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  • Rosie Carnall

Online enquiry: new opportunities, new challenges

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

Rosie Carnall uses Philosophy for Communities (P4C) in community settings, working mainly with adults or mixed aged groups. In October 2018 she set up the Sheffield Philosophy in Pubs group, which continues to meet monthly, offering open access philosophical enquiry sessions.

“Can we have an ‘I’m listening’ button on Zoom?”

At the start of the pandemic lockdown, I made the decision to move the Sheffield Philosophy in Pubs group online. We’d been meeting for 18 months and it seemed a shame to stop, especially when people might particularly value the opportunity to connect with each other. I was also interested to try out facilitating P4C online.

I was comfortable using Zoom video conferencing at work and could see how some of the different functions might be useful in P4C:

- Screen-sharing stimulus videos/content and whiteboard

- Chat function for notes on concepts, questions and comments

- Breakout rooms for pairs/small groups

- Thumbs up button for voting

- Live polls

Breakout groups are particularly useful, providing almost the same paired or small group work as people experience in a room together.

New developments and new connections

It’s been interesting to create activities to make the most of the new way of meeting. For example, in a ‘getting set’ activity, I asked everyone to write a list of 5 items they could see around them. They then ranked these under different criteria before discussing in pairs what they found out from the process. This exercise was context specific for participants in different places and seeing different things.

The biggest benefit by far is the increased geographical reach - it’s become standard for our Sheffield PiP group to include people from several UK cities. I recently facilitated an online philosophical enquiry for the Sheffield Libraries Year of Reading which included participants in Austin, Texas and Kerala, India! It was really moving to know that we were engaging in discussion with people around the world in this way.

Who’s listening?

But there are challenges too. In the pub, when the group breaks into pairs or small groups I can still hear what they’re saying, can spot when a group is struggling to make progress and easily join in briefly with a question or prompt to support them. Although it is possible to join breakout rooms, without an option for listening in, it isn’t the same subtle art.

Even more significantly, during a whole group discussion in the pub there is much more flexibility to encourage a range of participation. Humour isn’t so easy on Zoom or responding to emotions. And it doesn’t make the most of body language signals. Facilitator interventions can feel clunkier.

But the biggest difference for me, is that the collection of faces on screens in a screen aren’t a clear conduit to be able use my facilitator-sense that ‘everyone’s listening’. That makes it harder to allow more and less space for contributions. It makes it harder for participants to self-facilitate too.

As lockdown continues, I’m really glad to be able to continue to develop online enquiry. And I’d be really interested to hear about your experience of online facilitation too.

If you’d like to come along to Sheffield Philosophy in Pubs, get in touch with Rosie via our members area.

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