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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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
- Contact skype and offer to collaborate with them to improve the conference capacity of their otherwise excellent free tool.
- Experiment with using MaestroConference for small and large group voice conferencing
- 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.
- 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.
- Debrief my experience with Tracy and Karen and thank them for the rewarding time I had co-creating with them from across the planet.
- 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.