Friday, March 20, 2009

Facilitating Multisite Videoconference Discussions

Earlier this week, one of our Fellows asked if I had a document on best practices for facilitating multisite videoconference discussions. I was embarrassed to admit that I had never put such a document together, although have been collecting anecdotal knowledge and tips for years. I decided to use today's post as a way of sharing some 'tricks of the trade.'

Ultimately, I believe that facilitating good multisite videoconference discussion is similar to facilitating any good classroom discussion. Although there are distinct differences on how participants (especially students) might seem 'real' to one another in a virtual setting as opposed to being in the same geographic setting. If you're interested in reading more about this, please see
Getting Real in Virtual Talk about Text in this month's edition of Middle School Journal (March 2009). Maren Aukerman (assistant professor at Stanford University) and I co-authored a paper that looks at how students interact with one another via videoconference during virtual reading comprehension instruction.

But as a quick reference, here are some of my initial thoughts on facilitating good multi-site discussion via videoconference:
  • Everything in moderation. Get more than two sites on a videoconference (especially with multiple participants at each site!) with open microphones, and you're asking for trouble. It's important that sites keep their microphones muted unless speaking in order for everyone to hear what is being said. Having a site moderator (someone at individual sites) to direct folks and facilitate participation is a good idea. Often times in an educational videoconference, this can be a teacher. This person is responsible for making sure the person speaking is in front of the microphone and that when a particular site does not have the floor, the microphone is muted. Be careful not to let this person dominate the conversation from their site - - nothing will inhibit student participation more than a teacher or site facilitator that does all the talking for them.

  • Ask open ended questions. Nothing shuts a conversation down faster than asking a yes/no question. In order to elicit thoughtful response, ask questions without having a preconceived answer in mind. For example, asking a student or participant about what they think, their past experiences, their processes, to make predictions or to summarize their understanding will take you a lot further than a question like "did you have fun creating the project?"

  • Use strategies of open dialogue. Your job as the facilitator is not necessarily to evaluate the comments of the participants; it's to engage them in discussion so that they collectively come to an understanding. Therefore, don't place value judgment on responses (try to avoid words like "good" or responses like "you're close but not quite there yet"). Instead, uptake responses (i.e. "So, Sherri thinks that the cow is blue") and invite others into the conversation (i.e. "What do you think about what's been said?"). A particular favorite book of mine on this topic (related to classroom discourse, not necessarily videoconference-based discourse - - although there are definite parallels) is Nystrand's Opening Dialogue: Understanding the Dynamics of Language and Learning in the English Classroom.

  • Promote cross-site dialogue. Getting participants at different sites to talk can be challenging. Explicitly inviting sites to talk to one another will help, even though it might take some time for sites to warm-up to one another. When planning instructional videoconference events, it might be helpful to designate a 'first response school,' especially if students will be sharing work with one another. For example, if School A is presenting, let School C know they are responsible for providing feedback on School A's presentation ahead of time. It's also helpful to provide a framework for feedback (i.e. share something that confused you about the presentation, something you were intrigued by, and a question for the group).

  • Think critically (and plan) for the visual layout of the videoconference. It will be difficult for sites to interact with one another if they can't see one another. Therefore, it's often helpful to use a continuous presence mode on you endpoint or MCU when trying to facilitate discussion. This mode will allow all sites to see one another simultaneously, usually with the speaking site in a large box on the screen and the non-speaking sites in smaller boxes on the screen. As different sites have the 'floor,' the other boxes on the screen will shift. This isn't an ideal mode for presentation (it can be distracting looking at all of the connecting sites when you're supposed to be focusing on a single presenter/presentation) but is great for discussion. As the facilitator, you can instruct sites to raise their hand if they have a comment and call on them -- which will avoid sites doing the mad dash for the unmute button in order to be heard.

  • Plan, Plan, Plan... Although you want to be spontaneous in dialogue facilitation, having a plan is very helpful. When facilitating a multisite event, your participants will be more at ease if they know what to expect. Provide discussion topics, an agenda and preparation materials (even a few website links so folks can familiarize themselves with a topic) at least 48 hours in advance. As facilitator, it's your job to stick to the agenda - - and not to let one site monopolize conversation. Be polite and judicious in your planning and your moderating; make sure that every site has an equal voice.
Of course, this list is a living, breathing and evolving list of tips! I look forward to hearing your feedback and thoughts, too! So please feel free to comment!

Word Cloud above courtesy of (one of my favorite collaborative sites!). I encourage you to visit and create your own!

Aukerman, M., & Walsh, H.W. (2009). "Getting 'real' in virtual talk about text." The Middle School Journal, 49(4), 53-61.

Nystrand, Gamoran, Kachur, ... Opening dialogue. New York: Teachers College Press. Schifter, D. (2001)


Allison said...

Hi Heather,

Love the blog!

I would add to this list that teachers prepare students for the video conference event by completing the pre-event activities. This not only provides needed background knowledge about the topic presented, but also gets the students thinking about questions related to the topic. The teacher might generate a list of the "best questions we have come up with for the video conference." I also encourage teachers to ask for student volunteers to introduce the site and ask questions from the "best questions" list. Not every student is excited to be on camera; in fact, some are quite intimidated. Others think they want to be on camera, but suddenly develop stage fright. The "best questions" list prepares the students with thoughtful questions and provides a script for asking meaningful questions.

Please keep blogging...your work is awesome and inspiring!

Anonymous said...

Great tips Heather. I have a multipoint 'Tips' sheet that might be of interest. It's not specifically for teaching - more for meetings - but there might be a few tips in there that will help.

I can't attach it here - so here's the link to download it from my blog: