A Time-Saving Way to Manage Break-Out Groups in Real Time... using GoogleDocs Spreadsheet

From Steve Ehrmann, TLT Group

Problem: you're running a large meeting, or a course. You break people into parallel groups, each working on the same task. Someone keeps notes for each group, on a pad or on an easel. After some minutes, it's time for 'reporting out.' How can you facilitate all those groups at once? And then how can you keep the reporting from taking too long?

Here's one way to do it. The University of Queensland (Australia) tried this approach for an ePortfolio workshop in mid-May. (We were helping them with planning and running the workshop.) They planned to divide 70 people into about 5 working groups, each sharing experiences on the same topics. (And, to complicate things slightly, I was assigned to pull the threads together but I was in the US.)

Know about Google Spreadsheets? It's a free web service that allows you to create spreadsheets just using a web browser. Better yet, more than one person can see, and write on, the spreadsheet at the same time.

So the UQ team created a Google spreadsheet with 5 identical worksheets, one for each group. Each group had a facilitator and an 'eScribe' with a laptop; both had been briefed in advance on their jobs. The topics were already written down the left hand column of each worksheet in the spreadsheet. The eScribes inputted comments and experiences of group members as guided by the facilitator.

I was doing some work for the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa that day. At the time of the workshop in Brisbane, I was sitting alone in a classroom with laptop. I could go from one sheet to another almost instantly by clicking on the tabs at the bottom of the page, watching their notes appear cell by cell.

Each time I saw a cell that I wanted them to "report out" about, I highlighted it in yellow. And they could see my highlights appear! By highlighting only 2-3 cells per group (and making sure there were no duplicates across groups), we could assure brief reports that would probably interest the other groups. After they concluded (just a minute or two per team), I was on the speakers (via VoIP), summarizing what I'd learned from all the groups.

Advantages over traditional techniques: because the comments were typed online rather than handwritten, I didn't have to decipher their writing. I didn't have to spend time walking from group to group , and disrupting them as I walked. Instead, I was flicking from one group to the next about every 15 seconds, watching their notes; if I saw a problem I could send a prompt to the a facilitator in Brisbane, suggesting that they walk over to that group. And, as a bonus, I could do it from half a planet away. I'll never do breakouts the same way again, even in person. Try it! And thanks to the folks at UQ for coming up with this technique!

TGIF - TLT Group Information Forum
Year 2 Issue #25, May 27, 2008