There are plenty of online tools that can make your everyday life easier if you are preparing to facilitate an interactive session. The good thing is that you don’t have to pay a fortune to use technology that helps you make your job easier. In fact, there are plenty of free tools you can use to get yourself more productive in the process of preparing or following up a facilitated session.
We have collected the most useful tools we encountered while talking to our SessionLab users and from our personal experience. It was an important factor among the selection criteria that each of the tools should have a functional free version available without time limitation to use so one can rely on them on the long term for personal use.
We grouped them according to the type of tasks they are used for so you can find precisely what you need. Importantly, these tools may be just as useful if you facilitate face-to-face meetings or a training, as well as if you would facilitate online sessions. They are most useful for the preparation and follow-up work, not for the actual facilitation itself.
Your favourite tool is not on the list? Let us know in the comments.
UPDATE 2017-04-05: We have updated this post with some new tools including a new section on online whiteboards.
1) Creating forms for needs assessment or evaluation
If you ask for feedback from participants, and you want to go beyond using ‘happy sheets’ – paper forms filled out right after the workshop on the spot, then you may decide to create an online survey after the session. Alternatively, you might want to conduct a needs assessment survey for the preparations. You can select from a wide range of online survey tools that can do the job for you. Our favourites are:
- Google Forms allow you to create unlimited surveys with 6 types of questions and skip logic that can guide your participants through your survey depending on their answers. This free service has seamless integration with Google’s other apps, including Gmail and spreadsheets. The best part: it is absolutely free, unlike most of the competition that has usage limits in their free versions.
- As a relatively new kid on the block, Typeform has made filling out forms engaging and interactive. The forms look fresh and modern, promising that users are more likely to enjoy the survey experience and complete it all the way through. Typeform offers unlimited surveys of maximum 10 questions in the free version, while the paid version adds extra features, such as advanced question types and conditional logic.
- Having been around since 1999, SurveyMonkey is one of the longest running online survey services in the world. SurveyMonkey does the basics and does them well, providing a reliable alternative. In the free version, however, you will be limited to 10 questions, 100 respondents per survey, and no possibility to export your data.
The downside of the free versions is that they will include their own branding in the survey which may be an issue for some of you.
2) Cloud storage and sharing with your co-workers
These popular file sharing solutions let you access all your files on your phone or tablet device, and are also working well to share documents with your colleagues. If you want to store your files in the cloud and sync it over your devices, you have plenty of services to choose, most notably:
- Dropbox was a pioneer in this market with their reliable and easy-to-use sharing system when you use tons of different kinds of devices. They offer a free option with 2GB of storage.
- Google Drive, offering 15GB free storage, has the added benefit of a built-in office suite, where you can edit documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, even if you created the document in another program. If you work with remote teams and customers all around the world, Google Drive works great for a number of things, especially collaborative spreadsheets, and it’s great to be able to share links with people to collaborate on documents straight from your browser.
Similarly to survey tools, some of your clients might be sensitive about having data about their business stored in such services. There are more enterprise solutions out there (e.g. Box) that can be worth checking out in such cases.
3) Video conferencing – Communicate with your colleagues or clients while working remote
The difficulty of working with someone who is sitting somewhere else can be reduced when you see each other and/or you are watching the same screen. Skype and Google Hangouts are competing head-to-head in this market:
- Skype puts a big accent on reducing the barriers to entry for users, therefore it is a great choice for connecting to participants with questionable computers, connections, or technical knowledge. On the downside, there is a long history of Skype calls suffering from quality issues, especially if some of the participants are using a cellular connection. However, this issue is becoming less and less prominent in the past years.
- Hangouts require all members to have a Google Plus account and it provides a cross-platform functionality similar to Skype. It became well-known for its high video quality, and for offering better quality calls when bandwidth is low. Additionally, Hangouts offers many business-savvy features: such as, if you want to create webinars, Hangouts comes with an ‘on Air’ feature that can be shared with the world and can be recorded and stored on YouTube.
While Skype and Hangouts brought free video conferencing available to anyone, a number of new players emerged on this market now offering better quality, reliability and ease of use. Our two new favourites are:
- Appear.in comes in to help when all other tools fail. You just open a video conferencing room, send the link to your guests and they can join without having to install anything or create an account.
- Zoom provides exceptionally reliable quality, minimising audio or video latency issues that you usually encounter with most video conferencing applications. The only downside is the 40 minutes call limit for group calls on the free version.
4) Online whiteboards
Seeing each other while talking through a video conferencing application can make remote working easier, but what happens with the magic of being in the same room and working on the same whiteboard? Complex problem solving often requires a visual platform to brainstorm and come up with creative ideas, and online whiteboards can more and more replicate the feeling of working on the same board in person.
