Photo by/NC from Matthew Saunders' Flickr Stream
TechSoup holds regular meetings for nonprofits in Second Life and I have been attending regularly and sometimes facilitate like this I did this past week. So, I've been reflecting about effective facilitation of virtual meetings in Second Life Right now the primary method of group interaction is via unmoderated chat interface.
Sometimes it doesn't support the process of collaboration effectively for all the reasons we already know. But there is also a trust issue too -- particularly if you don't know all the avatars in real life. Given that you are starting a virtual representation of people - you may be proned to projection.
I've thought using the moderated chat protocol that is interface independent. I learned one from Nancy White when I took her online facilitation workshop. It goes something like this:
-If you want ask a question type ? into the chat line
-If you have a comment or observation type ! into the chat line
-When finished typing, type GA
-If you need multiple lines, use .... at the end of your phrase to indicate you're not finished.
This protocol might make some aspects of inworld chat only meetings smoother and less multiple threads, but introducing it into an established group's meeting practices might be a little like herding cats.
I also find that I reach cognitive overload with the SL chat client pretty fast because: 1.) chat history flys by and I'm scrolling back to catch up 2.) The chat window I'm reading covers up the screen if I want to reach the history without scrolling, so I have to move it around to watch what is happening in world 3) I have to translate the avatar name to real person name and relate to agenda or summary notes that I'm taking elsewhere. 4) There isn't a place inside of the virtual world where you can easily post the agenda and I haven't found a virtual flip chart yet. It kinds of gets in the way of effective facilitation.
I also don't like using chat alone because it sometimes can get chaotic, leads to miscommunication, and feels so slow. That slowness is great if you want to immerse in a conversation where you reflect and explore, but it can be really annoying if you're trying to come to agreement, determine actions, and make decisions. I've always had chat as a back channel to a conference call and used it to summarize key points as a sort of electronic flip chart. There I go again, wanting a virtual flipchart.
At Friday's meeting in-world, someone brought along their roundtable with expandable seats. It worked for me because of the clock technique we often use to facilitate conference calls. Now, if I could just find a flip chart in SL that let's you type in the summary of key points - I'd be a happy.
That's why Nancy White's post on most useful synchronous online facilitation practices really caught my eye. So, I read it with this question in mind: What techniques can be applied or adapted to Second Life facilitation or virtual world interface facilitation? How does SL compare to these other tools and where does it fit on the gradient? And, how does a virtual world tool help or hinder effective online collaboration or a synchronuous online communication?
Nancy takes us through a gradient of modalities and technologies for synchronous meetings. Nancy observes:
For one shot interactions where you cannot expect a lot of investment in learning tools or processes, the conference call (land line and/or VOIP) is still the dominant choice, but I try to include SOMETHING visual in the mix
This is interesting to me because Second Life is quite the opposite - there is a huge investment in learning the tools, there is no audio (although that is changing) and it is all visual. How much does this help or hinder effective collaboration? How might it influence your choice of using Second Life for a project?
Nancy goes on to describe why multiple modalities are important:
The reason to have something beyond the is two fold: one is to increase our engagement and participation, particularly for those of us who are not great in an aural-only mode. With a visual, I'm less apt to start doing my email or staring out the window. For the same reason, I love my cordless phone because I find I listen to long phone meetings better when I can walk around and move away from my computer. It does something to my thinking. I'm still hard wired for VOIP calls and, despite the price, I am tempted to get a bluetooth headset for the computer.
I'm very similar to Nancy in that I have attention issues with aural-only mode. But, I'm also finding when I don't any aural mode for group collaboration meetings - chat only - I start to have similar attention issues. So, that's why I like having both the visual and the aural.
There is a new tool called SecondTalk that lets you integrate skype with Second Life. While not yet perfect as some colleagues have noted here. Problem, of course, is that I'm not sure exactly how it might support a group call on Skype. (There is also the problem that Second Life sucks up a lot of memory, and some folks might not be able to run both apps at once. I know that running both together on my computer slows things to a crawl.)
Nancy's next point is about how the visual and aural support the process of collaboration:
The second reason is other tools can support the process of the meeting or gathering. Using a chat room to collectively take notes, or a wiki to evolve the agenda and take notes during a meeting. Co-editing WHILE discussing a document. Queing up questions in a larger phone meeting via chat so that a) you know you are on deck to speak and b) people have a chance to be heard, especially if they are less inclined to jump in to a conversation.
This gets me back to wanting that virtual flip chart. Another thing that happens and I know there is probably a way to prevent this - is that our meeting are taking place in a busy place where visitors often come by who are not involved in the group. The other day, we had someone come by with their virtual dog who fetching a ball. It's cute, but it flooded our chat transcript with "woof woof." Now, I'm a huge dog lover, but it disrupted the meeting.
Nancy goes on to talk about the type of tool you might consider for ongoing meetings with larger groups:
When you get to the place where you are doing larger meetings (over 8 or so), or are doing ongoing live meeting practices, it starts making sense to consider more sophisticated tools and pratices. This is where things like web meeting tools, co-browsing, and such can be useful.
What I notice about web meeting tools is that most of us don't know how to make the most of them. We may learn how to use all the tools and features, but we haven't had exposure to good facilitation practices. We try and duplicate offline experiences (be they useful or not) and not really take advantage of the medium.
Of course, the meetings I'm attending in Second Life are related to planning and implementing projects in Second Life. So, while some aspects of the interface are annoying - as I've outline above -- it comes back to a question of "What makes for a good facilitation practice in Second Life?" Given that it is a virtual word, do online facilitation techniques used in RL or other types of online applications make sense? How can we take advantage of the medium of Second Life?
I keep coming back to damn virtual flip chart. I posted a question on the educator listserv and there doesn't seem to be one. yet.
Nancy's post continues with some observations about synchronous online facilitation techniques gleaned from reading "Learning in Real Time" by Jennifer Hoffman and Jonathan Finkelstein.
When we facilitate synchronously we not only have to manage the software, the domain of the conversation, but we also are working to legitimately request and get the attention of participants who, for the most part, we cannot see. We have to do this across a diversity of styles and skills. It is truly a "ringmaster" job ....
What I notice is that Jonathan writes about something I learned from my colleague, Fernanda Ibarra. It is the masterful use of a shared white board to move people from being consumers of a meeting to being active participants. Fernanda showed me how she prepared a whiteboard screen with clipart of a circle of chairs. As people entered the web meeting space, she invited them to write their names under a chair. This helped orient them to and practice with the tool, created a sense of "group" and gave a visual focus as people entered the "room." It was brilliant. I've riffed on that idea and found it very useful. We've done After Action Reviews with the white board taking the place of a flip chart used F2F. We've even had virtual parties. This brings together , text, and images.
This starts to get really excited about the possibilities of Second Life and really using the medium. Now what if our shared table (see above) could also be a shared white board -- our collaborative virtual flip chart. Of course, you'd need the aural channel for it to work.
Nancy points to a few good resources on the topic of synchronous online facilitation techniques that I need to explore ..
"Learning in Real Time" by Jennifer Hoffman and Jonathan Finkelstein
Top Synchronous Training Myths and Their Realities - By Nanette Miner
InSynch Training and their Synchronous Training Blog
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