Mini-conference reflections

Karen, Tracy and I conducted our FO2010 mini-conference on 12 Nov 2010 with 14 people from all parts of the planet using skype and iMEET! It ran for 90mins and was called FO2010 Pulling it all together. We intended to work in small groups and a large group to gain deeper insights into each of our reflections about online facilitation.

What happened

Planning

Karen, Tracy and I met via skype and iMEET! once a week for 4 weeks to plan and organise the invitation, starting instructions, agenda, process and roles. We co-created a strong intention to make the participant’s experience engaging, reflective and collaborative. The planning between the three of us went very well and we thought we had all scenarios and contingencies covered to host the event. We each agreed different roles to support each other facilitate the event.

I have a Mac with the latest version of skype for Mac and decided to update to a beta version of skype for Mac. After experimenting with it for a day with I felt that it would be better to return to the reliable version I had been using successfully for many months. I did not want to risk any instability or unexpected glitches during the conference. I did not consult Karen and Tracy about this decision. The skype literature had also confirmed the maximum number for a conference was 25. We felt we could manage 14 OK although the maximum any of us had skype conferenced with was 6. Our backup plan was to use Elluminate or to work with skype only in smaller groups.

Invitation

We invited FO2010 participants to attend the event by registering on the course wiki. We planned to work at different times in 2 small groups or 3 small groups if the numbers went above 12.

Once invitees registered on the wiki we sent them an email with the starting instructions on how to logon to iMEET! and prepare with skype. The instructions allowed participants to get to the homepage agenda on iMEET! where they were free to play around and to seek assistance if they wanted a demonstration of how the site worked before the conference. No one chose this option.

The instructions invited participants to add Karen, Tracy and Mark to their skype contacts list and that Mark would call them at the start time. The instructions did not include information on how to:

  • mute your microphone,
  • add other participants to your contact list,
  • respond to a skype pop-up that says the host has an older version of skype,
  • stay in the one conference chat room,
  • respond if your sound quality was poor,
  • respond if you dropped out of the call,
  • understand the speaking and turn taking protocol.

Start

Karen, Tracy and I met via skype 25mins before the event started to prepare and get ready. We also sent starting instructions to one new registrant and one participant who needed additional help logging on. We started the conference call on skype 8minutes before the scheduled start to allow people to interact and get settled. 4 of the 14 people were not online on skype at this time but they were called on the conference call. I was the host and Tracy would facilitate each of us introducing ourselves, becoming present and hearing each other’s voices. Within the first few minutes some participants had started calling me and each other separately and initiating separate text chat sessions to the conference call. This escalated over the conference and 30mins into the conference there were 25 separate chat channels with different numbers of people in each channel. I was unable to attend to these and facilitate. I also watched my skype list and as many participants tried to call me separately I would hang up and immediately bring them back into the conference.

Tracy invited participants to mute their microphone and then named each person to introduce themselves to establish a speaking protocol. Some people didn’t answer when asked. This creates the uncertainty of:

  • Are they still on the call?,
  • Have they got their mic on mute?
  • Can they hear the request?
  • Is the sound quality on the call poor and people can not hear me?

Middle

A smaller group of people engaged in the conversation and we began to document our thinking by the links in the agenda on iMEET! This began to work well and some people including Sebastian at 3.30am in the morning in India had discovered their own pathway into using iMEET! while being unable to gain the voice connection via skype. Sebastian had made a significant effort to participate at this time of day. With the difficulties in skype we decided to stay in one group and worked our way through the agenda with more stability and confidence in iMEET!

End

We concluded the conference with people debriefing their experience using some specific questions in iMEET! We agreed with participants to make iMEET! available for 48hrs for some asynchronous contributions from participants to conclude their experience. 48hrs later we send an excel document of the iMEET! record to all participants by email.

My reaction

I felt pleased, excited and engaged working closely with Karen and Tracy from the other side of the planet. I felt confident that we had a good design would would offer participants a strong and engaging reflective experience together.

Within the first 5mins of the conference I felt disappointed, distressed and embarrassed at the chaos that was unfolding as people struggled to be in the one room listening and connecting to each other.

I took a deep breath and continued to try to treat everyone with respect and courtesy and recognised that we need to keep going and hope that people could find their own way to participate.

I felt supported and relieved with proactive contributions of my co-facilitators Tracy and Karen. I also gain confidence with the reliability and consistency of iMEET! and how people were using it intuitively and at their own pace.

I was relieved when it was over and pleased with some of the insights that were starting to emerge and documented on iMEET!. I was disappointed we did not get to discuss some of the emerging themes as we intended.

My learning

Write better instructions on how to use skype for conferences. Do not use skype conferencing with inexperienced users. Instructions are not enough to cover the difficulties. People need several opportunities to practice before using skype conferencing effectively. Experiment with different sized groups of experienced skype users to test the specific and detailed challenges each participant may experience and build this into an instruction template.

With good voice connection and ability to break into small groups iMEET! is an excellent agenda driven tool for collaboration and decision making at online meetings. I enjoyed collaborating with my co-facilitators and will look forward to doing more of this in the future with facilitators who have a common goal.

