. Ostrom has documented similar effective examples of “governing the commons” in her research in Kenya, Guatemala, Nepal, Turkey, and Los Angeles.

Based on her extensive work, Ostrom offers 8 principles for how commons can be governed sustainably and equitably in a community.

8 Principles for Managing a Commons

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

As I prepare to facilitate a research scientists team retreat with communications and teamwork on the agenda, I am refreshing myself with some foundational ideas and thinking. Anything else I should be looking at or revisiting?

via Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons | On the Commons.

7 responses so far

Nov 06 2014

Why The ____ Would I Wake Up at 4am for a Hangout? Project Community – CogDogBlog

Why The ____ Would I Wake Up at 4am for a Hangout? Project Community 

Alan shared a great blog post about the final Project Community Hangout – it is wonderful so I’m being a lazy blogger and pointing you towards it. I’ll have a final reflective blog on this… but later! I need to catch up on my sleep first!

Of course, I also have to share the great pic Alan found…

Why The ____ Would I Wake Up at 4am for a Hangout? Project Community - CogDogBlog

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Nov 03 2014

You Can Observe a Lot By Watching – Yogi Berra

watchingbyAliaQunhuaFlickrCCThis is the second post in a series about how we learn from our work. The first one can be found here.

The great American baseball player/philosopher Yogi Berra, said “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

That quote popped into my mind when I was on a phone call with a group of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grantees of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program. We were on a great 90 minute call with those working on projects in Africa when one participant shared this story. The following is a total paraphrase!

I received this drawing of a septic tank from one of our colleagues in India. Looking at it, I saw it was a great design, but I closed the email and moved on. A few months later I visited and saw the remarkable tank and realized what a breakthrough it was and thought, why did I just close that email a few months ago? Why didn’t I share it with a colleague in Africa who I knew would be interested? What was it about that face to face moment that crystallized the learning for me?

“You can observe a lot just by watching.” All humor aside, I’d like to greet that with a rousing “Yes, AND…” The AND is that we are getting so programmed for efficiency, and addressing every little blip on the radar screen that we miss the importance of the things we are ostensibly “watching.” When we go into the field, many of those distractions are electronically de-tethered. We focus, focus, focus on what we actually see in front of us. We ARE watching with all of our attention and thus can reflect on the importance of what we are seeing.

So is the solution to simply go into the field? Well, not so practical. Not so sustainable. Sometimes not even possible, especially for anyone lower on the project hierarchy. It is not equitable.

So what do we do?

We are currently initiating two experiments to try and solve this problem. I’ll share the first here, and save the second for a follow up post. (Focus, focus, focus!)

Shared, Open-Topic Conversations

One is the semi-regular, open agenda telephone calls with subgroups of BDS grantees. The calls were initiated by the portfolio leader, as a response to working with the KM team and hearing needs from grantees. By walking the talk, our client is using his leadership position to invite conversation, versus disseminate requirements or content.

So far it feels like having between 8-12 people on the call is a good size. There is enough diversity, but not too many voices so everyone can have some air time and attention. We use a telephone bridge line and a shared note taking/chatting space. (Our “community technology configuration.”) Currently we’ve been experimenting with Meeting Words (

We do a quick check in, then each person is invited to share some insight about their current work. People use chat or voice to ask questions, answer, look for possible collaboration opportunities, but more importantly, pay attention for 90 minutes to thinking across the portfolio, not just within their project.

Because there are others there “listening” to us, we speak and pay attention differently than a quick scan of an email. My sense is that the more we can recreate the sense that we are together, the more this behavior shows up, rather than paying attention with half an ear whilst doing email and reading a note someone in the office just set in front of us. The shared note taking space helps focus attention and offer different means of engagement. We didn’t have it the first call and I personally felt less coherence. (That could just be me.) When we added it for the second call, people did not have to wait for “airtime” to talk – they could type. In addition, I did live note taking in the wiki side of the page and invited others to improve my note taking. In when the links! In went the correct spelling of a report. And we had very useful, collaborative notes ready by the end of the call. Boom!

The turn taking helps stimulate our past experience of being in a room, in a circle together sharing a beer or coffee, and simply talking with each other.  It helps the shyer people know there will be a space for them, even if they want to pass. It evens out some of the inevitable power dynamics of funder/grantee, boss/team member.

At the end of the second call we asked ourselves if we found value in the call and the meeting words and the quick informal feedback was very positive. I was even surprised at how positive. What did we do right? What could be improved? We still need to answer these questions.

The final piece of these calls is just starting up – following up with sharing of mentioned resources, setting up follow up actions for pairs with shared needs or interests, and development of asynchronous discussion threads of topics identified as useful for more depth.

My key questions going forward on this include:

  • How often do these calls need to be to build sufficient trust and practice to be, and be perceived as valuable and worth the time spent? In other words, what is the heartbeat of this practice? Time is always the scarce resource, so value MUST exceed time spent. This raises the question of what metrics help us understand received and perceived value. Is it important to have metrics or is informal feedback enough?
  • How will the proposed follow up items emerge and how will we discern the value of these experiments? Will we succeed in sustaining asynchronous interaction or is that even another step away from the “face to face attention.” Again, what are our metrics?
  • Finally, if these calls continue to provide value, who else would benefit from/want to attend? How far away from those in charge of the grants should we go? I personally think we miss a LOT by not having these conversations with front line staff, but it becomes increasingly logistically challenging and time is that darn choke point.

Have you done informal, regular knowledge sharing calls? What have you learned about convening them? Measuring their value? Let me know and I’ll share it back around! Because, after all, you can observe a lot by watching, right? J

10 responses so far

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