Facilitating online groups sessions

By: Matthew Harrison, Helix Centre

Our own experiences, and those of many others, have demonstrated that when running group sessions through a video meeting platform like Zoom, it is helpful to have two people with clearly defined ‘facilitator roles’. It is very difficult to perform these roles single handedly, even in a small group. This approach is seen widely in online video meetings, not just for people affected by dementia.

Host: The host is the person who will welcome attendees and guide the group through the activity, agenda or conversation. Ideally they are the first person on the call, so that when participants arrive at the online meeting there is someone there to greet them and reassure them that they are in the right place. A key role of the host includes allowing members to introduce themselves, make them feel comfortable and set expectations for the session.

In introducing the meeting, the host may also explain any protocols for the session, which may depend on the number of participants and how familiar the participants are with each other. For example, you might ask people to be ‘muted’ when they are not actively participating to avoid background noise, and to raise a hand when they wish to say something to avoid people speaking over each other. Of course such protocols require extra cognitive engagement when participating, compared to a free flowing conversation, so in small groups these mechanisms may have a negative impact on the session.

Technical support: The technical support role’s primary responsibility is to solve connection issues of the participants as they join the meeting. If they are struggling to find the right link, meeting code or password, the technical support role can be in contact with the participants (by email, phone or text) to help get them the right information and help them join the meeting. It is not uncommon that participants may have successfully used the weblink to connect to the meeting, only to find that their internet connection is not fast enough to support the video connection. In this case, most software solutions offer phone-in alternatives, and the technical support role can have the details of these alternatives ready to share with participants as needed.

In cases of poor quality internet connections, the combination of calling in via phone, and watching the meeting through the app / web link can work very well. If the quality of the audio connection is good, then in most meetings you can participate satisfactorily with a pixellated or sluggish image, as it is still sufficient to see what is going on and who is speaking. Zoom and Starleaf both offer this combined system.

Once the participants have successfully joined the meeting, there are further support functions that the technical supporter can help with. If the activity or agenda requires the host to be very active in their role, then having a second pair of eyes to make sure that people are given the opportunity to participate can be helpful, alerting the host to people who have raised their hand (digitally or physically) and wanting to speak. “Back channel text chatting” (sending private text messages between the host and technical support role, perhaps on a separate device or platform) can be useful between the host and the technical supporter to help keep the mechanics of the meeting running smoothly while not detracting from the flow of the conversation.

The technical support role can also contribute by making notes from the activity in the text chat channel, so that people that miss the audio, or have trouble remembering what is being said can refer to the channel to remain engaged.

In order to make the most of these two clearly defined roles, it is of course helpful to plan them in advance and agree who will do what, and communicate to the participants who to contact during the meeting if they are having technical challenges. For example, share a name and phone number in the meeting invite with the explanation, “if you have any problems joining the meeting please call …. who will be happy to help you”.

Photo by Jens Herrndorff on Unsplash