How engaging can a large facilitated online session be?

Economics of climate change mitigation options in the forest sectorThis was the question that intrigued me when I was first invited to work with with the Forestry Economics team of FAO, to design and facilitate an online conference this month on the Economics of climate change mitigation options in the forest sector.  The answer, as it turns out, is pretty engaging!

FAO approached me last September for my experience with the Adobe Connect online meeting platform, with which they are also familiar and which they had chosen to use for the project. Their aims for the conference were to connect researchers, practitioners and others to learn from each other on the costs and benefits of various mitigation options in the forestry sector in different countries, to gather data for a forthcoming FAO publication and perhaps also to establish a community of practice among participants for further learning and collaboration in the future.

The team had not before convened such a substantial online conference, however, and were uncertain how many people they would attract to be involved. Our initial design was for a series of six 90-minute sessions for up to 100 people each, involving a keynote presentation and two shorter case studies followed by questions and answers with the presenters and some small group discussion in break-out rooms. As registrations came in from prospective participants and presenters we were keen to accommodate as many of them as as we could, and our ambitions grew.  I was thankful to have partnered on the project with Sheila Cooke of 5Deep, as meeting producer and co-facilitator, for her extensive experience of working with Adobe Connect and with FAO as well.

In the end the conference attracted more than 1,600 registrations from 127 countries, and 126 case studies from 47 counties. Fifty-one presentations on the six conference themes have been shared on the conference website, and over 700 people already have attended the first three sessions.  Our remaining sessions continue tomorrow and next week – see below for how to join.

The design we settled on is for six sessions of two hours, using an Adobe Connect ‘seminar room’ with a maximum capacity of 1,500. Participants engage through submitting typed questions for presenters, and responding to questions themselves by text chat and polls. Pre-recorded presentations are replayed by video, to reduce the technical risks of delivering the presentations live. Up to a dozen presenters and expert panellists respond live to questions put to them, and they discuss participants’ typed responses to questions put to them. We dispensed with the idea of small group discussion in breakout rooms because of the technical challenge of supporting so many people to configure their own audio to be heard effectively.

The conference teamThe FAO team (led by Illias Animon, Forestry Officer- Economics, and comprising Ruth Mallet, Eros Fornari, Sarah Butler, Marcelo Rezende and Johan Trennestam) lead all content-related tasks, select and assign questions for presenters and also provide technical support behind the scenes to participants and panellists.

After a brief technical orienation and introduction, each session begins with a series of questions to participants to help them and the panellists know something of who is in the room and what experience and interests they bring to the session. The keynote presentation then provides an overview of the topic, followed by questions and answers with the keynote presenter. Each of the additional presenters is then invited to introduce themselves and their presentations briefly, before participants vote for one presentation to view together in full during the session followed by questions and answers with that presenter.

A panel discussion follows, where all panellists share and discuss responses to questions raised by participants before and during the session, on all of their presentations. During the following plenary discussion, participants are invited to share what successes they are proud of, what challenges they face and what resources and other support they can share, while panellists respond and discuss verbally.

The session closes with a brief summary of key points raised, and an opportunity for participants to evaluate the session and share feedback, and what follow-up actions they would like to see or take themselves. Feedback has been largely very positive so far, with more than 60% rating yesterday’s session 9 or 10 out of 10 overall.

If you are wondering just how engaging such a large facilitated online session can be, then join us for one of the remaining sessions, or watch out for the session recordings to be posted to the conference website.

If you are wondering how you might engage large or smaller numbers of people through virtual facilitation, then please do contact me – and see Sheila’s Virtual Facilitation Online training course with ICA USA.

In the meantime, for a flavour of the conference and the importance of its content, take a look at the opening remarks recorded for our first session by Dr. Eva Muller, Director of FAO’s Forest Economics, Policy and Products Division:


For more on my work, and what others have to say about it, please see how I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies – or view my profile and connect with me on LinkedIn.

You can connect with me also by joining my free facilitation webinars online, and IAF England & Wales’ free facilitation meetups in London and elsewhere.

14 thoughts on “How engaging can a large facilitated online session be?

  1. Thanks for sharing this Martin (and Sheila). It’s timely. I will show it to a new client I engaged with this week. They might like to add such a model to their consultation on climate change — a not-un-related topic.

  2. Success Stories from Virtual Facilitation Online Students | Virtual Facilitation Collaborative

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