A facilitator of an online public health seminar discussion – me?

So, on Friday I will for the first time be trying out my online-public-health-discussion-facilitator-legs. I have never tried this before and must admit that I am still a little bit in the dark on how to go about it. I have a few times in real life and in informal manors facilitated discussions, but I […]

So, on Friday I will for the first time be trying out my online-public-health-discussion-facilitator-legs. I have never tried this before and must admit that I am still a little bit in the dark on how to go about it. I have a few times in real life and in informal manors facilitated discussions, but I am certain this will be somewhat different.
It is the Danish Alumni for Candidates in Public Health (FKFSV) that in connection with their annual meeting (in Danish) are hosting a discussion on new public health initiatives after the recent change of government. The meeting will proceed with three presentations by experts in public health and related disciplines and then a panel of four politicians. So far 75 people have confirmed their attendance. As the meeting will be live-streamed, it is the hope that more people will follow it from home. And this is where I come into the picture. In an attempt to give the people joining from home a chance to take part in the discussions, the wish is to let them share their opinions, reactions and questions via Facebook (which is the dominating kind of social media in Denmark) and Twitter (using hashtag #fkfsv).
Me? and expert?
One (or at least I myself) could wonder why I have been asked facilitate this discussion. This is unfortunately not because I am a powerhouse of knowledge and experience, but more an indication of how small a role social media still plays in the public health field in Denmark. Thus, it seem that I am the person in the Danish Public Health Community who has the most experience with using Twitter and other kinds of social media in relation to public health… This also means that what I expect will be the biggest challenge for this particular online discussion is that so few people are used to discuss professionally through social media. It does however also imply that part of the whole exercise and success criteria is not just a fruitful discussion but perhaps just as important, to introduce the use of social media in Danish public health related events.

Connecting the seminar discussion with the online discussion
In trying to prepare for my facilitator role I searched both online and asked through Twitter for some inputs. Colleen Young (@colleen_young) and Andrew Sponge (@andrewsponge), both from the world of #hcsms and facilitators of the weekly discussions on social media and health care, were so kind to share some tips via Twitter. Their main advice was to focus on, in as many ways as possible, to connect the online conversation with what happens in the actual seminar. This could include requesting questions in advance, polling opinions during sessions via Twitter and perhaps projecting a Tweetwall, so that it is visual in the room. They also suggested inviting speakers/panels to reflect on the Twitter discussions perhaps even with a separate session. Colleen Young also drew my attention to a #hcsmca discussion earlier this November on using online support during conferences & workshops. Reading the transcript was very useful. It confirmed some of the benefits of social media in seminars/conferences which I myself have found useful, eg.

  • the possibility of sharing links with each other
  • the possibility of broadening the scoop of audience
  • the dynamics of incorporating Twitter feeds in questions to panelists,
  • the possibility to engage in conversations beyond the podium, in and outside the room.
  • the engagement of those who are not comfortable to stand at the microphone
  • the transcripts which can help shape future conferences if organizers listen

The role of an online facilitator – a guide, not an expert

Some inputs on what is specifically required from an online facilitator I also found online (however I’m surprised of how little I could find). Al though quite basic and, one could argue, obvious, som of the points from the Facilitating Online Discussions Tool from the Australian website actnow.com.au are useful.
They describe online facilitation as “the act of managing a discussion through an online medium, such as a chat room or online forums that can be hosted on your own site or one that is external to yours” and point out that as in any other kind of discussion facilitation, an online facilitator is a guide and not an expert. The role of the facilitator is to engage the participants, know when to let discussion flow and when to step in and moderate, create a positive atmosphere and keep people motivated to participate. Some of the tips include:

  • Be clear about your expectations to the discussion and don’t be afraid to put rules in place to keep the online discussion a safe and positive space for all involved. Moderation makes people feel safe, so be willing to do so if things get out of hand.
  • Have specific questions ready to ask your participants throughout the session, however don’t dominate the discussion. You want people to keep the conversation flowing, and for them to ask questions amongst themselves, so be open to this.
  • Give people notice that the discussion will be occurring, so that you can get the maximum number of attendees possible at the time.
  • Be aware of talking in the language that your participants are using. Language is something that can help build trust and rapport amongst your participants, so be flexible in the language you use when facilitating a discussion online.
  • Give your participants a chance to give feedback about how the online discussion went after it has been completed. This allows for you to find out where things can be improved for the next time, so make sure you allow some time for this to occur.

Expectation to the discussions
As said, my expectation to and hope for the discussions on Friday can be divided into two parts. Naturally, I hope that there will actually be people present online and that  it will possible to engage them in the discussion. However, more importantly, I hope that this first attempt from FKFSV to introduce online discussion, will not scare of people from using social media at future public health seminars/conferences/meetings but rather open up people’s eyes to the media and it possibilities. I look forward to trying out my online-public-health-discussion-facilitator-legs and welcome all your advice on how to best go about the facilitating role!