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Caring Chairing: Tips for Effective Chairing in Online Spaces

By Dr Sinéad Murphy

Whatever your degree of experience in chairing meetings, discussions, or conference sessions, the last 18 months or so have likely been a learning curve as we moved rapidly into managing these exchanges in online spaces. We at SRHE have moved all our events, seminars, and training workshops online as of March 2020, and have worked hard to ensure our online sessions are engaging, inclusive, and productive.

With our first ever virtual edition of the annual SRHE International Conference coming up on 6th – 10th December, we would like to share some of the best practice we have learned about chairing. We intend to put this in place at our conference, and look forward to supporting those who may be new to chairing conference sessions, whether online or otherwise. We would love to hear your own tips and ideas on effective chairing in the comments.

Before the session

  • Chairing online sessions is a far more enjoyable experience when you are not distracted by technical difficulties: we advise meeting your speakers in advance of the session start time to check any audio-visuals and screen-sharing functionality. Ensure that you have some familiarity with the platform you are using, and that you have some knowledge of basic troubleshooting or some technical support available (at SRHE, for instance, one or more staff members are always on hand to provide this during online sessions). For more presenting tips, you might like to take a look at our previous post on online academic presentations here.
  • Liaising with your speakers on the schedule and session format and factoring in well-timed comfort breaks will help you to run a session which is both punctual and relaxed for everyone involved.
  • Ensure that you are pronouncing your speakers’ names correctly, and have given them an opportunity to let you know how they prefer to be introduced and addressed.
  • Decide on the availability of presentation materials in advance, and ensure speakers are aware of and in agreement with this policy.
  • Taking notes in a session may be useful for participants to reflect on later. Decide in advance whether you as chair have capacity to do this, or if you would prefer to draw on a colleague for support. Could the session be recorded and/or written up afterwards and shared on the relevant website or other virtual platform?

During the session

  • Begin the session by clearly communicating the format and structure of the event, and the rules of engagement – ensure that participants know how and when they are welcome to turn their cameras/microphones on and off, how and when they can interject or ask for help, and how to address the speakers.
  • Timekeeping is essential to effective chairing. Although online formats present a promising opportunity to overcome the barriers some participants face in attend some events in person, it’s important to remember that most participants will be juggling competing responsibilities and working from shared or confined spaces. The chair should lead the way in ensuring that both speakers and attendees respect and adhere to the session schedule. Wherever possible, any changes to timings and format should be communicated ahead to all participants.
  • Managing the discursive aspects of an online session is a key element of productive chairing. In online spaces, the chair will often be required to monitor the written chat as well as being alert to raised hands and other forms of interjection – ensure that you seek support or a co-chair in advance of the session if this is too much juggling for you, or if you are leading a session with a large number of participants. As chair, adding a question to the chat box early on in the session can help to mitigate any reticence among participants about contributing to the discussion.
  • During discussions, the chair should take the initiative to redirect questions where necessary, whether to engage all the speakers, to avoid the discussion becoming too niche or exclusionary, or to encourage participants to reframe comments into questions. Consider the diversity of the session attendees when you select people to answer questions – for example, if women or BAME attendees are in the minority, try to ensure their voices are heard.
  • Take care to use gender-neutral language for anyone whose form of address is not known to you.
  • Software such as Slido or Mentimeter can be useful to facilitate questions in a way that does not require participants to speak individually/aloud.
  • If a participant elects to use the chat box, avoid calling on them to ask their question aloud; likewise, it’s advisable not to mandate that attendees participate in the discussion with their camera turned on.
  • Although discussions in online space can be fast-paced and require focussed attention, they also provide opportunities for collaboration. You might consider encouraging participants to share contact information, generate a collaborative reference list, or continue the discussion on social media or other platforms.

Ending the meeting

  • You may find that there are attendees who feel unable to fully participate at the time for whatever reason, or who require time to process the content of the session and formulate their contribution. These attendees can benefit from mechanisms which allow the discussion to continue beyond the event. The chair might consider collating unasked or unanswered questions and communicating them to the speaker(s) by e-mail, to make the responses available to participants later.
  • Provided the speakers are comfortable with this, the chair should ensure that attendees are aware of how they can contact the speakers outside of the session.
  • Closing the session with a summarising statement or a comment which draws the different insights offered during the discussion is a very effective way to leave attendees with food for thought about what could follow from the session.
  • As well as thanking everyone, you might consider signposting attendees to the next session on the programme, or a subsequent event on the same topic or by the same speaker(s).
  • Ensure that participants are aware of how they can offer feedback about the session. At SHRE, we circulate an evaluation form after each of our events and these help us to understand what our membership and wider community would benefit from.

We hope you find these guidelines helpful in preparing for our conference and for the online activities you will engage in this coming academic year. We are looking forward to seeing what new opportunities our virtual conference will provide – it takes place 6th – 10th December and registration is open here. We will be updating our conference pages with more information about the programme in the new academic year. If you have your own ideas for a contribution to the blog, we would love to hear from you!

Sinéad Murphy is the Manager, Conferences and Events for the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and is responsible for SRHE’s events, workshops, professional development programme, and annual international conference. She holds an AHRC-funded PhD in Comparative Literature from King’s College London, and is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.