When Virtual Learning Is Better Than Face To Face
By Mike McCall

Posted June 7, 2014

Lately I’ve been interested in the use of smart phones paired with web-based tools to make meetings more interactive. (see blog post For This Meeting, Turn on Your Smart Phones). Recently I helped facilitate a session of 150 people where a variety of smart phones were used to allow meeting attendees to provide instant input to the session organizers. There were several useful take-always from this experience.

1- Explore what resources and tools you’ll need to achieve your meeting objectives

  • If the objective is primarily to provide “information by presentation “, then making sure your speakers are available and setting up a good projection system may be all that you need. If your speakers can’t physically be present at the session you’ll need networking, video conferencing or telephony capabilities to enable their virtual presence.
  • If, on the other hand, your meeting process calls for an interactive session with group input (especially with a group of 50 people or more), using smart phones or other devices is a good way to efficiently collect the information from all participants without disrupting the meeting flow. Make sure that the majority of your audience own smart phones and that you offer alternative input options so no one feels excluded. Provide loaner smart phones or Apple iPod Touches , or have a few laptops around the room for people to use.

2 – As the Scouts say, “be prepared”

  • When using smart phones to support feedback and information gathering, plan to introduce the technology early in the session, with a simple ice breaker exercise. This way you’ll know that the smart phone users can access the network and get to the site you’ll be using to collect information. Doing this early will give participants who are having trouble the chance to resolve it during the break before the phones are used for productive exercises. The ice breaker activity should be both fun and representative of the type of use they will be making of their smart phones during the session.
  • Check that the meeting room has cell phone reception. You can always supplement it with WiFi access. In a recent session with over 100 people we made sure WiFi access was available for everyone. We were pleasantly surprised that over 80% of the participants were able to use their cell phones’ data plan to participate.
  • If you are using a web based input tool, keep the URL address as short and straight forward as possible. www.input.com/meeting is much more friendly than www.input.com/directory/companymeetings/may/johnsglobalstrategies.html. Whenever possible email the links to folks ahead of time and ask them to bookmark them.

3 – Leave adequate time during each session for the participants to provide input.

  • Structure 2 to 10 minutes of quiet time into your agenda for participants to respond or comment.
  • Keep participants engaged by giving them visual validation that something is happening. For example, project the comments or poll responses as they come in on the front screen. The presenter may choose to highlight a comment or two and ask participants to provide more feedback. If a significant portion of the room seems to be taking longer than others to respond you may wish to provide those who are done with an opportunity to review what the group has submitted so far or perhaps provide additional input.

4 – Have participants use their smart phones to provide instant feedback during the presentation.

  • For large groups this ongoing feedback can help the presenter build interactivity into what would otherwise be a one-way information flow. Participants enter comments as they occur to them without disrupting the meeting flow, and the presenter or an assistant reviews them and stops at natural points to respond to selected comments.
  • Take into account the culture of the group. In certain cultures it might be assumed that random typing into a smart phone means that you are not paying full attention to the speaker. For those groups you will need to structure set windows of time for participants to provide input. Instead of asking for input throughout the presentation, pause for a minute a key moments and suggest that anyone with a question or comment enter them at that time.

5 – Demonstrate that the input you are requesting from participants is valued.

  • If the participants feel their input is not being valued or will not be used, they will lose interest in providing it over the course of the session and the input will be of a lower quality. Be sure that after the initial ice breaker your next few uses of technology to solicit input are of high value and that value is clearly understood by the participants. In our session we were pleasantly surprised hat over 80% of the people choose to participate in providing real time responses during the sessions. That participation rate started to decline over the course of the session because participants began to sense that their efforts at providing input were not being given sufficient attention during the session.
  • As the responses are coming in the session leader should be reviewing the information and assessing its meaning. then sharing the results with the participants. If it is not appropriate to share the feedback directly, then it’s all the more vital that the reason for wanting this information is clearly stated. When appropriate, make the information available to the participants via a web site or printed copies. This reinforces the value of the input to the participants, makes them feel that their time was productively used, and encourages them to provide feedback in future sessions.
  • After a successful meeting using technology, consider allowing participants (and others) to continue to provide feedback for a period of time after the event. This makes it possible for those creative or innovative ideas which come to mind after participants have had time to reflect can be funneled back into the process and thereby enhance the value of the meeting.

Using Smart Phones or any other technology in a meeting just for the “snaz effect” is not a good idea. But it is a great way to engage your audience, gather feedback and get the group working together. Always identify your meeting objectives first and then determine how best to achieve those objectives. If you decide to use smart phones, make the discussions or data requested of compelling value and equally important, make it fun.

Posted by Mike McCall