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Many webinars and online conferences today try to increase engagement by sending participants into small breakout groups, giving everyone the chance to contribute to the discussion. Evaluations show that most participants appreciate the opportunity to talk with colleagues and exchange ideas rather than simply listening to guest speakers. However, every time I set up a group activity I notice that some participants simply leave the meeting. Many colleagues have noticed this behaviour and it seems that for some people the prospect of group discussion is not appealing. Working in groups is an important skill and a vital part of the student experience, but is it always essential in webinars and conferences where participants are attending voluntarily and are not being assessed in any way?
I have read comments that group work can be stressful when you are suddenly thrown into a group with total strangers and expected to have a meaningful discussion in only 20 minutes. Sometimes there are group members who dominate the session giving no room for other contributions. Other times there is an awkward silence when no-one really has a strong opinion about the question posed by the organisers. A few have commented that they attended the webinar to learn about a subject they knew very little about and therefore wanted to listen to the experts rather than discussing with other people who also knew very little about the subject. Some group members do not have a microphone or camera and cannot contribute at all or others have a very poor internet connection resulting in poor audio, echo or other strange noises. And some people just don't like group work and prefer to reflect alone.
What can we learn from this then? Here are some ideas but I'm sure there are more.
- Zoom's new function that allows participants to choose which group they join or even to change group can help. At the same time, it can lead to confusion as people move from one group to another and thus disturbing potentially good discussions.
- Offering an opt-out option before group work. Those who do not wish to join a group can stay in the main room and simply mute and switch off cameras and use the time for quiet reflection. Make it clear that this option is just as valid as joining a group. What they do with that time is up to them but maybe they will still be there when the groups return.
- Don't overdo the collaborative elements in a conference or webinar. Many people really enjoy just listening to an expert and have no need to discuss all the time. There is always a risk that group work is included without any real purpose other than just to make the session look interactive. Too many polls, breakout sessions, word clouds etc can get very tiresome.
- Group work takes time to be useful. Explain why you're doing it, "sell" the benefits and give them at least 20 minutes to discuss, preferably longer. Less time is generally pointless. Remember that six strangers who land together in a room need a few minutes for introductions and ice-breaking before starting the discussion.