From group facilitation online to online group facilitation: Virtual life in the COVID-19 era

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Back in late January, when COVID-19 was barely registering with most North Americans, I participated in Group Facilitation Online, a course offered by ICA Associates, with support provided by a MEOPAR Training Award. The intent of the course was to develop facilitation skills for in-person events, but it was taught online using Zoom, in six two-hour sessions. ICA offers in-person courses across Canada, but the workshop in my city did not fit my schedule. In hindsight, choosing the virtual learning format was a great decision in more ways than I expected.  I didn’t know that only two months later, an in-person/hybrid event I was helping to plan, would become fully virtual, and I’d be using what I learned to help craft the structure of an interactive online event for up to one hundred participants.

As the coordinator for MEOPAR’s Coast and Ocean Risk Communication Community of Practice (CORC CoP), I have worked remotely since 2017, and my work centres around fostering interactions and online engagement among the geographically-dispersed folks connected with our CoP who rarely meet in person. Pre-COVID, webinars, podcasts, video-chats, live-chats, video-conference meetings, and other features of online life were still somewhat at the periphery of our work lives. Now online interactions and communication are front and centre—for better and worse—as many of us work remotely and connect with others through our screens and keyboards. Consequently, the skills needed for online group facilitation; organizing online workshops, courses, and conferences and creating engaging online activities and content are suddenly in demand, as we all scramble to turn our in-person events virtual. At the same time, online fatigue takes a toll as we are living our work (and personal) lives with less human interaction.

So, participating in the online course for me, had added benefits. As a participant, I learned about in-person group facilitation skills, and at the same time, as someone who hosts an online community, I observed the online facilitation skills and approaches used by the two instructors who competently engaged our small group of six to eight students. They used Zoom breakout rooms for discussions; traded co-hosting duties; used Lino for posting ideas on virtual blackboards, polls, and encouraged casual conversations at the beginning of our classes to help us get to know each other, which helped ease online awkwardness. The sessions were two hours long and I soon realized that two hours of intensely focused learning and discussion through my laptop was tiring – different than working all day on my laptop. The course was well worth taking and I was able to practice my new facilitation skills in an in-person workshop just before lockdown in early March.

ICA has shared some resources that are particularly relevant as we all struggle to learn how to improve communication online:  Stories of Online Facilitation and  Insights, Learnings, and Tips for Online Meetings. Do you have a story or tips to share? What works? What doesn’t? Are you tired of online events? As people become more familiar with platforms, is it getting easier? I enjoyed observing the unexpected wave of a pet’s tail in a presenter’s face at a recent online science communication conference—and the presenter’s desperate and ineffective attempts to flatten it. That’s not something you see at an in-person event (and not necessarily recommended for best practices) but it was a light moment in a difficult time.
—by Cindy Marven