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Reflections from the TCE Support Programme: 12 lessons learnt from digital facilitation


Back in September 2019, on commencement of my role as Head of Delivery working on the Tackling Child Exploitation (TCE) Support Programme[1], I was introduced to MS Teams.

We started using MS Teams to support cross-organisation collaboration across the consortium, and to manage the day-to-day work of the programme. Due to the team living all over England (Bristol, Brighton and Liverpool, to name just a few locations), we store shared files and video call one another, but we didn’t initially use Teams to facilitate workshops or host more creative and interactive meetings.

Facilitating digital delivery is something I’ve had to consider more than ever before in my career. A year on, it feels like the right time to share a brief overview of what we did as a team, but most importantly, what we have learnt and how we hope our learning and experiences may help others. Supporting myself and the programme to develop digitally, we commissioned Mairi-Anne Macdonald[2] (who works as a Delivery Partner on the programme) to support with development and training needs.

Here are twelve things the programme and I have learnt from digital facilitation:

1. It’s OK to make mistakes! Technology has (and still) fails us often – our screens did not share and our mute buttons had a mind of their own! However, it is important to acknowledge that we are learning together and it is OK to acknowledge in the moment when things go wrong, especially when they’re things we can’t control.

2. Embrace silence. We often work in busy environments, where we balance increasing demand with reducing resources. Finding the time and space to reflect is challenging. Working from home has been great for some, and a nightmare for others, and whatever your home circumstances, video calls all day are super tiring! There can be a lot of over-stimulation when it comes to online engagement, and presenters often try to cram as much information into a session as they can.

In this context, it is important to hold a space for silence and to allow people the time to reflect. This can feel uncomfortable for facilitators, especially if they don’t know how much time to allow, so tell the group you’re allowing 5 minutes to reflect. It can also feel uncomfortable for participants – we’re just not used to silences online. To be sensitive to this, the team started off with very short periods of reflection and gradually lengthened them as people began to feel the benefit.

3. Less is more. Keep your sessions simple and concise. Online workshops don’t have to be all singing and dancing. It’s important to be mindful of an individual’s learning preferences and cognitive loads. More can be gained from a meeting when the agenda is stripped back and activities are specific (with scheduled time for quiet reflection). Expect that everything you plan to do will take much longer than you anticipate, so make sure you allow space for that. Also, don’t expect people to learn new digital skills whilst giving them new information. We have found this to be important and advise choosing either one or the other, e.g. introduce using a Miro board for a topic you know your attendees feel comfortable and confident with, or, if the topic is new to attendees, take notes during session discussions.

4. Allow more time to plan a digitally facilitated session, and always ask yourself, What does this session hope to achieve? If you plan to use content you’ve used before, consider how you can repurpose it and structure it differently to work best online. For example, intersperse activities with input so you keep participants engaged. Keep sessions short and interactive. For example, think about redesigning activities you would use post-it notes for, and think about how this could work online. There are lots of online tools and capabilities built into Teams and other software, but you also have to consider the experiences and confidence of those engaging in the activity for it to work. This links to point three.

5. Choose ‘e-tivities’[3] that reinforce the purpose of the session. Whilst planning, challenge yourself to consider what it is that you need from the session vs. what you want, and choose e-tivities that will help you to achieve those outcomes. This will help to minimise complexity. Another plea on behalf of those of us who are in endless online video meetings: please incorporate plenty of screen breaks, ideally every 15 or so minutes. These can be a quick 60 seconds to close your eyes and think of something else, or anything that takes your focus off the screen for a short while. 

If you’re running a longer session, make sure you include a longer break (5-10 mins) for participants to stretch their legs, take a comfort break or make a cuppa. Sections of the session where the facilitator is speaking (‘knowledge transfer’) should ideally be no longer than 15 minutes. Sections of the session where participants are engaged in a task or discussion together (‘peer learning and knowledge creation’) can be longer, just make sure you allow extra time for them to leave their discussion groups and return to the main room!

6. Don’t be afraid to make changes during the session. Whilst planning, allow for plans A, B and even C. We acknowledge that this can take some confidence, but trust your instincts. If the session isn’t working, don’t let this make you feel as though you’re failing. Try something else, implement plan B.

You might find it helpful to establish a separate (non-visible) Teams chat, or a WhatsApp group, so if you want to switch things up, you can coordinate this with your colleagues without leaving them surprised by the change of direction.

7. Understand that different skills are needed for digital facilitation. Identify the range of skills between you and your co-presenters. Then map these to the skills you need to run your session, and utilise them to the group’s advantage. Examples of different skills required are:

    • listening
    • keeping the session on task
    • time keeping
    • asking difficult questions to appropriately disrupt and challenge the session.

For example, you might have a facilitator who is excellent at asking a powerful question vs. someone who doesn’t know much about the topic being discussed. This aids with encouraging people to be clear and explicit in their discussions.

8. Ask simple questions. We have reflected often on the power of a good, simple open question. Linking back to our ‘less is more’ point above, fewer,  more concise questions result in richer responses.

9. Acknowledge that building relationships online is not as easy as face-to-face. Have you noticed that in meetings we do not ever really speak about how our day has been or how our morning was? There is none of the ‘small talk’ that can help build rapport between strangers, and we’re not able to turn up to meetings with a pack of biscuits to share!

It takes ‘effort to create an effortless space’ (TCE Delivery Partner). For some of the reflective and supportive (but at times challenging) conversations, trust can take longer to build. Some ways around this is for facilitators to arrive early to meetings to engage people in discussion as they enter the virtual room. As part of introductions, ask the group to share something they would normally share if they were meeting face-to-face.

Another idea is including check-ins and / or ice breakers at the start of a session and an activity at the end to close it. Building such things into your sessions can help to break down barriers, build relationships and support participants as they exit the virtual space.

If budget allows and you’re holding a conference or training event, you could even send out gift bags.

10. Online attendance can be greater and broader, but people cancel more often (and frequently at the last minute). This could be for a host of reasons. For example, people feeling less guilty for cancelling as facilitators have not had to travel for hours, that the subject matter is not important to them, or simply double booking (easier to do when accepting meeting invites, rather than booking travel and accommodation, etc.).

However, it’s important to acknowledge that people cancel for personal reasons too: we are still living through a pandemic and we continue to be impacted by it in many ways.

11. Manage engagement and pace. Engagement goes beyond people having their videos turned on and lots of nodding. We are trying hard to push beyond ‘surface level’ engagement to generate the same (or at least similar) energy levels that we might achieve in face-to-face meetings.

By investing time and energy into carefully planned sessions, we aren’t just thinking about the content and whether or not the learning outcomes will be achieved. We appreciate how busy people are and we want them to feel their time with us was well spent. We don’t want our programme meetings to be just ‘another Teams session’ in the calendar. We all know that sense of dread!      

We have also observed that it takes time for people to ‘warm up’ during meetings, and we don’t know what meetings people have come from, or are going to next. The aim, then, of putting more time into planning, asking powerful questions, choosing purposeful e-tivities, incorporating opportunities for reflection, and including screen breaks, is to manage the engagement and pace of a session.

12. Brief your co-facilitators and allow time before and after sessions for reflection. Facilitating is exhausting and takes a lot of mental energy – more and more of us are experiencing ‘screen fatigue’. Meeting with co-facilitators before a session can help you to think through any last minute questions, and post-session de-briefs are helpful to reflect on what went well, what could work better next time, and to provide mutual feedback.

We aren’t saying we’ve perfected digital working. We’re definitely still on a steep learning curve alongside our Partners. However, it’s important to notice what habits have been picked up from working digitally, and to review those ways of working.

A year into the pandemic, online meetings remain the norm. It’s important to consider what disciplines to put in place so that you and / or your colleagues can work more effectively in digital spaces.

What are your hopes for the future as we continue to work remotely? Mine are that I create digital spaces where people are consistently clear about what they will achieve during a meeting, actively engaged and able to contribute, and that I can finally embrace moments of silence!

To read more about how the TCE Support Programme responded to working digitally to facilitate Bespoke Support Projects and what opportunities and challenges working in this way presented see our Project Learning Reports.

[1] The TCE Support Programme is a consortium programme, funded by the Department for Education and led by Research in Practice with the University of Bedfordshire’s International Centre and The Children’s Society.

[2] Mairi-Anne Macdonald has a social work background and has worked extensively in professional learning and in digital learning, supporting the development of digital skills and introducing innovation in digital learning in the social services sector.

[3]E-tivity is a term coined by Professor Gilly Salmon (2002) to describe a framework for facilitating active learning in an online environment. An e-tivity involves learners interacting with one another in an online communication environment in order to complete a particular task.

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