Facilitating my first virtual learning circle

I was scheduled to lead a 1.5 day learning circle training workshop for Portuguese librarians in March as part of our three-year project with the European Union. When this trip was canceled due to the pandemic, I had to consider how to approach this workshop in a virtual environment instead. I had some hesitations: while I find it easy to spend a full day talking about learning circles in person, my energy starts dropping after about 90 minutes in an online meeting, regardless of how much I may like the people I’m with or how interesting I find the topic.

Since P2PU’s learning circle training materials live online as a 5-module online course, I decided that the best alternative would be to schedule our training as five 90 minute meetings where our group could work through the material and activities together via video chat. Once we decided when to meet (twice a week Tuesdays and Thursdays), I created a learning circle on P2PU’s website and everybody signed up.

When I participated in a virtual learning circle earlier this year, I really enjoyed using Etherpad as a synchronous note taking tool with my peer learners. Before the first meeting of my own learning circle, my colleague set up a P2PU Etherpad instance and I created a pad for this learning circle, pulling in some of the discussion questions and activity prompts from the online course. Five meetings later, our introductions, check-in activities, reflections, and group discussions are commemorated in 1,236 lines of multicolored text.

There is no doubt that my expertise on the topic and familiarity with the materials helped me a great deal as a facilitator. However, I feel strongly that the time I spent pulling together the Etherpad agenda will make it much easier for somebody else to now facilitate the same course. If you’re interested in facilitating this course as a learning circle please reach out — I’d love to help you get it started!

Below, I’ve highlighted some specific practices that I adopted over the course of the learning circle, some of which you may find helpful regardless of what course topic you are facilitating. 

Establishing a Routine for Getting Started Each Meeting

I settled into a three-part routine for getting started each week: playing music before the meeting, taking a few minutes to orient participants to the tech when the meeting started, and doing a 10-15 check-in activity that leveraged the technology that we were using.

When running a meeting on Jitsi, it’s important to join the call ahead of time, as the first person in the room has the option to set a few administrator privileges (i.e. room password, defaulting participants microphones to be muted). Given that we were already in the room 30-45 minutes ahead of time, I started embedding Youtube videos into the Jitsi to create a sort of waiting room. I also started to solicit songs from participants each meeting and played those songs during the next meeting. This worked really nicely, as many participants would start joining the video chat 10-15 minutes early, but it didn’t feel like we were “starting early”: if somebody showed up right on the hour they wouldn’t feel like they had somehow missed something. Feel free to use songs from my Youtube playlist :).

Saying hi on the Etherpad.

Regardless of what tool you are using, it’s important to make sure that everybody is comfortable with the tools, especially in the first meeting. Rather than just asking “is anybody having problems?”, I prompted participants with activities (like setting their name on both the Jitsi and the Etherpad) so I could easily see who was having trouble and direct support to them. While this took about ten minutes in the first meeting, it quickly became common practice. By the third meeting participants didn’t need any prompting to add their names to the top of the Etherpad. 

Once all of the participants arrived and were acclimated, we would get to a check-in activity. We tried a few new activities during this virtual learning circle, a number of which are shared in the Learning Activities section of the Virtual Learning Circle Handbook. A few that went particularly well included:

  • Drawing a class photo on awwapp (pictured at the top of this post)
  • Sharing hard-to-pronounce words in our native language and playing a game of telephone (imagine people from eight different countries trying to pronounce “Szczebrzeszyn”, a town in Poland).
  • Showing the view out of our window and sharing what we see.

Facilitating in the Main Meeting Room

In setting the agendas, I tried to create as much transparency in the process as possible. By preparing activities on an Etherpad that everybody had access to, my role as a facilitator became primarily a discussion leader and a shepherd of the agenda. A few habits that I picked up along the way:

  • I established a norm that anytime I wanted everybody to share feedback on something, we could speak in the order that our names appeared in this week’s check-in (see above). This way I didn’t need to constantly unmute myself to call on people.
  • During the times that we would all be reading on our own, my colleague would share her screen and put up a timer on Youtube. This way, everybody could see how much time was left until we’d gather again to speak. 
  • Most virtual learning circles require using three separate browser tabs – one for the video chat, one for the online course, and one for the shared notes. I found that many participants hadn’t thought about optimizing their screen setup in order to view more than one tab at a time, and so I frequently shared my screen to model a few different multi-tab setups and encourage participants to tweak their own setup. (Personally, I prefer video chat on the left, notes and courses in a separate window on the right). 
  • I adopted a few other screen sharing practices, including scrolling slowly (to minimize lag), increasing the size of my cursor in my computer’s system settings (so participants could see what I was pointing to), and being strategic about when I wanted to share my entire screen versus sharing a single application window.
  • Since everybody reads at different speeds, I added a written reflection question to the end of each reading section. We developed a nice practice where participants would write their reflections in the Etherpad when they were finished, and then add a “+1” next to other comments that resonated with them. This reduced the feeling of waiting on other participants to finish, and it also gave me feedback on what questions and ideas were resonating with the group.

Setting Up Breakout Rooms

Because we had 19 participants in the learning circle, we broke into small group discussions each meeting to allow everyone more chances to speak and explore concepts with a more intimate group. These proved to be extremely fruitful discussions and a great way to share facilitation responsibility with the other participants. In the agenda, I included 4–5 links to breakout rooms, and asked people to write their name next to the room they wanted to join. Jitsi is amazing for this because there is no need to “schedule” a meeting like there is with Google Meet and many other chat tools—all you have to do is type “meet.jit.si/ANYTHINGYOUWANT!” into your address bar to join a new room. I also found that it was important to always have an option for participants to stay in the main room. This way, if people were unable to navigate between tabs (like dial-in participants or mobile device users), they could still participate in a breakout session.

Participants writing their name next to the breakout room that they are going to join.

There are a few different ways that we used breakout rooms:

  • Random (Room 1,2,3,4): The most simple way to create breakout rooms is to simply append a single number to the end of your main meeting room URL. This makes it very easy for participants to jump between breakouts and the main room by adding or deleting the number from the address bar in their web browser. 
  • Low-stakes names: Naming rooms “north, south, east, and west” or “spring, summer, fall, winter” gives participants the opportunity to opt into a trivial but memorable “identity” that creates a shared connection amongst people who join that room. This also makes it easier to refer back to their findings in conversations with the full group.
  • Topics: We also experimented with creating breakout rooms named after different tracks of discussion. In this case, participants would join the room named after the thing that they most wanted to talk about.

Wrapping Up

Facilitation is a practice, and there are a ton of things that I learned that I’ll do differently next time. My main facilitation goal with my first online learning circle was to cultivate a space that was structured enough to be productive and flexible enough to adapt to participants’ needs and interests. I didn’t nail it perfectly, but I do think that the overall vibe of the learning circle trended away from preconceptions of a “webinar” and towards a set of norms and practices that we defined for ourselves as a group.

Overall, I think that the tools and methodology I utilized helped participants find the space they needed to both contribute to the discussion and also recommend improvements to the learning environment. A number of participants shared that this learning circle was the first time that they actually looked forward to an online meeting, and I’m proud that nearly every practice I identified above was originally proposed by a participant. We had fun, we genuinely connected with one another and – because of that – we were able to learn a lot as well. 

A class photo we made during a check-in activity using awwapp.

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