If you’ve never taught or led discussions online, you might be a little nervous or wary of virtual facilitating with artworks or objects. You may be wondering how your skills will transfer to an online environment or whether your sessions will be as effective or as engaging. Here are my top tips for confidently leading and facilitating engaging discussions about art and objects online.
I started teaching & facilitating online 3 years ago. I was a little nervous and extremely wary at first. I didn’t think that the online teaching experience would match up to the in-person one. Since then, I’ve taught webinars, online courses and masterclasses and facilitated many, many guided discussions about art and museum objects online.
There are those who say that online is not as good as face-to-face. I disagree – I can assure you that you can engage with people, artworks and ideas, just as effectively online as face-to-face.
Certainly, it is different online, but it’s not any less interesting or engaging if you do it well. And in some regards, whilst I agree that nothing beats seeing an artwork or an object live, on screen it can actually enhance the experience – for example, having the ability to zoom in on the smallest of details or seeing the inside of an object that remains closed in the galleries.
Furthermore, facilitating engaging and lively discussions online about your museum’s or historic house’s collection can help you to stay better connected to your audience whilst lockdown or post-lockdown restrictions are in place and guided tours or educational programmes are not allowed.
Whether you’re looking to start teaching online for the first time or whether you’ve already had a go (but are still unsure), here is my sound advice for confidently facilitating effective and meaningful discussions about art and objects online.
Unravel your worries
If you’ve worked as a museum educator or teacher or have led guided tours, there is no reason why you can’t apply those same skills to teaching online educational programmes or guided art discussions.
- Set yourself small goals to begin with and tick them off as you go. Maybe schedule your first attempt with friends/family, try your next practice with colleagues. These ‘fake’ sessions with friends/colleagues will help you to get confident and comfortable with what you’re doing and begin to find your own style.
- When you decide to schedule your first session open to the public, remember to keep it short, and above all, simple. Do not try to reinvent the wheel on your first public virtual discussion.
- Watch plenty of recorded online classes to get an idea of what’s possible/what’s not. Take notes from the ones that appeal.
- After your first session, reflect on what went well and what you can work on for next time. Make a note and do the work.
- If you want to improve more, reach out to someone familiar with online learning and online guided discussions (me!) to teach you how to be a good virtual facilitator.
Get to know the tech inside-out beforehand
It’s easy to get started with Zoom and set up.
You can see all the participants (not standard on all video conferencing software).
It works consistently even in areas with low bandwidth
I can record classes or sessions for those who can’t attend live
The tools are great – particularly the chat box and breakout rooms
I can share my screen easily
Before your actual teaching session, you should have run at least one practise session where you test out all the things that you want to do in your class or discussion. Test putting people into breakout rooms, test using the whiteboard, test sharing a video clip to your participants, test your microphone and your camera. Work out how you want to share your screen – do you want to share your whole desktop or (my preference) just one window? What happens to the chat box when I share my screen?
All of the above have arisen out of real life situations, where the unknown has happened whilst I was teaching a live session. I had to think fast on my feet, but I would’ve preferred being prepared in advance. So, get to know your preferred tech really well BEFOREHAND.
Use the full suite of tools available to you
- Use breakout rooms as these give opportunities for small group discussions and activities and for participants to get to know each other. It increases engagement and enjoyment.
- Practice putting people into breakout rooms (with some pretend participants) ahead of time – with Zoom you can do this manually or automatically (you specify the amount of groups and Zoom does the rest). You can even set the amount of time people will spend in their breakout room.
