Facilitation Strategies to Moderate Synchronous Virtual Discussion Groups in Teacher Training

Facilitation Strategies to Moderate Synchronous Virtual Discussion Groups in Teacher Training

Kevin Oh, Natalie Nussli, Melisa Kaye, Nicole Michele Cuadro
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4960-5.ch005
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This chapter reports on an exploratory case study investigating strategies to facilitate group discussions in Second Life, a three-dimensional virtual world. The purpose was to identify best practices for discussion facilitation in-world from the perspective of a virtual host and a discussion facilitator. A host and a facilitator moderated four virtual group discussions with 16 in-service teachers enrolled in a graduate technology class. The chapter discusses several themes that emerged from the host's and the facilitator's debriefings. Key themes include the need for a careful selection of the communication modality (text or voice or a combination), strategies to promote interactivity among the participants, the critical need for at least one facilitator in addition to the host, the need for clear ground rules for the participants, and clear guidelines for the host and the facilitator. Several challenges experienced during the process of facilitating these virtual events are discussed and recommendations are made to address these difficulties. This chapter is of interest to educators who are planning to substitute in-class group discussions with synchronous group discussions in-world.
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Holding a social meeting in a three-dimensional (3D) virtual world rather than in a physical space can be a challenge (Konstantinidis, 2017). Numerous considerations are involved when planning a gathering in a synthetic world, including clarifying the purpose (e.g., social, educational, or business), choosing a location (public or private access), and considering a suitable format (e.g., lectures, discussions, exploratory fieldtrips, or task-based activities).

The notion of multimodal communication is another critical aspect of virtual worlds. It not only consists of verbal-mode voice and text chat but also of non-verbal mode aspects, such as avatar movement, kinesics, proxemics, and appearance (Peterson, 2006; Wigham & Chanier, 2013). Compared to two-dimensional (2D) online environments, the multimodal nature of virtual worlds has been associated with richer and more effective collaborative learning (Dalgarno & Lee, 2009), offers an authentic environment for communication (Liou, 2012), increased student engagement, and better learning outcomes (Claman, 2015).

Due to the complexity of the communication modalities, the expert facilitation of a virtual group discussion deserves special attention. This chapter revolves around the facilitation of virtual group discussion events for educational purposes. Girvan and Savage (2013), for example, provide excellent prior, during, and post guidelines with regard to individual and group interviews conducted in Second Life®, which is a three-dimensional semi-immersive virtual world where users can interact, collaboratively work on projects, explore regions, navigate in different ways (walk, run, fly, dive, etc.), and communicate with each other in real time using voice or text. Girvan and Savage (2013) highlight a facilitator’s skills set, such as the ability to manage multiple threads simultaneously.

Similarly, Schmeil et al. (2013) have formulated guidelines based on their experience in organizing and conducting social conferences in virtual worlds. One of their suggestions is to create break-out rooms, or so-called “satellites”, instead of having everyone gather in the same virtual room. The satellite approach might increase the participants’ willingness to engage and interact with each other more informally. Although a satellite offers more privacy than a whole-group discussion, each satellite might still need its own private facilitator, depending on the purpose or task.

Wang et al. (2014) highlight the complexity of group discussions in virtual worlds. The authors note potentially challenging factors, such as the combined use of text, voice, and avatar gestures, and offer pragmatic advice with an emphasis on advance preparation, skillful multitasking, and co-facilitation to ensure smooth communication within a group. Their participants expressed great appreciation for the co-facilitation because it helped them manage the overwhelming amount of information coming in from multiple communication channels.

This study is situated in an educational online learning context at graduate level. Similar to many virtual worlds studies, the case study described in this chapter takes a pragmatic rather than a theoretical approach (Wang & Burton, 2013). The chapter examines effective facilitation of avatar-based group discussions in a 3D virtual world through examining a graduate technology course case study. This examination includes an exploration of selected areas that are critical for educators to be aware of when planning to transfer group discussions, or any type of communicative interaction for learning purposes, to a 3D environment.



This section offers an introduction to (1) the facilitator’s role and skills required to moderate a group discussion, (2) communication modalities (text vs. voice), (3) the challenges of promoting participation and interactivity, and (4) a sense of social and physical presence.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Communication Modality: A variety of input channels for communication purposes (i.e., text chat, voice chat, video chat).

Social Cues: Any signs, gestures, features, communication modalities or tools that help to humanize communication, including smiles, waving, laughs, touch, gestures of politeness, acts of sharing, signs of empathy, humor, showing interest, sharing personal opinion, etc.

Asynchronous: Any type of communication and online interaction that does not happen in real time. A discussion board where students can post their contributions any time is an example of asynchronous communication, whereas the opposite (i.e., synchronous) would be a live lecture, for example, via a video conference or in a virtual world setting where avatars meet and interact in real time.

Virtual World: Shared and simulated online spaces inhabited and designed by their users who are represented as avatars and who engage in communication and interaction with other avatars.

Social Presence: Commonly referred to as the feeling of being “there” when immersed in a virtual environment.

Virtual Discussions in 3D: Group discussions set in a virtual world, for example, for educational purposes.

Second Life®: An online virtual world where users’ avatars communicate and interact with each other in real time using text chat, video, and voice. Three-dimensional objects can be manipulated, designed, and built, individually or collaboratively in a team.

Synchronous: “Live” communication, for example in a video conference or a group discussion in a virtual world (opposite of asynchronous) where contributors engage with each other in real time.

Zoom: A web-based videoconference system with break-out rooms, audio- and video-recordings functions, and digital whiteboard. Popular with educators for synchronous online teaching at all grade levels.

Active Worlds: An online virtual world that allows synchronous communication via text chat and voice, manipulation of three-dimensional objects, and real-time navigation. Users are visually represented by avatars.

UDL: Universal design for learning is a theoretical framework designed to acknowledge learner diversity and to support all learners in achieving school success. The principles of UDL encompass multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression.

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