I was pleased to have the opportunity to join one of the new online ToP Group Facilitation Methods courses of ICA Associates of Canada the other week. I had been sceptical of the value of online training for face-to-face facilitation, but I was impressed and came away convinced!
The Technology of Participation, pioneered and refined by ICA in over 40 years of experience worldwide, is a proven system of facilitation methods and tools that can be adapted and applied to help all sorts of groups accomplish a wide variety of tasks together. It has been central for many years to how I work myself. Today’s Group Facilitation Methods course was first piloted in the early 1990s, and is now delivered by national ICAs and their local partners all over the world to many thousands every year. In my own 20 years of experience of the course I have become familiar with many variations in how it is and has been delivered, not least which of the core ToP methods are included in the standard two days of training – only Focused Conversation and Consensus Workshop, or also Action Planning. Tailored, in-house courses vary even more widely in their formats than scheduled, public courses. Additional courses cover additonal tools and methods, and support learners to gain the skills and competencies they need to apply them effectively in their own situations.
The basic structure of the course, however, has proven remarkably powerful and resilient across time and context. First, demonstrate each method. Second, talk through the theory of how and why it works and how to use it. Third, give every participant and opportunity to practice the method in safe and supported small groups with expert and peer feedback. Fourth, support participants to plan how they will use the method for real in their own situation in the near future. End-of-course participant satisfaction ratings on ICA:UK Group Facilitation Methods courses commonly average over 8/10, and 10/10 is not unusual. How could such a tried and tested approach possibly be translated effectively into a virtual environment, I wondered?
One of the keys to the effectiveness of the online course, I have concluded, is the choice of Blackboard Collaborate for the virtual training room. While many ToP practitioners have adopted Adobe Connect as their platform of choice for virtual ToP facilitation, the whiteboard facility in Collaborate does seem to work better for virtually replicating the real-world sticky wall, such a valuable tool for the ToP Consensus Workshop method.
Perhaps more important is the advance preparation that is expected of participants before the course, including advance scheduling of homework and practice time inbetween the virtual sessions. While the face-to-face course is commonly delivered in full in two consecutive eight-hour days, the virtual course is delivered in six two-hour sessions spread over two weeks or more, with considerable homework expected as well. Participants receive the same GFM course workbook, but by email in advance, and also e-books of the Art of Focused Conversation and the Workshop Book. They are expected to review the workbook and at least the introductory chapters of the two books in advance of the course, meaning that they arrive with a good overview aleady and some considered questions to ask. This makes a considerable difference to the depth of discussion achieved online.
The first week of the online course covers the Focused Conversation Method and the second week covers the Consensus Workshop method, while face-to-face courses most often cover one method per day. Session one of each week demonstrates the method and introduces the theory, and is followed by homework to embed the theory and raise further questions to address in session two. Session two completes the theory and supports participants to plan their own real-life practice of the method. Before the course begins they have real-life group sessions scheduled to enable them to practice for real, rather than with each other as on the face-to-face course. Session three debriefs the practice sessions, and looks at further applications for the method in particpants’ own situations.
The course I joined, with sessions timed for North America and Europe (at 6-8pm London time), was attended by six participants from various locations across the US and Canada, plus me and Bill Staples of ICA Associates as guests. Another parallel course was running the same days with sessions timed for North America and Asia, and was being attended largely by a group in Korea. Both courses were being led by veteran ToP trainers Jo Nelson and Wayne Nelson, with focusing on technical support.
The group were a mix of independent professional facilitators and managers and internal consultants within large organisations – not so different to groups I am familiar with from face-to-face public courses. I was very impressed with how much value they were clearly getting from the course, and how much they were appreciating it. It was clear to me that the virtual demonstrations of the methods did not provide an equivalent experience to face-to-face demonstrations. For participants with sufficient experience of group work, however, and with their advance reading on the methods, they clearly provided a perfectly adequate basis for the theory and practice to follow. Moreover, that theory and practice seemed to me to be no less rich and insightful than in face-to-face courses of my experience. What was lost by not spending intensive face to face time together seemed to be more than compensated for by having considerably longer study and reflection time over the whole two week period of the sessions. What was lost by not practicing together with each other, and sharing peer feedback based on direct experience of each others’ practice, seemed to be more than compensated by practicing in participants’ own real-life contexts and working with real groups to address real issues. While I was fascinated by the many comparisons I was able to make between the online course and the many face to face courses I have led, the group were clearly not burdened by how the course might have been in a face-to-face version but were engaging with it and appreciating it just as it was.
I have no doubt that many learners will continue to prefer face-to-face training, and that many will gain more from that than from its online equivalent – not least those who might for any reason fail to give due time and attention to the homework that is such an essential element of the online course. Equally, however, I am now convinced that there may be many learners for whom the online course might be a perfectly acceptable alternative when face-to-face not possible for travel, cost, timing or other reasons – and that there may be some for whom a virtual environment may suit their learning style better, even when learning methods and skills of face-to-face group facilitation.
I think the key for learners will be to select the type of course that best suits their learning needs and style, and their context and preferences as well. This innovative new online course of ICA Associates is doing a great service to learners by making the ToP Group Facilitation Methods course available online for those that might benefit from it more than face-to-face, and for those that otherwise might not be able to benefit at all.