How a few easy tweaks can improve your online icebreakers

A new group is ready to start the e-facilitation workshop on Monday: 25 people from 17 different countries will learn together over the next 5 weeks. I’ve been running these workshops for 10 years now – a couple of times every year – and I’m always looking forward to guiding a new group. The first week is particularly exciting because that’s when we are able to generate a real buzz. It’s a crucial week as we bring about a feeling of safety and trust. Among total strangers? Yes, indeed. A good icebreaker is an essential part of making this happen.

An icebreaker helps establish the necessary bonding for teams to work together. It’s also a great way for people to try out the communication tools in the eWorkshop page if they are new to e-learning or haven’t used this particular LMS before (in our case Moodle).

Don’t take it for granted that a successful face-to-face icebreaker will do the trick online too. In fact, only few common icebreakers work well online. Let’s look at a few points to consider.

Not just individual postings

Make sure your online icebreaker is designed to promote conversations among learners and not just a notice board of individual postings. (This is one of the most common mistake e-learning designers make.) Your icebreaker can start with one ‘sharing’ post each but you need to provide a natural next step that invites people to start a dialogue. An inspiring theme will always make this easier.

Stay away from the artificial ‘post once, reply twice’ type of exercise, which puts people off immediately. Instead, look for a tweak that makes the conversations flow naturally. For example, if you ask participants to describe their window views (tailored instructions will give this one a personal touch), ask them which two other views they would like to swap with for a day and why.

A connection with the workshop subject?

I often get asked whether adults would find it a waste of time to participate in an icebreaker that has no connection with the workshop subject. From my experience, they don’t. Quite the contrary – it is a time for bonding and building trust with strangers. People appreciate icebreakers that allow for a little peek into fellow learners lives: what makes them tick, what they like/dislike, the environment they live/work in, etc.

Be cautious with animal themes and the like (along the lines of “what animal describes you best and why?”). Lots of people are happy to go outside the workshop subject for the icebreaker but don’t take them too far. Your idea of fun might not be theirs. Fantasy themes also make it harder to offer opportunities to establish real connections.

A team building exercise as well?

If your icebreaker is also a team building exercise (i.e. the result of the icebreaker activity is a number of teams who have something in common), think about how this may affect your general team composition approach throughout the workshop.

Keep in mind that it is almost always better to re-shuffle teams from one activity to the next. Don’t get me wrong, team-building can still be an outcome of an icebreaker. I’m only raising potential issues. As long as you think these through, there is no problem.

The role of the e-facilitator(s)

Also consider how the e-facilitator(s) will participate in the icebreaker. Although some e-facilitators have a more hands-off approach, I believe it really helps the trust building process when e-facilitators fully participate in the icebreaker activity. Not as a commenter, but as a fellow contributor. Remove any teacher/instructor hat from day 1!

Before the eWorkshop goes live…

It’s best to test your icebreaker with a small group of colleagues or friends before your eWorkshop goes live. It’s important to start the workshop on a high – so testing is definitively worth your time.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Tchetta Meli
    May 27, 2016 7:13 pm

    This reminds me of the ‘window view’ that opened our e-facilitation workshop last year. It’s mind-boggling. Thanks Anouk.

  • There was an interesting option mentioned on iMoot today, where people were using the Moodle choice activity for a quick pre-icebreaker that does not require you writing a lot but opens a discussion further down. So a kind of double ice-breaker. I liked the idea.

  • Norbert Akolbila
    May 30, 2016 7:57 pm

    You are right on the issue of “A connection with the workshop subject?”. My personal experience when I started an online training on eFacilitation is that,
    I found the Icebreaker on “My window view” so relaxing as a starter.It takes away the anxiety or fear of how will I cope with the main training or subject matter. It relaxes you right from day one and gives you the courage for the days ahead as you share your window view so confidently.

    Thank you Anouk

  • Thanks a lot Anouk for the blog! I loved “my window view” as I was staying near the Source of River Nile. It was personal and very interesting read other participants’ views as well. Thank you Anouk.


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