Anne Wilson

Silence is awkward on Zoom — questions left hanging in the digital void; the dead pause before someone un-mutes themselves; the uncomfortable delay between saying goodbye and disappearing. It’s tempting to fill the gaps with words to maintain momentum, but if we keep talking, how are the participants to learn from each other? Where is the space for dialogue, for sharing experiences, for building relationships with others facing the same challenges? The past few weeks have taught me that it’s important to relax and accept the moments of quiet. This takes confidence and trust that learners will step up, but we can also encourage peer learning by using Zoom functions to maximum effect.

An instant poll is a quick, efficient way for learners to share feelings anonymously and for the facilitator to read the Zoom room. Polls work best when you know enough about your learners to guess likely answers. For example, when running ‘writing for visual thinkers’ for PhD researchers, I ask ‘How do you feel about writing?’, followed by statements such as ‘I often find writing frustrating’, ‘My writing doesn’t do justice to my ideas’ and ‘Feedback suggests my ideas are creative and original.’ The poll results, shared with the group, show common ground, and the extra checkbox ‘I have other feelings about writing’ provides a jumping-off point for discussion.

I use the chat function to get ideas buzzing and (by stealth) increase participants’ confidence as they acknowledge strengths. For example, when I am focusing on note-making, I write ‘note-making’ in the chat box, then ask people to type in their top tips to share with colleagues. I wait, enduring the silence, until the chat comes alive with ideas, gathers speed and elicits enthusiastic responses such as ‘Great idea! I must try that.’

Finally, breakout rooms are where Zoom comes into its own, encouraging the more reticent to speak out and creating a less intense space for informal chat. I give groups of up to four people a task that’s clear, relevant and achievable, and I repeat the instructions in a broadcast to all groups. I might ask them to compare two versions of a text and decide which works better, and why. Feedback suggests that breakout rooms are popular and that researchers speak more freely here than in the main session. For the facilitator, it’s another opportunity to sit in silence, enjoy the break and resist the urge to press ‘join’ too soon.

16 July 2020