Giving a course meeting at distance: the power of asking the right questions

Educational consultant Jessica Hegeman shares her experiences

As a trainer of professionalization courses of teachers and supervisors, I was faced with three options after the corona outbreak: reschedule, cancel or continue. I am in favor of continuing my courses, as this means participants can continue their professionalization as planned. I therefore chose to continue my course meetings at a distance, and convert my face-to-face meetings into online meetings. 

Wow, the full three hours?

My first online meeting (with 10 participants) is a fact, and I am satisfied with how it all worked out. I even used the full three hours. ‘Wow, the full three hours?’, my colleagues asked me. ‘With an active contribution of all participants?’ Yes. It was an interactive meeting in which everybody shared their own experiences and actively participated during group discussions. To facilitate this exchange between participants, I used a PowerPoint presentation and small group assignments which were comparable to those used in a face-to-face meeting. Afterwards, a participant mentioned she was pleased the meeting continued at a distance and that she thought it was a success. So, what was my strategy? Below you can read my step-by-step approach.

Preparation of e-meeting

  • Ask colleagues for tips on how to organize a course meeting at a distance (or search online, the amount of useful tips are growing with the day).
  • Create a meeting guideline in which you describe the ‘rules of the game’ to make the online meeting as effective as possible. Make sure the rules of the game contain information about the meeting structure. You can think about: The role of moderator such as giving the floor to participants who have a question. The role of participants such as keeping to online etiquette. The way questions should be asked such as raising (virtual) hand or via chat box.
  • Send the meeting guideline in advance to the participants, and make sure that participants are aware of the ‘rules of the game’ at the start of the online meeting.
  • Send the PPT presentation in advance to the participants to prepare themselves for the meeting. Ask participants to send their questions in advance so that content of the meeting fits the participants needs.
  • Make groups for the small group assignments in advance so that this does not take time during the online meeting. Also appoint group leaders who are responsible for arranging the small group meetings.
  • Send the group assignments in advance to the participants to prepare themselves for the meeting. These assignments should be described in detail to get the most out of it during an online setting. For example, use think-pair-share. Think: participants write down their ideas to a pre-selected topic/question/case as preparation to meeting. Pair: individual ideas are exchanged and discussed in small groups during the meeting. Share: highlights of these group discussions are shared plenary.
  • Use your face-to-face design of the course meeting as a start, and then optimize it so that works for an online setting as well.

Actual e-meeting

  • Make sure you have a good internet connection yourself, and are online 15 minutes in advance to be able to welcome everybody personally, and give participants time to join the meeting.
  • Repeat the ‘rules of the game’, especially the online etiquette. When the connection is good, participants can leave their camera on as it is more engaging for everybody to talk to real persons than to black screens (or photos). Ask participants to mute their microphone when not speaking to avoid background noise.
  • Realize that ‘online etiquette’, like raising hands or thumbs up/down, does not work optimal when you have a large number of participants in your meeting and do not see all the participants at the same time. If you have more time, you can scroll through the video screens of all participants to see their reactions and can use the non-verbal cues to stimulate discussion. Then describe which reaction you see together with their names, so that they know you are still in touch with all participants.
  • Lead the ‘airtime’ of the participants and avoid that participants speak at the same time, for example by letting participants raise their virtual hands or something that resembles this action. When questions are answered, participants should not forget to lower their virtual hand (this is something to be mentioned when explaining the ‘rules of the game’).
  • Start with the questions that were send in advance by participants to reward their effort to prepare for the meeting. It also creates a nice opportunity for other participants to share their experiences related to the topic and/or ask related questions.
  • You can ask a question to the whole group, just as you would do in a face-to-face meeting. Sometimes participants take the stage spontaneously, especially when they can share their own experiences related to the questions asked and/or to the prepared assignments. Most of the time, it is more effective to give turns to promote group discussion in the online setting. Also since you do not see non-verbal cues easily. An advantage of giving turns to participants is that you can divide ‘airtime’ between participants and give individual attention.
  • You have to wait longer to see a response to a question than in a face-to-face meeting as you miss a lot of non-verbal communication. When it takes too long, it can be helpful to give turns by calling names thereby facilitating discussion.
  • Use a real-time voting tool during your meeting to provoke (short) group discussions. Write down information that is needed to get into the voting tool in the chat box.
  • Inform participants (again) about the procedure of the group assignments, for example about the group division, the time that can be spend on the group assignment and what should be done during the group assignment. Write down the most important information in the chat box as well, for example group division. Also think about a backup strategy to contact group leaders in case a participant does not get invited. Remind that each group should appoint a spokesperson for sharing the highlights during the plenary discussion, so that this does not cost time during the plenary discussion.
  • For some participants it takes more time to come back into the plenary meeting after the small group meeting (you cannot redirect them to the plenary discussion as easily).
  • At the end of the meeting: time to reflect. Ask every participant to write down what they take with them from the whole meeting. After writing this down, also ask to share these insights with the group (this can be done at other time points of the meeting as well).
  • Stay a bit longer for questions of participants.

Lessons learned

  • The power of asking the right questions: Make sure you prepare questions that are related to the topics, assignments and learning goals of the meeting. To enhance learning, and stimulate group discussion about the topic. 
  • Assignments should be very structured to get most out of them in an online setting (and prevent delay). This is especially the case when participants will work in small groups on an assignment as you cannot join groups as easily and (re)direct discussion. You can think about using pre-defined cases, and dividing groups/roles in advance, so that participants do not lose time to figure this out themselves.
  • Being and keeping in touch with all participants is especially important in the online setting. Therefore, try to give the floor to all participants by asking questions to the group, but also to specific participants by calling their name. Reacting on non-verbal cues is challenging, as you do not see all participants on video. But if you do see a non-verbal cue, try to react to it by describing what you see and/or giving the participant the turn. It would be good to switch between video screens of the participants once in a while so that you see non-verbal cues of other participants as well (but then most cameras should be on).
  • Being and keeping in touch with all participants also means that you have to monitor whether there are questions. For instance, are participants raising (virtual) hands or are questions asked in the chat. When you are the only trainer, this can be quite a challenge as you have to switch between different windows (e.g. video screens, chat box, participant list). If you have several windows open at the same time, it could be that most of your presentation is not visible making it more difficult to walk the participants through the content. Having a written manual/script on paper could help to smoothen your story.