Setting Up Meeting Spaces
A consistent meeting space goes a long way towards establishing a learning circle as a comfortable learning environment. Whether meeting online or in person, the best meeting spaces are reliable, accessible, and have limited distractions.
The most important consideration when meeting in person if whether or not a space supports the necessary equipment for a learning circle subject. At minimum, the space should have enough chairs and room for all participants to sit in a circle. For some topics, it may be useful or necessary to have additional equipment such as a projector to share video content with the group. If the topic is more technical, participants may need to have access to a computer.
- Easily accessible space
- Consistent access to power and free internet
- Accommodation for any physical and/or learning disabilities in the group
- Restroom availability
- A large wall for projecting or a screen to play learning content
- Natural light (studies show that people learn better with it!)
- Modular seating arrangements
- Near public transport / free parking
- Have the times been reserved for each weeks?
- Do you have access to any keys that you need?
- Do you know the wifi network name and password?
- Do you know where chairs, tables, and additional supplies are stored?
- Are you aware of any rules determining what time you must finish by each week?
Meeting virtually requires a place for synchronous communication (e.g. video chat, conference call, shared notes) and, optionally, a separate channel for asynchronous communication (e.g. Whatsapp group, email thread, Slack channel) where the learning circle participants can interact.
Some facilitators are required to use institutional memberships for meeting software which takes care of choosing a meeting space. For those who aren't required to use certain software, there are dozens of free tools that allow people to work together in virtual spaces: video conferences, group phone calls, collaborative writing platforms. A facilitator shouldn’t need to spend any money to host an effective online learning circle.
The tools you choose to use in your learning circle can go a long way towards creating an environment that benefits all participants. Remember that you can always change the tool you’re using if it makes it easier for all learners to participate.
Some questions to ask when choosing an online setup:
- Are there specific supplies or technical requirements (software, equipment, etc.) needed to complete your learning circle topic?
- What resources (computer, smartphone, tablet, internet access) do your learners have access to?
- What tools do your learners already know how to use?
- Are your learners comfortable appearing in video or phone calls?
- Do you have colleagues who can provide insight, experience, or ideas about the right tools for your community?
Experienced facilitators recommended polling participants before or after sign-up to understand which resources they have access to and are comfortable using. You may discover that your community has limited access to or knowledge of the tools you planned to use.
As you find tools you want to use, keep learner accessibility in mind. Here are some ways that you can run accessible online meetings that support a range of learning styles and abilities:
- Research the accessibility of your meeting tool. Can it be used with assistive technologies like screen readers? Or just a keyboard, for participants who cannot use a mouse?
- Check for closed caption support in your course materials and meeting platform. If your meeting platform doesn’t automatically support them, consider asking a colleague or fellow learner to write captions or notes to help all participants follow along.
- Increase your cursor size and narrate actions and visuals if you plan to do any demonstrations with screen sharing.
- Test your audio setup with others and practice speaking to make sure your words are understandable and your environment is free of distracting sounds. Consider investing in a microphone or headset if you plan to facilitate lots of meetings.
Because many facilitators are locked into institutional requirements and it’d be impossible to address every learning circle’s unique tech needs, this is not a hefty tool comparison. (Looking for a comprehensive guide? We recommend Mozilla’s Video Call Apps list!) Instead, we’re getting right to our recommended setup: Jitsi video calls + Etherpad collaborative text documents.
Jitsi is a free, open-source video tool that takes safety seriously and doesn’t require an account registration or software download on computers. No frills or friction: participants can click a link and immediately join. It works in most web browsers and on iOS/Android smartphones with a free app.
- Max Participants: Jitsi recommends no more than 35 people on video at one time. In our tests, quality starts to go down with more than 12–15 users.
- Dial-In: Jitsi generates dial-in numbers so learners without a webcam, computer, or smartphone can join the room via phone.
- URLs and Passwords: Jitsi lets you set custom URLs and passwords for a meeting room to make sure the right people find it and the wrong people don’t. (Note: Password settings reset every time the room is empty, so you must be the first one to join the room to set the password.)
- Participant Responsibility: Jitsi is minimally hierarchical—anyone can mute or kick anyone—which allows learners to take on co-facilitation roles in the group.
Etherpad is a highly customizable open source text editor that allows for collaborative writing in real-time. Each editor sets their own color so you can follow individual contributions. (This can also be turned off.) We’ve had success using this for sharing meeting agendas, collaborative writing exercises, and silent reflections (like check-in questions or plus/deltas at the end of a meeting).
We’ve hosted an instance of Etherpad on our website (linked above) so you can just pick a URL and go. If you or a colleague are familiar with Git, you can also install Etherpad yourself and customize it to your needs with community-created plugins. (Have a plugin request for the P2PU Etherpad? Email us!)
There are a few different steps that you can take to ensure that a group remains free of people who haven't registered for the group:
- Create very unique URLs for your meeting room and don’t post the link publicly on the web (like on your sign-up page). This will minimize random visitors or ne'er-do-wells. You can share meeting links privately with participants via email once they’ve registered.
- Add a password. If you have any concerns, add a password to your room. You can always change this if needed.
- Keep an eye on who signs up. Your P2PU facilitator dashboard lets you see who is signing up—if a participant has written anything that raises a red flag for you, you can either send them a message directly or simply remove them from the learning circle.
- Learn how to kick users. Most video chat tools have a feature to remove participants from a meeting. However, it may not prevent them from rejoining. Make sure to add or change the room password before kicking a user to prevent them from getting back in.
Online learning circles tend to use three browser tabs at any given time - one for the online course, one for the video chat, and one for a shared notes document. In addition to bandwidth limitations, this workflow can be extremely daunting for individuals who aren’t used to working and collaborating online.
A few ways to mitigate these issues:
- Invite participants to show up in the online meeting space 15-20 minutes early to troubleshoot any tech issues that they may be having.
- Ask a colleague to join for the first thirty minutes to help troubleshoot with individuals. Creating a separate video chat dedicated to tech support can be a great way to offer 1-1 help to somebody who is struggling while allowing the rest of the group to proceed with the learning materials.
- Start the learning circle with an orientation session; make it clear that it’s optional but is a good way for folks to learn more about the tools that will be used and the learning circle model before the group digs into the course content the following week.
- Share your screen. Demonstrating what you want participants to do can be a lot easier than trying to explain it. Make sure you are comfortable sharing your screen before the learning circle, and practice sharing your entire screen versus a dedicated window.
There are some situations where you might want to facilitate an in-person learning circle that includes online participants. Facilitators who have had success with hybrid learning circles emphasize the importance of acknowledging and engaging both types of participants. Others note the difficulty in keeping online participants as involved as in-person participants, as online learners can miss side conversations and might need you to repeat information more frequently.
To host a hybrid learning circle using P2PU's website, create two separate learning circles - one online, and one in person - that are scheduled to occur at the same time. Be clear in both learning circle descriptions that your learning circle will be in a hybrid format.
Questions to Ask
- Can both types of learners see and hear each other?
- Can online learners contribute in meaningful ways to in-person conversations?
- Is a hybrid format the best way to meet both types of learners' needs?
- If not, can you find a way to host the same learning circle at different times in different formats?