How to run remote discussion groups

There are some general skills you need to lead a discussion well, but there are also some particular skills and techniques that apply to remote groups.

First, you need to decide whether you want to create breakout rooms or sub-groups within your larger group. And then you need to consider how you will run the discussion period.

(A) WHETHER TO USE BREAKOUT ROOMS / SMALL GROUPS OR NOT

It depends on the size of the main group and how you run things. If there are 6 people, you may not need sub-groups; if there are 50 you certainly will.

Free-flowing discussion is very difficult in a video conference with large numbers. You need to have a good chairperson/facilitator, or to break into small groups for the discussion period.

How small should the groups be? If they are very small “buzz groups” without leaders, then 3 per group is best, but 4 can also work. If they are more stable groups with people getting to know each other, in the traditional Sycamore model, as if you had a group sitting round a table, then 5 or 6 is ideal, maybe 7, but any larger than 7 is too difficult with a remote group if you want there to be free-flowing discussion within the group.

But it is quite possible to have a run a medium-size group without sub-groups, as long as you facilitate it well. For example, even with 16-20 people, you can meet together and allow people to speak when they wish, using normal good practice for video conferencing: Everyone is on mute; someone indicates they wish to speak (e.g. by putting their hand up); the chair calls people to un-mute and speak in turn; you move onto the next person. Even though this is not the same as a small group discussion, the conversation can flow very smoothly, and you can hear from many voices in a short space of time. The advantage of this is that it gives people freedom not to speak if they prefer just to listen.

SUMMARY:

  • 2-5 people: no need for sub-groups!
  • 6 to 25 people: decide whether you want the small group sharing or not. If you do, then use breakout rooms / small groups. If not, then set the “rules” clearly beforehand: everyone is muted; people put their hands up if they wish to speak; the chair invites people to speak one after the other; etc.
  • Over 25 people: you probably do need to have some kind of small group discussion as part of the session, even if you also have a plenary session with the chair bringing people in one after the other.

Whether/how to keep the same groups each week? Sometimes this helps, but it’s not always necessary, especially if the groups are very small and more like “buzz groups” or 3 or 4 people. If you do want to keep the same groups, many conferencing platforms do not allow this from one week to the next, so you have to allocate people manually each time, in which case you need to make a list of each week of who is in which group!

(B) HOW TO LEAD THE DISCUSSION PERIOD

You can copy and paste the discussion questions for each section of the film into the CHAT area of your conferencing app, so that participants can see them together, instead of having to stay on the Sycamore screen.

Please read carefully the How to Run a Discussion Group page. This summarises some of the skills needed to lead a discussion and some of the principles to try to follow. Most of this applies to remote groups using video conferencing apps.

There is one exception: One of the Sycamore principles is that you don’t pressure people to speak, that they have a right to be quiet and to listen if they prefer, and to try to avoid asking people directly what they think about something if they are choosing to be silent. But sometimes with conferencing apps it is difficult to have a free-flowing conversation (because of the number of participants, or because of the time-lag).

Another tip: Give permission for gaps and silences. You can ask leaders to allow silences to be much longer than is usual (and longer than is comfortable) because the delay in the online platforms and the unnatural nature of online conversation means it will often take longer for people to speak/answer. And people are happy staring into the screen for a bit and thinking, as long as they know this is ok!

The leader can:

  1. Try to keep the discussion free-flowing without too much direction
  2. Or act as a chairperson who allows people to speak when they put their hand up or give a sign, etc.
  3. Or go round the group one person at a time, asking what each person thinks about a topic or question. But if you do this, you need to find a way of not pressuring people, e.g. to say: “Would you like to say anything about this?” or “Would you like to comment?” rather than “What do you think about this?” You need to give shy people a way out