Designing for online participation

The majority of interaction in a community of practice will take place online. Consider the following principles when designing both the collaborative work space and the online learning opportunities.

  • Design the community to evolve naturally. Because the nature of a community of practice is dynamic, in that the interests and goals are subject to change, activities and the collaborative work space should be designed to support shifts in focus.
  • Create opportunities for open dialogue. While the participants and their knowledge are the communities’ most valuable resource, they need opportunity, and space to dialogue with one another so they can more fully understand the different possibilities for achieving specific learning goals.
  • Welcome and allow different levels of participation. There will be a core group of individuals who participate intensely in the community through discussion and projects. This group typically takes on a leadership role in guiding the group. There will also be an active group who attend and participate regularly, but not to the level of the leaders. There also may be a group of participants who take a less passive role and but still benefit from their level of involvement.
  • Combine familiarity and excitement. Communities of practice should offer the expected learning opportunities as part of their structure, but also create opportunities for members to reflect on and share their learning experience by brainstorming and examining the conventional and radical wisdom related to their topic. Consider how the collaboration tools that are part of conferencing software can be used to do this— voting, short answer polls and white boards are all strategies for participants to share and document their ideas.
  • Find and nurture a regular rhythm for the community. Communities of practice should coordinate a thriving cycle of activities and events that allow for members to regularly meet, reflect, and evolve. The rhythm and pace should maintain an anticipated level of engagement to sustain the vibrancy of the community, yet not be so fast-paced that it becomes unwieldy and overwhelming in its intensity.

Creating a predictable ‘rhythm’ sets an expectation around how and when to participate in the community. A ‘sense of place’ in the minds of community members is created through an integrated, thoughtful combination of face-to-face meetings, live online events, and collaboration over time within a persistent Web environment.
Adapted from: Wenger, McDermottt & Synder 2002

Make meetings matter

Regularly scheduled live online meetings are at the core of a virtual community of practice. They create the rhythm and focus for the community. Many communities combine meetings with webinars to make the most value of time. Meetings are typically scheduled four to seven times a year at regular intervals (e.g., first Tuesday of every month) and follow the natural flow of the school year. Based on the experience of recent Alberta communities of practice, the optimal time for scheduling webinars for educators seems to be from 4 PM to 5 PM on Tuesdays to Thursdays.

Typical agenda items might include:

  • Review of goals of the project
  • Review of meeting or webinar content from previous month
  • Check-in with participants on how they are incorporating new strategies or resources in their teaching practice
  • Sharing of celebrations and challenges over the month
  • Sharing of information about upcoming professional learning opportunities related to the community focus
  • Discussion of ongoing data collection and final products
  • Thank yous to individuals who shared resources, posted new information or hosted visitors

Consider making an archived version of the meeting content available to participants who are unable to attend the live version of the meeting.

Tailor webinar formats to the group

Although an online professional learning session offers the opportunity to increase the number of people who can participate, the number of participants will affect the design of the online meeting or webinar. The general rule of thumb is, the smaller the group, the greater the opportunity for personal interaction and sharing among the participants. The larger the group, the less personal the experience tends to be. However, creative use of technology and facilitation strategies can maximize the opportunities for engagement and interactivity, even in larger groups. A learning experience that consists of a series of webinars, no matter what the size, can offer more opportunities for connection and deep learning than a one-off event.

  • Mini webinars of 5—10 people: These are characterized by a conversational tone, feelings of sitting around a table with everyone having airtime. There is the opportunity to get to know each other and build social capital that can lead to the sharing of personal stories and experience in a trustworthy environment. Many face-to-face activities are adaptable to this size group. Participants will be able to share via microphones, and there should be ample time for each participant to speak.
  • Small webinars of 10—25 people: These are characterized by limited airtime for all participants and individual microphones are less effective. With this size group it is usually more effective to use web collaboration tools that allow everyone to get ideas down quickly on a shared online flip chart or short-answer poll. This stimulates and focuses the discussion. Voting tools can help collect opinions and identify priorities.
  • Medium webinars of 25—50 people: Here, the connection with and between participants is more distant and less personal. Web collaboration tools are critical for a high level of interaction and to keep participants engaged. Webinars of this size require tightly facilitated Q & A segments.
  • Large webinars of 50—150: Panel point-counter point discussions keep audio conversation lively while collecting comments back and forth between participants on a shared flip chart. Thoughtful use of polling (pre- and post-) focuses participant attention on key issues and illustrates the shifts in attitudes and increase in knowledge over the course of the webinar.
  • Very large webinars of 150 or more: No matter how designed, in these contexts the interaction is limited. Webinars of this size tend to be more communication venues with a subject matter expert or panel. They can be compared to a radio or TV show with text messages or blog entries from participants. Interaction may continue asynchronously after the webinar.
    Adapted from Julia Young’s white paper Designing Interactive Webinars on

Develop learning objectives

Begin webinars by sharing statements about what participants should understand or be able to do by the end of the webinar. Effectively written learning objectives serve as a filter to ensure ‘need to know’ content is covered before anything ‘nice to know’ is added.

Use both synchronous and asynchronous learning strategies

Consider how content fits into one or more of the following three categories:

  • materials and information that participants can read and review on their own
  • knowledge and information that benefits from listening to a structured presentation or a subject matter expert
  • shared knowledge and experiential learning that benefits from interaction between participants.

Knowing the types of content that will be included allows you to start developing the webinar into a series of segments, including pre-work and post-work.

Think of the interactive webinar as a real-time event packaged with information sharing ahead of time and continued reflection and sharing afterwards. The real-time event is the synchronous portion of the webinar, generally a 60 minute real-time session combining a teleconference with web collaboration tools. The asynchronous portions, pre and post-webinar activities, are critical components to setting up an interactive and engaging experience that maximizes and personalizes the learning outcomes for all participants.

