Monday, May 9, 2016

FLO @ ABEABC Conference

Sylvia Riessner and I were invited to facilitate a morning session at the Adult Basic Education conference held in Harrison Hot Sprints. We were excited about introducing the Facilitating Learning Online workshop (FLO) to the ABE community of educators, and also to meet up with graduates of the Facilitator Development Online workshop (FDO). As is often the case, we experienced that powerful connection that comes with first collaborating online around a shared purpose then meeting for the first time face to face. We had several opportunities to share stories and laughs throughout the two days.

Michelle Vanderpol, Leonne Beebe, Sylvia Currie, Sylvia Riessner, Viviana Chiorean
For the Facilitating Learning Online session SylviaR and I decided to organize the time so that less was spent on explaining and showing, and more on sharing and generating. We tried a little experiment -- combining a brief and mostly visual overview FLO, with 2 liberating structures activities to explore specific topics related to facilitating learning, plus a 3rd liberating structure to get folks acquainted and thinking about workshop goals and outcomes.

  1. Impromptu Networking
  2. 1-2-4-all
  3. What, So What, Now What

I've used Liberating Structures (LS) a few times in various workshops and meetings since I was first introduced to this "repertoire" by Nancy White a few years ago. Nancy described LS as a way to be together, engage with each other, and unleash everyone. Sound perfect? Darn near! We've since used LS at BCcampus frequently, hosted a multi-day workshop with Keith McCandless, and moving forward, and now we're exploring the use of LS in synchronous sessions. 

During the planning process I began to wonder if we were becoming String Beings. :) SylviaR and I (aka "The Sylvias" -- even listed that way the conference program!) would settle on one LS, then realize we were sort of using another, and that a good way to bookend the session was with yet another. We also found that we were quick to decide which LS to use without really thinking through the implementation details. It took several rounds of planning to really settle on how everything would play out. We broke several LS rules, but isn't that expected? 

Wherever we go, we're "The Sylvias"

The plan

SylviaR and I used a Google Doc to sketch out our plan. This has become our go-to planning tool for our work together. It's so easy to create a table (Time, Activity, Who Leads, Notes, Supplies), edit it jointly, and comment/alert to questions and decisions.

Here are the main steps from our notes. Warning: this plan might only make sense to us!:

Welcome and Overview
Welcome people to event,
Who we are
Why we’re here
What session is about

Impromptu networking in a circle 
Setup (3-4 min)
Brief intro of Liberating Structures
Explain activity & review invitation:
Who are you? (name)
What do you do at work?
What do you hope to gain from the session?
Ask them to write responses on index card

Run Activity - keep that bell handy!
Help participants form 2 small circles
Count off “1-2” - 1’s in the middle of a circle, align 2’s on outside
Ring bell - try 2 min then move to next person - rotate outside circle clockwise
& counterclockwise in 2nd circle
4 -5 repetitions roughly
Hand over (exchange) your card to the last person - explain that that person is responsible to check-in with the owner of the card at the end of the session.
Allow 2 min to close activity - ask participants what they thought of the LS - how might they use it or?

The FLOW of FLO 
Explain brief tour of FLO, course is available as OER for exploration at any time
Explain What, So What, Now What as a facilitation strategy
Generate some questions you have about facilitation

Slides to touch on structure, highlights, and themes (Assessment, Workload Management, Responsive Facilitation)
Pause points for question jam: After each theme overview (aligns with stations)
Write a burning question on an index card (will use later in pair activity): So what? Why is this topic important? What do you want/need to know about it?
Collect cards and place at relevant station.

Setup - Now What? 
Think about the topic that is most relevant for you - where you have something to contribute or you want to achieve something in relation to (refer back to intro activity)
Self-assign to topic stations

Setup Introduce activity & LS structure

Random Ranking - scale of 1-5 each person ranks each card at their station - which is of most interest / useful

Pair - with 1 card 
What do I
Why do I
How do I

Must Dos and Must NOT Dos

ALL at Station
Share your lists - add ideas from group to each list.
Call time - select one Challenge card and Lists with large group
3 Station reports to large group

Impromptu carry forward - 
Pair up with person you exchanged cards with during Impromptu Networking activity
Check in on this question:  “What do you hope to gain from the session?”
ALL: Any surprises? Disappointments? Recommended next steps?