My next steps

  1. Contact skype and offer to collaborate with them to improve the conference capacity of their otherwise excellent free tool.
  2. Experiment with using MaestroConference for small and large group voice conferencing
  3. Make iMEET! available for free to a small group of online facilitators who are looking for deeper engagement from their online communities through gatherings that invite full participation from all participants. If you are interested in this offer contact me in the next 5 days.
  4. Support these facilitators to become proficient using iMEET! and innovate to improve iMEET! as an online facilitation tool before making iMEET! more available and robust to a broader range of online facilitators.
  5. Debrief my experience with Tracy and Karen and thank them for the rewarding time I had co-creating with them from across the planet.
  6. Continue my initial goal of learning to facilitate a community of people working both asynchronously and synchronously over a fixed time period of time to co-create a common document that is a record of their work together including the invitation, group purpose, a project plan and learning reflections.
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8 Responses to Mini-conference reflections

  1. Hi Mark, thanks so much for a very honest reflection of your event on Friday. I must admit, at first I found things to be very frustrating. But I loved the whole concept behind iMEET and given me ideas to investigate for my own facilitation. It was interesting to see just how crap Skype is for more than a couple of people. I shall be a lot more mindful about using it for small groups in the future.

    Thank you so much for all the hard work you and the team put into this. I’m delighted you were able to collaborate with Tracey & Karen, which to me is what FO2010 is all about.

    cheers Sarah

    • markspain says:

      Thanks for your feedback Sarah. I think skype does work well for small groups but people need to be comfortable and familiar with how it can behave and be ready and aware to stay in the same space. I was happy with how iMEET! worked to hold people together on an intended agenda and still have flexibility to make last minute changes.

  2. Karen Humber says:

    Mark – thank YOU for your many contributions to the project including this very through debrief of the process from start to finish. It was a huge learning and really showed me how important it is to thoroughly know the technology in order to be able to troubleshoot or anticipate.

    Your offer to open up iMeet is very generous and I’m debating whether it would work for a facilitator’s networking meeting in January. Beyond voting – is it possible to cluster or group the items according to a pre determined principle in iMeet?

    • markspain says:

      Hi Karen, thanks for your partnering and support on this project. I look forward to our further debriefing. iMEET! is able to cluster contributions by pre-determined categories.

  3. Jane Scripps says:

    Hi Team,
    I enjoyed reading this reflective blog. I am impressed with your level of preparation but also expect it at this level of the game, you are on-line facilitation professionals, I aim to get there in the near future, I am watching and learning from you.

    The Skype thing was a real pain. I use it regularly for family reasons and had not thought I would have any issues, how wrong I was. I did not understand why there was so much activity happening in skype and became more and more frustrated, at one point almost leaving the session, but that would have been a childish response and one that people I will want to work with, experience, so with chin juttted out I continued………and I was pleased I did.

    Please remember that common usage words for you are not for us all, like radio button, and I didn’t take in the instruction on the box in the corner. Perhaps a ‘this is how you do it’ sheet to download and print out would have been useful.

    I understand there are many learners like me who are not auditory retainers of detail, just sense of what is being discussed, we are the ones taking notes hurriedly; and is the reason I didn’t take on board the instructions quickly, might be useful to you.

    Thank you for understanding that reflection needs quiet for many people and as you set up, sometimes some time apart from the event. I should have gone into imeet earlier and started thinking about the questions.

    Once I was used to the format I actually really enjoyed how imeet was set up and would like further opportunities to use it. I am in the early stages of my company’s life and have yet to develop communities, that said I am very willing to be involved in experimentation and on-line facilitation if that helps you and ofcourse it will me too.

    So a really big thankyou for your time and effort, I appreciated it and learnt and learnt.

    • markspain says:

      Thanks Jane. It is nice to hear your voice in a less chaotic environment. I’m really pleased you described your experience so honestly. It greatly helps all our learning. I especially value your insight about how you assimilate instructions in a sheet you can print out.

  4. Kim McLean says:

    Thank you Mark and Tracy and Karen, I really enjoyed the session. I went through the rollercoaster of emotions that is often the case for me in online learning with a new tool – frustration, dissapointment, realisation (aha moment), enjoyment. (I talk about this in my ‘The highs and lows of online learning’ Voicethread http://voicethread.com/share/1423218/).
    By the end of the session I was really enjoying using iMEET and Skype was just the tool for basic communication (talking). We experienced how frustrating and time consuming it can be when there are technical difficulties with the basic/primary tool (Skype). One thing I would suggest is that when we experienced audio problems we needed more specific direction eg”Fred can you test your mic” rather than “who wants to test their mic now”, which caused confusion as many were attempting to speak at once. Overall I had a great time and was glad that I was able to stick around for the whole session (but had to run off to playgroup afterwards), thanks for the experience.

    • markspain says:

      Hi Kim, thanks for your helpful feedback. I still haven’t done my voice thread with you because I seem to have lost the key focus question. I’ve enjoyed listening to others sharing their thinking but would like to have a conversation about the issues raised.

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