Reflections on setting up and running the TLC Badges debate

When we launched the latest series of TLCs one of our aims was to experiment with the format of webinar sessions.  Our intention was to explore ways in which video conferencing tools can be used to enable TLCs that are actively engaging rather than passive experiences for participants.

The purpose of this post is not to reflect on the topic, content and outcome of the debate but rather to share some thoughts and experiences of setting up and managing a debate activity (in a web conferencing environment) that was an attempt to provide an engaging and participatory experience.

To try and give some structure to the reflections and keep things simple we’ll set out the key things we tried to achieve with the debate format, how we tried to make this work using the tools available in Adobe Connect, and our reflections on how things work in practice. You may also find it useful to take a look at the Debate: Session Plan.

  1. We wanted participants to be informed of the views of Chrissi and Ale in advance so they would have a chance to reflect upon their own experiences and have questions in mind from the start. In other words we wanted to get participants thinking in advance of the debate.
    To achieve this we published short positioning statements from Chrissi and Ale on the TLC website in advance of the session.  We included this in our emails promoting the debate, shared it via our social media networks (primarily Twitter) and prompted participants joining the webinar to read them while waiting for the session to start.
    As a result over 150 people viewed the positioning statements from Chrissi and Ale on the website.  With hindsight we should have asked how many of the attendees had read the statements at the start of the debate.
  2. We wanted attendees to have the opportunity to reflect on the presentations made at the start of the debate, discuss the presentations and their own experiences with other participants and to formulate challenging questions to put to both Chrissi and Ale.
    To achieve this we decided that breaking out into smaller groups (6-7 people) would be a good way of enabling people to contribute.  Adobe Connect allows hosts to set up break out rooms in advance so we set up 10 rooms.  Breakout rooms had a share pod which had a slide explaining the breakout room activity pre-loaded and a chat pod for participants who may be unable to use the audio tools. At the start of the TLC we asked for volunteers to facilitate the breakout groups.  While the initial presentations were underway Rod allocated volunteer facilitators to breakout rooms and then split the rest of the participants equally between the breakout rooms. Rod started the breakouts at the prescribed time and after 10 minutes he broadcast a message informing breakout rooms that the activity was about to end. Subsequently, he ended the breakout session and brought all participants back to the main room.
    In practice this was trickier to manage than anticipated.  We did not know how many participants to expect so it was difficult to know how many breakout rooms to set up. In the end we only needed 5. We used a tool provided by Connect to automatically distribute participants evenly between breakout rooms so we needed to delete the rooms that were not needed.  A technical issue prevented this from being done so the allocation of participants into breakouts rooms had to be done manually.  This worked but was a little bit stressful to do on the fly. Fortunately, Rod had been specifically allocated this role. It would have been very difficult for a solo presenter to do this on the fly.
    I think it is fair to say that asking for volunteers to facilitate the breakout sessions may have put people on the spot and we did not get as many as we would have liked.  Consequently, Calum and Rod each needed to facilitate one break out room.  Again although this was possible it meant that they became a little bit stretched in relation to managing the overall environment. It would have been better to have arranged the breakout room facilitators in advance of the debate so that Rod and Calum could have been free to move between the breakout rooms and pick up and support any problems.
    Informal feedback on the breakout rooms suggest that they worked really well.  Some participants mentioned that they were participating from shared offices and therefore valued the ability to contribute via the chat pod. One or two participants had technical problems that led to them being moved from the breakout room to the main meeting room. As Calum and Rod were busy facilitating breakout rooms they were not available to help resolve the problem. Fortunately, Ale and Chrissi had remained in the main meeting room and although they were not able to fully resolve the issue they were able to engage those participants experiencing technical problems in discussion that meant they did not feel they were missing out completely.
    Overall, we feel that the breakout rooms were an effective way of involving participants in high quality discussion. The questions that were put to Chrissi and Ale in the following Q & A session were certainly well considered and challenging.  Breakout rooms are definitely something we will make use of in future but we recognise that good organisation and advance planning are very important to make things run smoothly. Key to this, from our experience in the TLC, would be knowledge of the number of expected participants.
  3. We wanted participants as well as Chrissi and Ale to have the opportunity to respond to questions and we wanted to capture/record as many questions as possible during the debate so that if we did not have time to address them in the 60 minute TLC we would be able to follow up later using the TLC website.
    To achieve this we included a round robin Q & A session following the breakout rooms and also set up a Q & A pod in the main meeting room.  This pod allows participants to post questions that are captured and can subsequently be allocated to specific individuals.  Calum explained the purpose of this at the start of the webinar and then again at the start of the round robin session.  Furthermore, we encouraged participants to post their thoughts to the chat pod and/or to raise their hands during the round robin Q & A.
    In practice, the round robin Q & A worked perfectly enabling the nominated the spokesperson from breakout groups to put their questions to Ale and Chrissi.  A retrospective look at the text from the chat pod shows that participants were able to post their own comments in responses to the questions and answers provided by Chrissi and Ale. Had time been available the round robin session could have gone on for much longer and we didn’t manage to to questions from all of the breakout groups. We did however have several questions posted to the Q & A pod which we are in the process of addressing on the TLC website (Chrissie and Ale are going to respond to questions left in the Q & A pod via a blog post which we will share via our social media networks). Overall, our impression is that the round robin session and the use of the Q & A pod have been effective in enabling participants to ask questions and also to share their own thoughts, experiences and opinions.

Summary

I think it is fair to say that more planning and preparation went into the debate than into our previous TLC (See reflections on Don’t plan to present, plan to engage). In part this was because it involved more people in the delivery:  Chrissi and Ale as our debaters; Calum as the debate chair; and Rod working behind the scenes managing the meeting room. Furthermore, we needed to plan for facilitators in the breakout sessions.  However, we feel that the level of engagement and the overall participant experience was worth the additional effort and we are confident that we have learned important organisational lessons that will make this type of webinar easier to set up and deliver in future.

Rod and Calum

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About Rod Cullen

I am a Senior Lecturer in Learning and Teaching Technologies in the Learning Innovation Team at Manchester Metropolitan University. I have gained considerable experience over almost 20 years in design, delivery and evaluation of online learning, teaching and assessment. I am particularly interested in assessment and feedback practice as well as the emerging role of web conferencing technologies to support blended and distance learning.

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