- Allow enough time in the breakout room – for settling in, reviewing instructions, getting going etc. Remember to give the group clear instructions on what you want them to do and how to do it. For example, will they be muted/unmuted, whether you need a notetaker, or they need to use the whiteboard (and share with you afterwards)
- Reminders sent to the group encourage them to wrap up their discussion or to see that there are only 5 mins left. It can be useful to have someone who is confident with technology in each group – if you need to share screen or use whiteboard etc
- Practise sending people into breakout rooms in advance of the actual session. It will be worth it! For example, I wasn’t sure whether I could share my screen into the breakout rooms so a few friends jumped on a Zoom call with me and we tested it out (FYI, it turns out you can’t share your presenter screen in a breakout room. So, you will either need someone in each breakout to do this or you can provide participants with a copy of what you wanted to share to them)
Plan, plan, and plan again
- Have a plan and go through it meticulously – if you’re using slides, go through them one by one. Write down any instructions you need to remind yourself what to do at certain points. If necessary, put them on a slide so that participants know too. It is easier for participants to follow written instructions than verbal ones.
- Have a plan B for when things don’t go according to plan (at some point in your teaching online journey, things will go awry – like the time I felt smug having sent everyone automatically to their breakout rooms but for some reason two people were left behind and I couldn’t send them to a room for love nor money).
- Put yourself in the shoes of your participants when planning. Go through what you want to do step by step and imagine yourself as one of the participants. Is it clear? Does it make sense? Have I given enough instructions? Do I need to write the question/instructions down in order for the participants to have something to refer to?
- Participants will appreciate seeing your face and hearing your voice. Make sure you can’t see yourself when you’re teaching – it’s really off-putting (you start to notice how messy your hair is or how your backdrop looks) and you will start to stare at yourself rather than looking at the participants.
- Teaching online is a funny one as sometimes your personality doesn’t shine through as it might do in-person. Look into the camera (as if you were making eye contact with people), lean forward to further explain things and use gesture where appropriate. But above all, be natural and relax.
Look out for non-verbal clues
- In an in-person tour, educational programme or activity, you can easily watch out for signs that participants are confused, getting bored or are tuning out.
- It’s definitely harder online but not impossible. Encourage a camera-on culture where possible. If you’re not sharing your screen, try to get everyone’s faces on the screen at the same time (or do this at regular intervals) so that you can observe and look out for any non-verbal clues.
- If you are sharing your screen, on Zoom you can still see some of the group, I regularly scroll through the faces on my participant bar to see that everyone is continuing to look engaged and actively involved.
Encourage interaction & participation throughout
Encourage equal participation as you would do in-person. There are some studies that say that online teaching levels the playing field somewhat and using things like text for interaction offers quieter students more encouragement to speak up and take part. Some people who rarely take part in face-to-face discussions tend to do so more in online ones.
If you’re facilitating a large group discussion, use the chat for interaction and asking questions. Use a few closed questions to establish certain pieces of information (as you would in an introduction on a guided tour, for exampley) but your default mode should be open-ended questions to generate discussion. Do remember that too many closed questions in a row can make people feel like they are being grilled or put on the spot – and this applies online too.
If you’re using the chat for your discussion, you can use it to remind yourself of the different threads of the discussion. This will help you make links between different discussion points which bring the whole discussion together. The chat box works as a really easy form of documentation showing everything that has been said so far.
If you’re a small group, you have several options. Everyone can keep their mics on – this allows for a more conversational, natural flow in the discussion but do bear in mind that you will get people talking over each other and you may spend more time than you want to, actually organising who gets to speak next as the facilitator. If you ask everyone to keep themselves muted, then you can ask participants to signal when they want to say something – this can be by unmuting themselves (if you put all participants in a gallery view on Zoom, you can then see who has unmuted themselves) or by signalling with a hand gesture.
And finally – timing
Don’t make it too long. You can accomplish a lot in 30 minutes with a group. 2 hours is my recommended maximum session length. Online learning is intensive and you need to factor in plenty of breaks and or break up the activity into whole group, small group and individual activities to keep everyone fully focused.. Teaching and facilitating online is also intensive for you, so make sure you manage your energy!
I hope you’ve found this useful. I’d love to hear how you’ve been getting on with leading and facilitating discussions online recently – please share with me in the comments.
Next week we’ll delve more into how you can structure your discussions online, look at questioning strategies and feedback/reflection time too. Read How to Make your Art Discussions Engaging On Zoom (Part 2) now.