Closing - summary and thanks

How did it go?

Our session ended up being very, ahem, layered. We had a sidebar discussion about Liberating Structures for the benefit of the facilitator geeks at the conference. We spent as much time as we could talking about the Facilitating Learning Online workshop. This piece proved to be very difficult -- how to capture the design and dynamics of a 5-week workshop in just 20 minutes, and to an audience who was not all that familiar with learning online. With the remaining time, we whipped through the series of group activities, each one building on the previous. This is when you realize that 90 minutes is not very long!

I was completely energized by the discussions and focus. They had a heap of interesting "So What" statements. I regret that we didn't have time (days!) to explore all of them. Here's a selection, with some minor edits for brevity:

  • Time to provide instructor feedback seems to take forever. How can I change my working habits?
  • Is there a way different tasks involved could be broken down, with allocated times (realistically)?
  • Priorities! How do you decide?
  • How to you equate the workload with online and f2f facilitators?
  • How do you stop when the students still need support?
  • How can we limit time spent assessing?
  • How not to get bogged down and burnt out when the workload increases
  • How do I get students to not wait until the last minute
  • How do you give meaningful feedback when there is so little time?
  • Decide when to participate
  • Know when to step in, and what my participation should look like
  • How do we motivate learners?
  • How much help should I offer? How to help students to help each other instead?
  • How not to over facilitate
  • How not to be an "anxious annie"
  • How to know when to not respond
  • Students lose interest in reading / doing online
  • I need to learn the most optimal form of engagement to use
  • What the research shows is the best style of facilitation"
  • How to design and incorporate different assessment tools online
  • How to make time to learn new technologies
  • How much peer assessment? facilitator assessment? student assessment?
  • Assessment is my least favourite aspect of teaching -- how to enjoy it more?
  • I need someone to fix things for me. When something doesn't work I tend to panic / give up
See what I mean? There are some excellent discussion topics on this list! I'm sure in the groups many of these questions were asked and addressed, but it would have been useful to harvest them. Obviously more time is needed for that to happen.

We gathered up the index cards used in the impromptu networking activity (what do you hope to gain?) and the question jam activity. Hopefully most of the participants left feeling satisfied with what they were taking away --

  • Get some online teaching/facilitating information/experience
  • Learn how to run online courses effectively
  • Learn about any online activities or resources
  • What does online teaching entail?

There were a few that clearly wouldn't have gained from the workshop what they were hoping --

  • How to make online videos
  • Find online resources that are level-appropriate for both high and low level ESL learners

But the truth is, we're not sure how they felt at the end of the workshop. We didn't get to the final question after the impromptu carry forward check in, mainly because I didn't explain all the steps clearly before then ran off to pair up. Ugh. In any case, we are hoping they were happy campers when they left.

Overall, this is how I would rate (quickly) our session on a scale of 1-5
  • Level of engagement 5
  • Confusion 4
  • Understanding of what FLO is all about 2
  • Balance of presentation / discussions 5
  • New information about what is involved in facilitating online 3
  • New ideas to enrich practice 2
  • Opportunity for participants to contribute to the discussions? 5
  • Fun working with Sylvia Riessner 5 :)


There's something to be said for transparent facilitation practices (e.g. share your thinking and strategies about what you are doing and why). However, expect that it can take away from the main purpose of the workshop. I think in this case sharing the Liberating Structures we were using confused some people. We didn't want the session to be about LS, so we only very briefly explained what they were. It wasn't enough.

We should have prepared a handout with information about FLO. Duh! Some promotional material as a way to help spread the word would be nice, as well.

And finally, we really should have spent more time learning about the audience and their reason for being there and adjusted accordingly. That, as it turns out, is my takeaway from almost every conference session. Working on it...

Resources and more information

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