Both Realtimeboard and Deekit offer an endless flexible space where you can collaborate and share ideas. You can create an online canvas and use that as a simple whiteboard for jotting down ideas, or as an infinite board for building a project with a remote team. They allow creating mockups and schemes, quickly add stickers, write down ideas and leave feedback.
- Realtimeboard: Besides the regular online whiteboard features of uploading images, creating notes, drawing in different colours and sizes in freehand mode, the app offers a great template library to conveniently find the right structure you need for your whiteboard. The free version offers up to 3 boards and 3 team members.
- Deekit also allows to write and sketch anywhere on your board, embed content from the web, and allows to export boards to share them with others. The template library helps a lot to get started with the right style of whiteboard for your work. The free version offers 4 boards with 2 team members.
5) Manage tasks collaboratively
There is a vast amount of task management software available on the market. Some are part of big project management tools, while others are dedicated only to keeping your tasks in order. Below are our top choices:
- Trello offers a flexible and visual way to organize anything with anyone. Trello is organized in boards inspired by Kanban methodology. You can add lists to the board and cards to the lists. Each card can have individual checklists, uploaded documents or pictures, and discussion in form of comments. You can easily invite your co-workers to sign up for their own free Trello account. Instead of using emails and instant messages, you can use Trello to communicate.
- Wunderlist is more specialized for personal organization in their free plan: you can create different lists and to-dos, make a task repeating, prioritize your lists, set reminders and due dates. It also offers a sharing function, so you can send the training preparation list to your co-trainer.
- If you have a bigger facilitation project, you may want to use a more specialised project management software to help your team collaborating without getting flooded by emails. Asana is an intuitive task-management system that works best for teams seeking real-time interaction and it’s free for up to 15 users.
All of three of them has easy-to-use mobile versions and allow syncing over devices. With either of them you can drop the lengthy email threads and out-of-date spreadsheets if you want to get your tasks organised and collaborate effectively with your co-facilitators. You can also export your tasks to your calendar.
6) Taking notes – organising and sharing information
Noting down various bits of information pouring in during the training process is crucial: when talking with clients, jotting down some personal follow-up steps, and so on. For this, having a pen and a piece of paper on you is essential, but organizing, finding, and sharing your notes is easier when using digital tools.
And doing it online has never been easier. There are plenty of apps allowing you to jot down thoughts, sync them across devices and share with your colleagues. We will present the two leading players in the segment, with somewhat different strengths:
- Evernote lets you easily capture, organize, and find content from the Web. You can highlight text on the web, take screenshots, write your own notes, etc. The notes can be tagged, shared, formatted (to some extent), and you can even assign tasks to them. And these are just some of its many features.
- Microsoft OneNote has a similar set of features to Evernote, but the approach in organizing your notes is different. OneNote supports a more defined structure, as you can have several levels of notebooks, pages, and subpages. It also provides richer formatting options, which are especially useful when doing creative work as it allows you to start typing anywhere on the page.
Although they differ in the way they work, what they have in common is the most important advice for using any software for taking notes: you actually need to remember to use it. These tools really become useful when all your notes are in the same place and you can use powerful search and sharing features.
7) Session planning and facilitation knowledge base
Session outlines, exercises, diversity of interaction methods, materials needed, libraries of facilitation tools and methods, etc. How best to organize all these elements specific to a facilitated session? You might use some of the previously mentioned tools (e.g. cloud storage to share Excel or Google Spreadsheet workshop plans) but it is typically hard to capture all the important details and have an overview at the same time. This is what we are addressing with our own tool, which is also free to use:
- SessionLab is an online session planner tool for facilitators and trainers doing facilitated sessions, providing a platform that is designed for the flexible and iterative process of building up a workshop or training schedule – making your process design work a real flow experience. As you build up your session outline, all the various modules and exercises you enter into the system become searchable and reusable by you, together with the additional comments and attached documents you might add for a specific module of your session. When looking for new inspiration, you can find facilitation tools and specific exercises in a public library that you can seamlessly add to your own session plan. You can also share the workshop plans with your clients or colleagues and work together on it simultaneously. And yes, we’re blowing our own horn, but mainly because we love using it.
Currently, SessionLab focuses on designing a session plan and helping facilitators and trainers explore and find useful content for their session. We are working to extend SessionLab to become a comprehensive tool that supports you in each stage of session preparation, delivery, and follow-up.
Bonus: Tools are only part of the solution and while they can make your work easier, the quality of your sessions will come from the content. Check out our post on various free online resources for workshop and training activities.
All these online tools are worth checking out, and hopefully they will save you time and make your facilitation related work go even more smoothly. Let us know in the comments if you missed something on the list!