As an online facilitator for Te Kete Hono Wendy Burne delivers professional development and teacher coaching to schools subscribed to SchoolTalk
Online delivery plays its part in leveling the playing field for professional development opportunities and reaching audiences where location may have once been a barrier. As a facilitator it comes with the challenge of meeting participants through a screen, often with no pre-established connection. Unlike face-to-face communication, it can be difficult in virtual meetings to pick up on non-verbal cues such as body language and gesture. It also does not allow us the time to bond with each other and build formal relationships.
One may wonder can a facilitator foster meaningful connections online that support individual participants on their professional development journey? Does the change of environment from sharing the same physical location to sharing the same online location limit connection?
Here are some of my take-aways for building a successful connection with participants online :
Remove technology barriers that may prevent people being comfortable
For people to be confident and participate fully they need to feel comfortable. Participants may have varied experience with conferencing platforms. Don’t assume everyone is familiar with your choice of platform. Some may need to be supported to grow their confidence in using the technology:
Before the session - Share basic information beforehand via email. How to access and use the chosen platform, troubleshooting, etiquette, what to expect and what the back up plan might be used if technical issues arise.
Waiting Rooms - If using waiting rooms ensure you monitor them regularly. Waiting in cyberspace can be disorienting.
At the start a session and give a quick reminder explanation of how the platform works and etiquette of an online session, use of mute, sharing, parking spaces etc.
Take time to encourage the personal
Don't rush through a session In a location setting, casual conversations before a session or in break times can help build connections. Online, build rapport by allowing time where conversation can occur casually at the beginning of a session. Encourage the informal.
Begin each session with an activity that encourages yourself and participants to share something personal about themselves. This could be related to the topic of the session or something more general. Creating a warm and inclusive environment from the start sets the tone for personal connections.
Plan an inclusive session
Provide opportunities for all participants to share In some situations cross-talking or conversation flow can be a challenge. Encourage everyone to share early on to break the ice. Waiting till later on during a session can produce anxiety for some. Take note of who is sharing, find opportunities to draw those who have not spoken into the conversation.
Plan for small group discussions/ breakout rooms
Give people a space to speak, plan a range of situations where they may be more comfortable to share. Small group discussions or collaborative activities help provide an intimate setting for people to share their thoughts, challenges and insights.
One to one sessions/ coaching
One to one or small group coaching can be a powerful follow up to larger group delivery. They also provide an opportunity to foster a more personal relationship between facilitator and participant.
Send personal emails - with a personal touch
All communication outside of an online PD can support building relationships and help participants feel connected and comfortable.
Mindset and journey
Create a safe space where participants explore where their thoughts and assumptions are. This helps build rapport. Staff may be unhappy or resistant to change and be on a journey of change which may feel unsettling. As a facilitator actively listening without judgment, ensuring participants feel heard by acknowledging, paraphrasing what is being shared.
Remember, consistency is key. Building personal connections takes time, so try to incorporate these strategies throughout your professional development journey rather than just as one-time efforts.