Facilitator Spotlight: Five Questions with Julie Chahal

Julie Chahal is a facilitator at West End Learning Unlimited in Ottawa, Canada, and since July 2020, she has facilitated 18 virtual learning circles reaching more than 300 participants. Her learning circles have covered a wide range of topics, including art, geology, history, disease, music, and astronomy. We strongly believe that anyone can facilitate a learning circle on any subject, and we celebrate Julie’s commitment and enthusiasm for co-learning! 🎉

The P2PU Team asked Julie to share some of her strategies for promoting learning circles, assessing users’ digital literacy, and structuring meetings, and we’re thrilled to share her answers with you.

Can you tell us about your experiences with lifelong learning?

Julie: West End Learning Unlimited (WELU) is a volunteer organization that offers lifelong learning opportunities in the form of a very popular in-person lecture and discussion series in Ottawa, Canada. After COVID, meetings of 150 participants were no longer possible. We wanted to continue to offer opportunities to learn and importantly to keep in touch through this difficult period. Our solution was online learning circles. 

P2PU provided excellent models, software tools, helpful staff, and a supportive community. These made getting started easy.

We selected courses from free online offerings such as Annenberg Learner and Coursera along with fee-based platforms like Wondrium (which many public libraries can access through Kanopy). In most cases, we pruned the course material to fit our in-person model of six related lectures. 

What are your most successful strategies for promoting learning circles? 

Julie: Attracting participants (ranging from 15 to 44 for each series) came easily as we were drawing from an established base of 200 WELU members and nearly 100 more on our waitlist. We announced upcoming learning circles by emailing this group and posting details on the WELU website (welu.ca). We did not limit participation to our own community, and 20% of the participants found us through word-of-mouth or the P2PU website.

How do you support learners with limited digital access skills?

Julie: For the first few learning circles, we used the registration form to ask how comfortable the registrant was with Zoom. Before the first formal meeting, I met anyone with concerns in small groups or individually over Zoom or phone in order to explain and practice computer skills. 

How do you encourage active, engaged participation in virtual learning circles?

Julie: Our format consists of:

  • A very brief plenary session for informal conversation as participants log in, usually starting a few minutes before the scheduled start. Since most of the participants recognize each other from earlier in-person lectures and previous learning circles, I have not felt the need for organized icebreaker activities.
  • I livestream a half hour lecture.
  • I randomly assign participants to Breakout Rooms for a 25-minute discussion. I find that the optimal number per Room is between 7 and 11 people. This allows discussion while still being comfortable for those who prefer to mainly listen. Problems sometimes arise when a few individuals dominate the discussion, and then I make a point of joining the same Room and more actively chairing the session.
  • We wrap up with a plenary session of 5 to 10 minutes to follow up on particularly interesting points, introduce the next lecture, and sometimes remind everyone of Zoom etiquette.

Have any moments from your learning circles been particularly surprising or enjoyable? Were there moments in your learning circles that you found frustrating or challenging?

Julie: I have been overwhelmed by the gratitude of participants who tell me that learning circles were critical to maintaining their sanity and social contacts through the isolation of the pandemic. I encountered a few problems that were readily solved by P2PU staff. While one person volunteered to facilitate a learning circle and many helped me select content, I was somewhat disappointed that so few were willing to take full responsibility for also running learning circles. I was happy to donate my time because I also enjoy learning in a group and socializing. I intend to keep running learning circles, albeit at a slower pace than I have been.

Many thanks to Julie for sharing these experiences with us! We love that Julie took the time to assess learners’ digital skills before the learning circle began. For more tips, visit our topic guide on Digital Literacy designed to help facilitators find readings, practices and courses on the subject. You can also get more advice on Setting up Online Meetings in the Knowledge Base.

Facilitation is a continuous process of trying new things, reflecting on what worked, and enacting new practices. The P2PU community is here to help you as you get comfortable with skills like setting group expectations and delegating responsibilities to your co-learners. Join our monthly facilitator calls on the first Wednesday of every month to get support, ask questions, and share practices with other facilitators (Info+ RSVP)! 💌

Have any thoughts or feedback? We’d love to hear from you – drop us a line at  thepeople@p2pu.org! 🌞

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