Use handouts wisely

While many speakers simply provide a copy of their slide files prior to, or after a session, the best handouts often don’t include slides at all. They are more of a guide or a workbook that combines content-focused note-taking and reflection plus key information that supports, not duplicates, the verbal and visual message of the live presentation.

Consider providing a guide to participants about one week prior to the webinar. The guide can outline learning goals for the upcoming session, provide links to research articles, offer questions for reflection, and suggest activities to complete prior to the webinar.

When designing the guide, leave room for participants to make their own notes and reflections. Content in the guide or other follow-up handouts can go beyond the webinar slides and include additional content such as checklists, reference resources, FAQs and tips sheets.

Examples of pre-webinar activities that can be incorporated into a guide include:

  • reviewing goals of upcoming webinar
  • reading materials such as research articles
  • reflection on local examples related to the upcoming topic
  • online brainstorming and prioritizing of ideas for later discussion
  • self- assessments survey.

Consider how the guide can support post-webinar discussion and reflection, especially if participants are clustered in common sites. The guide might include a series of questions that can be used after the webinar as conversation-starters, reflection tools, or calls to action.

View an example of a learning guide.

Examples of post-webinar activities could include:

  • self- assessments surveys
  • reading materials such as research articles
  • adding to online brainstorming
  • discussing new content
  • developing action plans.

Use slides to create context

Webinars typically rely on slides to introduce information and ideas, and keep both the facilitator and participants focused. Consider the following strategies for creating effective slides:

  • Put a complete thought on a slide. Let the title tell a story. If participants are momentarily distracted they should be able to look up and reference a complete idea on the slide.
  • Draw the eyes to the slide’s main point. Use arrows and pointers, or better yet, reduce and simplify content on each slide, stripping away anything extraneous to the point.
  • Keep ‘wholes’ whole… and then build on them point-by-point. Research shows that it is useful to introduce all bullet points together if they go together as a whole (like steps in a process). The brain sees the big picture first… and then it’s okay to talk to each step separately.
  • Limit the amount of text. People can only listen and read at the same time for a short period.
  • Make the font big and readable. 24 font is good. Choose a clean style.
  • Use images to tell your story. Learning is improved when narration occurs simultaneously with relevant images.
  • Create flow. Your slide titles should tell a story. Experiment until you find the right order.
  • Change the slides often. Online sessions use significantly more slides than in-person sessions— people need something to focus on. Keep a pace of approximately one slide per minute.
  • Embed video clips. Short relevant video clips can be powerful complements to slides. Clips should be under six minutes (ideally less than three), tightly focused and used to illustrate a key point in the presentation.

Create opportunities for interaction

The challenge in an online learning environment is to create a sense of presence so participants know they are not alone. Consider having one of the facilitators serve as host and greet each participant by name as they sign on. The host can also use the chat function to communicate with individual participants who are experiencing technical difficulties or have questions throughout the webinar.

Depending on the collaborative software available, there a number of interactive activities that can make webinars more engaging and meaningful for participants. Aim for at least four interactive activities in a one-hour webinar.

  • Consider displaying a lobby slide as participants sign on. This slide invites participants to reflect on their experiences or share a short story. It sets a positive tone for the session and encourages participants to link what they will be learning to their own experience. Be sure to acknowledge responses to the lobby slide as part of the welcome and introduction.
  • Invite participants to use available icons. For example, they can put a check mark beside their name to indicate they can hear the speakers clearly or use the applause (graphic) to recognize other participants’ contributions.
  • Encourage participants to use the chat room feature. Many participants find being able to share their thoughts, ask questions of one another, and post information an important part of being in a community. It may be helpful to have one facilitator serve as a monitor the chat room in case any questions need to be brought to the attention of the presenter. Reviewing the chat room conversation after the webinar can also be informative for identifying emerging questions, themes and concerns of the community.
  • Near the beginning of the webinar consider doing a check-in by creating an opportunity for people to report on their progress, either on a chart or as part of a simple poll.
  • Create simple polls related to the webinar topic to get a sense of participants’ context, experience, beliefs or level of interest.
  • Invite participants to prioritize a list of criteria or topics.
  • Use provocative short-answer questions to encourage participants to link their personal experience with the topic under discussion.
  • Provide opportunities for participants to brainstorm examples or solutions.
  • Some conferencing platforms allow the facilitator to divide participants into smaller rooms (in groups of three to six) to enable small group discussion. Other platforms, depending on the number of participants, can accommodate larger group discussion where individual participants use the microphone, one-at-time.
  • Invite participants to use complete a statement and share with the group.
  • Create opportunities for participants to share their response to a research finding, a video or a particular issue. Ask participants: “What resonated with you?”
  • Invite participants to give their advice on a particular issue.
  • Provide time for participants to reflect and commit to next steps by responding to a What next question.
  • Create dedicated time for a final reflection at the end of the webinar. Allow sufficient time for participants to finish their responses and while the last ones are finishing up consider reading aloud some of the posted responses or commenting on general themes and encouraging participants to have a look at the posted responses on their own screen.
  • Say thank you. Make time at the beginning, middle and at the end of the webinar to acknowledge participants’ attention, engagement and contributions to discussion.
  • Keep the conversation going. Provide a space on the dedicated website for participants to post additional reflections, questions or resources related to the webinar content.

All of these interactive activities contribute to a sense of presence and community by creating opportunities for participants to share and learn from one another. These kinds of activities can also capture new ideas, new knowledge and useful examples. Consider posting data from these activities on the members-only website for participants to revisit. At the end of the project much of this content can be repurposed to share with others.

Next… Tips for presenters