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Online vs. face-to-face dialogues…
Friday, January 8th, 2010

A few important differences to think about

Because we facilitate both face-to-face and online dialogues here at Ascentum, people often ask us “how are they any different?” or “which works best?

We’ve recently run an online dialogue with several partners in the US that showed some of the differences between online and face-to-face and why, in certain instances, online approaches can work better.

Ascentum worked with the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) to run an online dialogue to bring together 10 people from across America to think, talk and deliberate together on options for health care reform.  Using Ascentum’s dialogue tool, participants posted comments, ideas, stories and questions over a period of two weeks to explore health care choices and identify what solutions they could, and couldn’t, agree on.

We’re working on an analysis of the dialogue, which we’ll be able to share with you in the next few months.  In the meantime, here are some of our early reflections on how the dialogue went and what it taught us.

  • Relationships are different online and in-person: While online dialogues can lack the “personal touch” of in-person dialogue, this physical distance actually made it easier for participants to respond to each other’s ideas without these being interpreted as personal criticisms or attacks.
  • Online provided an opportunity for deeper dialogue: The online dialogue ran for 2-weeks, with participants contributing each day.  This extended period time allowed for “offline reflection”.  In addition, the dialogue tool made it possible for participants to share links (news items, articles, blogs, etc.) and bring new knowledge or perspectives to the table.
  • Online allowed for more accurate and informed dialogue:  Having a written record of people’s comments, together with offline time to do research, allowed participants to “fact check” statements and post corrections.  This allowed popular myths to be debunked and inaccurate claims rectified.
  • Different moderation approaches are required: The dialogue required more active or “present” moderation, through regular questions, polls, syntheses and daily summaries.  Online moderators also faced the challenge of keeping participants involved and engaged over a 2-week period.

Ultimately, online and in-person tools have different strengths and weaknesses.  Ideally, a process would have both and compare the dialogic outcomes of each.

That’s it for now.  Stay in touch to get the full debrief of the health care dialogue later this winter!

– Ellis Westwood and Manon Abud –

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