Facilitating distance meetings with youth

Technology offers a venue for youth voice and discussion.

Participants on a Zoom call
MSU Extension staff pause for a photo during an online meeting. Photo by Laurie Rivetto, MSU Extension.

Virtual meetings provide an opportunity for engagement when face to face meetings aren’t possible. A virtual meeting can never fully replace the relationships that can be built by meeting in-person, but when we use technology to its fullest potential, it can come close.

Michigan 4-H Youth Development feels strongly about the importance of incorporating youth voice in decision-making. One of the seven Guiding Principles of Michigan 4-H is, “Youth are considered participants rather than recipients in the learning process.” 4-H believes that planning an event or activity of any size can be a powerful learning opportunity for youth. For this reason, Michigan 4-H strives to include youth participants in the planning committees for many major events.

Both 4-H Capitol Experience and the 4-H Youth Leadership and Global Citizenship Spectacular are planned with the input of committees of youth residing all over the state of Michigan. Because of the challenges associated with bringing people across such a distance on a regular basis, committees utilize electronic meeting tools to facilitate discussions. In many cases, this may be the first introduction that youth have to online meeting tools, and it’s important that meeting organizers take time to make sure youth are comfortable contributing using this technology.

  • Determine the best platform for the meeting. Zoom, Skype, Adobe Connect, Google Hangout, WebEx and GoToMeeting are some examples of technology capable of hosting online meetings. Choose the platform that best meets your needs well in advance of the call so you can send any instructions on connecting or downloading software in advance.
  • Talk about equipment. Online meetings are often best when youth have a device equipped with a microphone and webcam. Many laptops come standard with built-in webcams. In the absence of a computer, many youth are able to connect using smartphones or tablets with the same capabilities.
  • Address accessibility. Not all youth have access to high-speed internet in their homes. If a call-in option is available, make sure to share that with the participants. It’s usually a better experience when meeting participants are able to see each other, but lack of high-speed internet should not limit their ability to participate in the discussion.   
  • Send an agenda for the call ahead of time. Provide youth with an opportunity to prepare their thoughts well in advance of the call. Youth may struggle with two different anxieties when attending an online meeting for the first time; suggesting meaningful ideas and speaking up appropriately using a new platform. An agenda sent out early can help eliminate some of that anxiety by allowing youth to formulate their ideas giving them the ability to contribute to the conversation.
  • Explain online meeting etiquette. If the platform allows for it, explain the system for muting their audio when not speaking to eliminate background noise, and the benefits for using that approach. Explain how to turn their webcams on/off if needed.
  • Provide visuals. Since youth are generally very comfortable with technology, consult them to see if they have ideas for visuals or virtual meeting spaces that might be feasible with a large group. A simple visual involves placing the agenda or notes from the call in a web space that everyone can view, so that incase people get distracted, they can easily find their way back into the conversation. Many youth are increasingly comfortable with the tools available through Google (Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Sheets) for real-time collaboration.
  • Check in. Resist the temptation to dive directly into business. At minimum, allow participants to check in with each other. If asking a general question like, “How’s everyone doing?” make sure to give space to everyone to respond, not just those that are quick to respond. For groups that are new or still forming, sometimes silly icebreaker questions help create common ground. Start the conversation by asking everyone to participate in a silly poll question or have everyone introduce themselves with their name and an answer to a simple question, like their favorite hobby, a favorite trip they’ve taken or what they can see at this moment. Get youth involved in planning the icebreaker question or activity before the meeting. A 4-H favorite is, “If you could be any kind of egg, what kind of egg would you be and why?” (Options include but aren’t limited to: scrambled, hard-boiled, ostrich, robin, candy, etc.)

Youth can add great value to discussions when involved in authentic decision-making partnerships with adults. By taking the time to incorporate youth voice into planning, organizations and groups can gain insight, energy and solutions to real-life problems.

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