Online reading groups can be a good alternative to face-to-face meetings and while it might not be the same as meeting in the same room with some biscuits to share, they do come with their own advantages.
Below we have compiled some suggestions on how to run an online reading group and discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of online meetings. You might also want to read our other guide that contains more general information on how to set up a reading group.
You can find a selection of open access Impact articles, organised by theme, which you might find useful for your reading groups, here.
Online reading groups give you the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from other schools or phases in different regions and possibly even other countries. Working with colleagues from your own school allows you to focus on priorities that might be specific to your own setting, but engaging with colleagues from other schools, phases and regions allows you to consider different perspectives that might challenge your own interpretation of research findings. Consider inviting members from outside your school to your online reading group.
There are a number of different platforms you can use for online reading groups. Examples include Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts Meet. The free version of Zoom, for example, allows meetings of up to 40 minutes and 100 participants. Alternatively, if your school has signed up to Microsoft Teams or the Google Suite, you can use Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts Meet for your virtual meetings. However, these are just a couple of examples and you can find many other providers online. Take some time to compare which ones best suit your needs. When comparing different providers, you might want to keep the following questions in mind:
- How many people can participate in a call?
- Are there any limitations to the length of the call?
- Do people need to download specific software, or can they access calls through their browsers? Is it compatible with all browsers?
- Do people need to create an account?
- How user-friendly is the interface?
- How easy is it to set up meetings? Does it always have to be the same person that sets up meetings?
Meetings – Tech Tips
When meeting online, it is usually a good idea to log on a little bit before the actual starting time to make sure that everyone is connected and can hear and see each other. Particularly if a lot of people are joining, it might be a good idea for everyone to mute themselves and only unmute themselves when they want to contribute to the discussion. While this might be a bit more tedious than leaving microphones on for the whole duration of the meeting, it reduces background noise and allows participants to focus on the person that is actually speaking as opposed to someone who might just be clearing their throat.
Some programmes also have a function that allows participants to indicate that they want to speak, so the person leading the discussion can unmute them. While this is a handy feature, it can put a lot of burden on the discussion leader, who might be busy reacting to people’s comments, getting through all discussion questions and managing the time. To ease the burden on one person, you could also consider having one person who deals with the technical side of things and another who leads the discussion. You might want to try different approaches at your first meetings to find the one that best works for your group.
Wearing headphones usually helps if someone is experiencing an echo or feedback. It might also help people to concentrate on the discussion as they would be less distracted by background noise in their own surrounding.
If people have connectivity issues, i.e. if their video freezes or the sound keeps cutting out, it can help to turn off videos and close all other programmes and browsers.
The one big advantage of online reading groups is that you can record meetings as long as you get participants’ consent. This might not only be a great way for group members to keep up-to-date in case they have to miss a meeting but also a nice opportunity to re-watch some discussions after some time, either to remind yourself what the discussion was about or maybe to compare your views at the time to your opinions after you have engaged with a theme for a longer period of time. Do people still agree with what they said back then? Or has their opinion changed? If so, why? You could even share the discussions with other colleagues to encourage them to set up their own reading groups or to join yours so long as every group member agrees.
Facilitating online discussions
Our colleague, Hannah Tyreman, has defined the role of facilitator as follows: “Achieve a culture of trust and collegiality where critical discourse is the norm, and learning from meaningful discussions and exchanges is the outcome.”
To help members of the reading group to prepare each meeting, it may be a good idea to share some questions they can reflect on in advance. You can find some suggestions in our general reading group guide.
Research has shown that participants in online discussions sometimes find it difficult to exchange critically, challenge peers or engage in higher levels of analysis or reflection (Lantz-Andersson et al. 2018). As facilitator, you might want to prepare some additional questions or prompts that encourage participants to dig deeper and really engage with and react to each other. During the discussion, you could pick specific things that one person has said and ask another person to comment on it from their perspective by providing additional examples that either support or contradict what the previous speaker said.
As with face-to-face meetings, online discussions can easily be dominated by a small group of people who are either more experienced with reading groups or research or simply more confident. It has, however, also been shown that some participants are more likely to engage in online discussions than they are in face-to-face meetings (Cornelius et al. 2019), which can be an advantage of online reading groups. Whatever your colleagues’ preference, make sure that everybody gets an opportunity to share their views.
When facilitating discussions, it is crucial to bear in mind that possibly even more important than the information that is being shared, is participants’ sense of belonging to a community of learners (Khalid et al. 2018). This is potentially even more relevant in the current context where teachers need to remain connected to each other all while also being more challenging to achieve in an online context.
As facilitator, you can encourage such a feeling of community by using community-based language (i.e. we, us, our, together) so participants develop a feeling of contributing to a shared goal.
You can read more about the research around successful discussion facilitation here.
As with everything, practice makes perfect and it takes some time to figure out the format that works best for you and the members of your reading group. Make sure that you set yourself realistic goals and don’t forget to enjoy connecting with your colleagues and engaging in discussions.
We hope that these suggestions help you to set up an online reading group and if you do decide to set one up, we would love to hear about your experience. Do not hesitate to email us on email@example.com.