Friday, July 18, 2008

Technique for breaking a workshop or class into small groups

Problem: you're running a large meeting or workshop, or teaching a large course. You break people into parallel groups, each working on the same task. Someone keeps notes for each group, on a pad or on an easel. How can you facilitate all those groups at once? After some minutes, it's time for 'reporting out.' How can you keep the reporting from taking too long?

Here's one way to do it. The University of Queensland in Australia (UQ) tried this approach for an ePortfolio workshop in mid-May. (We were helping them with planning and running the workshop.) They planned to divide 70 people into about 5 working groups, each sharing experiences on the same topics. (And, to complicate things slightly, I was assigned to pull the threads together but I was in the US.)

Know about Google Spreadsheets? It's a free web service that allows you to create spreadsheets just using a web browser. Better yet, more than one person can see, and write on, the spreadsheet at the same time.

So the UQ team created a Google spreadsheet with 5 identical worksheets, one for each group. Each group had a facilitator and an 'eScribe' with a laptop, who had already briefed. When the groups started their work, the eScribes already had open spreadsheets with the topics already written down the left hand column of their worksheet. (Each small group was assigned a differetn worksheet - a different tab - in the same spreadsheet; when the groups started, these served as templates for taking notes.)

I had been asked to facilitate all these groups. As it happened, I could not be in Brisbane that day. In fact, I was doing some work at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. At the time of the workshop in Brisbane, I was sitting alone in a classroom with laptop. I could flick from one worksheet to another almost instantly by clicking on the tabs at the bottom of the page, watching the eScribes' notes appear cell by cell.

Each time I saw a note that I wanted that group to "report out," I highlighted that cell in yellow. And they could instantly see my highlights appear! By highlighting only 2-3 cells per group (and making sure there were no duplicates across groups), we could assure brief reports that would probably interest the other groups. After each reporter concluded (just a minute or two per team), I got on speaker (via VoIP), summarizing to the whole workshpo what I'd learned from reading all the notes from all the groups.

Advantages over traditional techniques: because the comments were typed online rather than handwritten, I didn't have to decipher their writing. I didn't have to spend time walking from group to group , and disrupting them as I walked. Instead, I was clicking from one group to the next about every 15 seconds, watching their notes appear. If I had a question or noticed a problem, I could use Skype or a chat window to communicate with Brisbane. If necessary someone could walk over to that small group and relay my question.

I'll never do breakouts the same way again, even in person. Try it! And thanks to the folks at UQ for coming up with this technique!

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