In the last two years, nearly all of us have experienced problems during discussions online with remote learners. (“You’re on mute” are possibly the most-heard three words in any online discussion.) Many of these have more or less technical origins, including the absence of body language, obstacles to participation (such as audio lag), and unfamiliar user interfaces.

In this article, I present five tips for easy fixes for some of these obstacles, all of which can be included in your synchronous learning design. The assumption is that the design involves using an online audio and web conferencing platform to deliver content to participants who are located remotely and to a local group. Some of these fixes will be obvious and familiar, and some will be non-intuitive to some facilitators.

1. Get engagement early

One way to start a discussion off is simply to open with a slide that asks, “How are you today?” It’s simple, easy, and doesn’t put anyone on the spot.

2. No body language

When group discussions take place in a physical room with all participants present, the facilitator can see everyone and can judge from their body language how engaged they are. It’s not possible to do that when some participants are in the same room and some are remote. Instead of body language, facilitators have to pay attention to meeting dynamics and to voices in order to keep track of who is participating and the quality of that participation. This may seem obvious but it is easy to overlook, especially if the facilitator is focused on delivering content instead of leading a discussion. Inclusion—making sure everyone has a chance to participate and be heard—is the key job of the facilitator. If there are two facilitators, one can track the group dynamics and help to bring non-participating learners into the discussion. This can create bonding between group members and sustains the discussion, both of which are desirable in onboarding sessions.

3. Use small groups

If you have a large group, assign three or four individuals each to small groups to discuss the main topic. Each group comes to a conclusion and elects a spokesperson to present the conclusion to the main group after the facilitator brings all participants back together.

4. Getting a word in edgewise

Audio latency is an obstacle to online discussions. What is audio latency? It’s the delay between when a participant says something and when others hear it. If everyone is in the same room, that is about five milliseconds for the others in the room. If there are remote participants, the delay for the remote people is about 150 milliseconds (can be more or less, depending on how your system is set up). Any delay over six milliseconds will be obvious to the listener. Audio latency is why the remote participants have difficulty in making a point because they keep getting “talked over.” If everyone is in the same room, a participant can make a hand gesture to indicate that they want to chime in or respond. Those who are not in the room may be reluctant to interrupt, especially if they are new to the group. The facilitator can extend the opportunity for remote response by interrupting or calling on someone who is not in the main room: calling them by name, or simply asking, “Let’s hear from someone in Group 3—what do you think about this?”

5. Open the room early

Open the room a few minutes before the published start time. Use this time for short introductions or general conversation, and start the discussion on time. This works best for an opening session, or for a short lesson. In some cases, such as onboarding, it can also be effective to leave all cameras on for a few minutes after the session is over and invite participants to continue the conversation.

More answers to questions you didn’t know you had

See my review of Jo Hoare’s book, You’re On Mute: 101 Tips to Add Zip To Your Zoom , which offers lots of tips for better online discussions.

Steve Shisley provides more pointers for online discussions in Video Conferencing with Zoom: Online Course Tips and Ideas

Karen Hyder makes using breakout rooms a cinch in Addicted to Virtual Classroom Breakout Rooms? Get Help Now!