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6 Tips for Setting Up Virtual Professional Learning Sessions

Virtual gatherings for professional learning are convenient and likely to continue, but they should be designed differently than in-person gatherings.

July 6, 2021
lechatnoir / iStock

Last year, many schools tried to replicate the traditional classroom in a virtual format and found it difficult. We can learn from that experience in trying to create virtual professional learning. Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, says, “One of the biggest mistakes we make when converting a physical gathering into a virtual one is assuming it will look the same, just online. As you are thinking about hosting virtual gatherings, don’t confuse your assumed activity with the gathering’s purpose. Your planning should always begin by asking first: What is the purpose now?”

Virtual gatherings are likely here to stay. We will have opportunities to engage more and more in person, but due to convenience, accessibility, and safety precautions, we will likely continue to have some professional learning that is virtual. So we should be intentional about these virtual learning experiences and make the most of them.

Here are some questions to help you get clear on professional learning’s purpose:

  • What is the desired outcome?
  • Who is this for?
  • What do you want educators to get from our time together?
  • How do you want educators to feel?
  • What is the role of the facilitator and the participants?

We converted our mostly face-to-face professional learning to virtual formats this year and have learned quite a bit. We also enjoyed the connections, community, and deep learning in virtual settings. Here are some of our go-to strategies to reimagine the way we gather in professional learning. Note how all these strategies provide options and choices that embrace the variability of how participants learn while engaging them in meaningful learning experiences.

6 Ways to Improve Virtual Professional Learning

1. Celebrate what’s working: Start the session with “Tell me something good!” We love Chaka Khan’s vocals on that song, but the message and the impact are even more important. It’s easy to be focused on what is not working and pinpoint all the things that are wrong as opposed to what is going well. Usually, people freeze because they aren’t used to focusing on something that’s going right, or they just revert back to a challenge. But knowing the benefit, I push each person to focus on some success, growth, or positive moment and share in the chat or small groups if time allows.

2. Make breakout rooms optional: Many of us attend virtual gatherings in spaces that aren’t the most ideal for sharing—and then, boom, breakout rooms. Both of us have attended sessions where we were thrust into breakout rooms while our dogs barked in the background or while we tried to support our kids.

Breakout rooms can be incredible opportunities to connect when we can ensure that everyone has the adequate technology and an appropriate place to learn. But we have to remember that our purpose is often building connection and collaboration, and you don’t need to enter a breakout room for that. Some people face barriers that prevent meaningful connection in breakout rooms, and if we don’t want them to log off, we have to provide other options, such as staying in the lobby and participating in a chat, or writing notes quietly to share at the end of the session in the feedback form.

3. Get your jam on: Not everyone is lucky enough to present with a professional DJ, but if you ever get the opportunity, take it! Before a session, ask participants to share their song. It can be in any genre or language or from any decade. As you transition between sections of the agenda, play a mix of those songs by embedding a link to an audio file or music video. Remember that not everyone will love the music, so remind everyone they can click “mute” if the music is distracting.

If you pair the music with a timer, people who need a more sensory sensitive experience can have a quiet transition while others rock out. Also, whenever you ask a question, put on a timer for two minutes and allow everyone to participate in the chat alert. During the chat alert, everyone can share their thoughts with words or emojis in the chat box, a Jamboard, etc., and they have a choice to listen to music.

4. Give What-I-Need (WIN) breaks: Provide frequent five-minute WIN breaks. Sustaining virtual attention can be challenging. Remind participants that it’s important to recharge, so they’re better prepared to learn. Encourage them to explore provided resources if their interest is piqued, stand up and stretch, refill water or coffee, text a friend, or dance to the tunes you play.

5. Pass notes: As the facilitator, you set the tone, and one way you can invite people to engage with one another is to encourage them to “pass notes.” We know people do it anyway, so make it explicit and give permission to share in the chat, connect with people, and process learning in real time, especially while the presenter is speaking. Remind them that they can use direct messages, send texts, etc.

6. Make thinking visible: A simple and effective strategy is to use Google Slides to create a shared document that small groups can work on to share their thinking and make thinking visible to the facilitator but also to other participants. As a facilitator, you can’t be in every room, and sometimes when you join rooms, the conversations stop. Shared documents help the facilitator keep a pulse on what people are thinking, as well as where there are needs and questions to address. It’s also a great resource for people to take away from the session.

As facilitators of professional learning in a virtual space, we have an incredible opportunity to design learning differently. Consider implementing the strategies above to embrace the variability of your participants, optimize available technology, and, most important, create authentic, meaningful opportunities for everyone to connect, learn, and grow.

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