Low Bandwidth Strategies
Online meetings and trainings connect people across geographical distances and engage people who might otherwise be excluded. However, access to reliable, high-speed internet varies widely. To lead inclusive and powerful online spaces, we must treat technology as an equity issue. As facilitators, we can’t control participants’ internet access, but we can use strategies to support connection and learning regardless of bandwidth.
Supporting low-bandwidth participants increases accessibility overall. These strategies also support people who are new or have limited access to technology, low literacy, and/or with visual impairment.
Here are some principles for equitable online spaces and examples of each in action:
Provide options for how to engage
When inviting participants to engage using higher tech tools, provide low-bandwidth options too. For best results, offer options before people have to ask for them.
- Write or print out a list of your participants and mark off next to each person when they share. At a glance you can see if someone hasn’t been heard from or if someone is dominating the space.
- As well as tracking participation, it can help to track who is participating from what format: computer, mobile app, phone only. This helps you know whether every type of connection is being engaged and who might need extra support.
- Invite the group to track with you using participation formats like “choose who is next,” where you ask one person to share on a topic, then they choose someone else who hasn’t shared and so on until everyone has spoken. Track on paper so you can let them know who hasn’t shared yet if they lose track.
Make people feel “seen” and help them see each other
When you have a low tech connection to a meeting (like being on the phone only) or are having problems (like your internet cutting out) it can feel like you are on the margins of the group looking in. It’s easy to disengage and end up watching from the sidelines. A perfect antidote to this is feeling like you are “seen” and your input is valued by the facilitator and the group.
- Check in with people by name, appreciating or responding to their contributions, or inviting them into a discussion.
- Offer options directly to people who you know might need them. “Sandra, since you’re on the phone would you like to share out loud about this? I’ll read out for you what has already been shared in the chat.”
- Early on in the call, name out loud who is in the “room,” despite connection format or bandwidth.
- Use tools like a “go-around” that remind everyone who is connected and give them a chance to hear from everyone.
- Verbalize what you are tracking about the group’s participation. “I notice I’m hearing more from the folks who are on camera,” or “We’ve heard from almost everyone on this point.
Verbalize what you are seeing
If you want to create accessible online spaces, it’s great to give voice to what you are noticing in the room and in your meeting visuals. This helps engage participants who can’t see what’s going on in the room for any reason and puts them on more equal footing to participate. It also helps people to feel seen and to see each other.
- Describe visuals during screen sharing. “Right now I’m showing a diagram. It’s like a pyramid and the top level says…”
- Describe what you notice about activity or nonverbal signals from the group. “Everyone I can see on camera is smiling and nodding right now along with your story, Anne!” or “That burst of laughter was because Marco’s baby pulled his glasses off while he was talking!”
- Verbalize chat activity. You can read out messages shared in the chat box, including who shared them. Sometimes summarizing instead of reading every comment will make more sense. At other times you might say “There’s a side conversation happening in the chat box about last night’s ball game – I’m not going to read that out, but I’ll send the chat transcript after if you want to hear it!”
Use low bandwidth visuals/tools
There are lots of amazing tools for online gatherings. When choosing what to use, think about your group and your goals. Consider the bandwidth required for a tool and how easy they are to use from a mobile device or for those with less comfort with technology.
- For shared note-taking, a shared text document may work better for your group than shared slides.
- The facilitator and one other person can scribe while the group shares in chat or out loud only.
- Videos or animated graphics may be frustrating or totally ineffective for low-bandwidth participants.
- Complicated charts or visuals with small text may be impossible to read on mobile devices.
Use asynchronous (“different time”) approaches
Using the time before and after your group gets together can help maximize the engagement for your participants. These “asynchronous” strategies include preparing for those who you know will have low bandwidth and also helping those who unexpectedly had intermittent access to the call.
- If using visuals or shared notes documents, email or print and mail out in advance.
- You can invite people to add their input to brainstorms or other discussions before and/or after your call. This can especially help those who may have bandwidth or tech access intermittently and also supports participants who need more time or quiet to process and think.
- Offer options of how to participate asynchronously as well. “You can add your ideas to our note document, or send me an email or give me a call.”
- After your session, email or mail out the finished notes and chat transcripts.
- Check in with your group ahead of time to find out how people will be connecting and to share options and support.
- Check in afterwards with group members who had low connectivity. Do they want to check in with you or a buddy about a part they missed? Would having a recording they could watch be helpful and accessible?
Co-facilitate or have a team member provide tech support
When leading a group with low-bandwidth participants, it’s helpful to have a team member who can pay attention to specific individuals who might be having trouble.
- While one person facilitates, the other can offer more individualized support to people whose call is dropping constantly, or who are having trouble getting the information being shared.
- The co-facilitator can offer options for connecting such as dialing in, stopping video streaming, connecting from a weblink, so their experience is more fruitful.