Host a Panel Discussion
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Host a Panel Discussion

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Engage your students with a variety of perspectives by hosting a panel of experts to discuss or debate a topic. An online panel poses challenges: How to visually set “the panel” apart from the students? How to organize questions without being awkward or chaotic? This resource shares some best practices from DCE instructors. 

Potential uses

Host a discussion among experts with a variety of views about

  • a particular historical event 
  • solutions for a current social/economic policy problem
  • management strategies that could be applied to a business case
  • the significance of a work of art, literature, or performance
  • the challenges of a particular engineering problem
  • the ethics of an existing or potential scientific advancement

Logistical Needs 

  • Class size: 15+ students
  • Instructor prep time:  1–2 hours, plus time needed to secure panelists  
  • Class time needed: One hour minimum
  • Technology needed: Zoom, Poll Everywhere 
  • Technical Difficulty: Medium

Using a panel discussion in your class

Preparation

Prepare panelists:

  1. Invite and confirm a number of panelists appropriate to the time and topics you have to cover. Let them know you will share the Zoom link the day before the event.
  2. Give background: Once you have confirmed all (or most) panelists, let them know (if you haven't already):
    • course info: goals, number of students, and their interests
    • other panelists: who else will be there 
    • topics: what will and won't be in the scope of the conversation
    • opening remarks: do they need to prepare an opening, is there a time limit or scope of topics
    • Q&A: will question be selected by you, them, or students? 
    • tech: Recommend they review DCE’s Zoom Best Practices: A Master Guide to make sure their tech is working, lighting and sound are good
    • bio: Solicit a short biography for your introductions

Prepare the technology

  1. Set the panelists apart: (optional): Three options for setting your panelists apart from class during the Zoom meeting: 
    • Shared virtual background: If panelists' computers can use Zoom's virtual background feature, create or choose one you and the panelists will use. Harvard's Virtual Background Generator tool can help you create one with the name of the panel discussion, or customized with the name of each panelist. 
    • Use Zoom's Focus Mode, so that students will see only the host, co-hosts, and the participants you choose to spotlight. 
    • Immersive View: Zoom's immersive view feature puts panelists in the same virtual room together! There are technical requirements and things to configure; contact the web conference team for support at least a week before the event.
  2. Mitigate risk: important for any meeting, more so for a high-profile event:
    • Assistance: If you have an assistant, designate them run Zoom features while you facilitate
    • Test all your own media ahead of time (especially video/audio)
    • Have a contingency plan for “Zoom bombing” or an internet/computer crash. Consult with DCE’s Help Desk for options.
  3. Create a Zoom link for your panelists. Your panelists can't join the web conference via Canvas. Follow the instructions in the Gather Tutorials for generating a temporary Zoom link by which your panelists can join. For security reasons, follow the prompts to configure it to work only on the specific day of the panel discussion.

Prepare Q&A Poll

For more than 15 students, we recommend using PollEverywhere to prioritize questions.

  1. Review Poll Everywhere’s tips on Q&A questions
  2. Create: Go to polleverywhere.harvard.edu and log in with your HarvardKey. Create a new poll, and choose the type “Q&A”. 
  3. Configure: Your prompt can be something like, “Submit your question for the panelists.”
    1. Prompt: something like, “Submit your question for the panelists” and any other considerations
    2. Moderation: For larger classes with TA/TF support, turn on Moderation. Your assistant will approve each question before it goes up on the list of questions. It's slower, but filters out inappropriate, off-topic, or redundant questions. Then choose “Enable team moderation” and share the link that appears with your designated assistant. Do not share this team moderation link with students or panelists. 
    3. Visuals (optional)Configure the look and feel of your forum with themes, fonts, background images. 
  4. Test: Activate and test the poll with a few responses. Then choose “clear responses.” 
  5. Link: Copy your Poll Everywhere link so it's ready to share at the right time.

Prepare to facilitate

At least a day before the event, be sure you have prepared

  1. introductions and closing remarks
  2. ‘seed’ questions to kick off the discussion
  3. one unique question for each panelist, in case a particular panelist isn’t getting as much talking time as others 

Steps

  1. Check in early: Ask the panelists and staff to log on 30 minutes early.  Do a tech check to make sure everyone is audible and visible. 
  2. Set up the "stage": If using a shared virtual background or Immersive view, make sure all panelists have it turned on. If not using Immersive view, put the panelists together using Zoom’s instructions for making a custom gallery view and then use “View → Follow host’s video order”. to push that layout out to all participants.
  3. Gather:  Mute all participants, then ask panelists to unmute themselves. 
  4. Open the panel discussion as you would in person:
    1. Welcome and Introductions: Use the panelists' bios. 
    2. Review the agenda, including time allotted for each part.
    3. Provide your Poll Everywhere link via the Zoom chat, but don’t activate the poll (yet). Tell them questions won’t appear right away, and that a moderator will select and group like questions, and then release them for upvoting.   
    4. Opening remarks from the panelists.
  5. Student Q&A: 
    1. Activate the Poll Everywhere Q&A and tell students to submit questions. If a question is for just one panelist, they should say so.
    2. Set the tone with a 1-2 questions of your own, while students are submitting theirs. Pay attention to equity in speaking time among the panelist 
    3. Moderate questions: The Poll Everywhere moderator (who is not moderating the spoken discussion) should review questions as they come in. For multiple similar questions, choose the most comprehensive one (or write your own comprehensive version) to approve, and leave the others hidden. 
    4.  Vote on Questions: Ask students to up-vote questions; as many as they want. 
    5. Ask questions: Panel moderator picks an early favorite to ask first. Student  votes should inform but not dictate the question order.  Poll Moderator should leave the question visible while panelists answer, and then hide it so the panel moderator can choose from the remaining questions.  
  6. Closing: Allow time at the end to wind up the discussion, and for any closing remarks from panelists or yourself. 

Tips from instructors, and  variations 

  • Avoid non-questions: When using Poll Everywhere, don’t ask, “Are there any questions?”  This may lead to students submitting “nope”, or “no questions”. Instead, try: “If you have a question, submit it now.” 
  • Variation: Early questions. Use the poll/voting for one week before the panel discussion, and provide the top questions to the panelists in advance. If you want to curate questions before sending, you can download all responses in a CSV/spreadsheet format and use that as a reference. 
  • Variation: Breakout groupsInstead of an all-class panel discussion, make a breakout group for each panelist, and allow students to move themselves into and between groups to ask questions. 
    • If breakout rooms are <12 people, students may be able to ask questions out loud, with minimal moderation.
    • For breakout rooms of 12-30 students, use the Zoom chat and ask a moderator (for each breakout room) to track and ask the questions. Or, each moderator could have their own separate Poll Everywhere link and run it as described above.

Adapt this activity for your course! 

Want help adapting this for your class? Sign up for a design consultation with a member of the Course Design Team.