Engaging Communities Through Issues Forums

Online Forums

Forums can be conducted online and there are pros and cons to conducting the forum in a virtual setting. Some of the advantages include attendance by some for whom distance would have been a barrier to attend, eliminates travel expenses, eliminates travel time, lower costs for organizers and attendees and encourages participation by those who thrive in online settings. Some of the disadvantages might include that it assumes technological literacy of participants, it can discourage or eliminate participation by those without equipment to connect or slow or no connection (Wi-Fi or cellular), social cues can be more difficult to read, it can discourage participation by those who do not thrive in online settings and there is no real opportunity for networking and relationship building. Whether in person or virtual, it is important to have someone in place to handle the technical aspects of the forum. In a virtual environment, it would be understanding and managing the platform, such as Zoom. Some items to consider include:  To assist with taking attendance you will need a waiting room and sign in process; you will need to be able to identify individuals so you can place them in breakout groups.  If using videos, you’ll need to be sure they are in a format that is easily shared over the platform - MP4 Videos  Ability for small group discussions in breakout rooms  Ability to conduct polls and evaluation assessments - Polling Software  Individuals with training and expertise to handle technical problems, record, breakout group management  Ability to manage the recording and editing of the recordings  Presenters and facilitators feeling comfortable with the technology If you choose to conduct a forum online, spend time finding the best online platform for your needs. You will want to compare the features of video conferencing options such as limits to number of attendees, licensing fees, accessibility, availability, security, and functionalities available for the price. In terms of functionality, important considerations for the forum include the ability for breakout rooms, ability for participants to participate with video and audio on, you may want to record both the full participant sessions as well as the breakout sessions, the ability to poll and for people to chat and ask questions. Another consideration is the agenda. You will want to consider the length of the event, length of each segment of the agenda and utilize strategies to keep participants engaged. Offering breaks and, additionally, incentives to encourage people to return from breaks. Lastly, how will you handle materials you would distribute in a face-to-face setting? Sharing ahead of time, preparing Google Doc versions of documents that can be shared and filled in with notes during the breakout small group settings. Because part of the goal of the forum is to build relationships and develop community engagement using strategies to encourage interaction will be important. Simple things like requesting everyone with video to turn it on, reporting out small group discussion results and using trained facilitators to help guide interactions will be helpful. Additionally, you might consider:  Assign a planning team member to moderate and introduce speakers and sessions  Assign one to two facilitators to monitor chats, Q and A and manage breakout groups  When sending attendees into breakout rooms, be sure to provide instructions and at least one facilitator in that breakout room.  Assign one to two facilitators to each breakout group, predetermining when or if facilitation and notetaking will be the job of a single person or separate people  For note taking and group thinking, utilize the white board function within the platform, if available or set up Google docs or similar options to share screen of notes as you would a flip chart  Include report-outs from small group sessions as you would in-person  Incorporate intentional and regular opportunities to interact (polls, break-out rooms, chat box)  For breakout sessions where groups are self-selected, remind participants they can change break out rooms as they would move to a new table, if desired  Be clear with participants about whether recordings or chats will be shared and if group notes will be shared and with whom.

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