What is this technique about
It is a structured conversational process to share knowledge between smaller groups of people that are discussing a topic. The idea is to create a “café” type atmosphere to facilitate the conversations. It starts off with a pre-defined set of questions or challenges, but the outcomes or solutions are not decided in advance and are an outcome of the collective discussion process, in which the group members move between the tables to continue the discussions and reflections from the groups that preceded them.
Where does it come from
In 1995 a group of business and academic leaders met at the home of one of them to discuss a specific topic in a large circular setting, when it started raining, people broke out into smaller groups to find cover. Conversations went on in smaller groups, and the participants started taking notes on the paper table-cloths. Spontaneously they started moving around the tables and found out that recollecting the results from the different discussions allowed to identify patterns in their thinking.
World Café or Knowledge Café got its name because it imitates a café setting where small groups (4 or 5 people) are all conversing together around tables.
For which purposes it is used (why in your engineering teaching)
The goal of the technique is to see different views and drill into new ideas related to one or more challenges, but it can also be used to think critically about a particular context, circumstance or situation. It is especially well-suited for larger groups.
The participants gather in clusters of small groups and engage in conversation about an issue that matters to them or some work they are trying to do together. It is an ideal way to find out what a group is thinking and feeling about a topic.
How to use it
There are some design principles which are to be taken into account:
- Set the context: think carefully about what you want to achieve, as knowing the purpose of the activity will allow you to select the elements needed to realise the goals, e.g. what questions will be most relevant, what sorts of results will be more useful, etc.
- Create a hospitable space: you need to create an environment in which the students feel safe and comfortable, inviting them to think, speak and listen creatively. The physical set up of the classroom can contribute to create this type of environment.
- Use powerful questions: these type of questions attract collective energy, insight and action. Depending on the aim and time available you can focus on one single question, or use progressive questioning to deep-dive into the them through several conversational rounds.
- Encourage all to contribute: it is important to encourage all students to participate actively and contribute providing their perspectives and ideas, however you should also allow someone who merely wants to listen to do so.
- Connecting different and diverse perspectives: the moving around the tables, an integral part of the technique, increases the possibility for new insights and ideas as students carry key ideas across the tables and exchange perspectives.
- Listening for patterns and insights: the quality of the listening taking place during a World Café is a key factor (if not the most important one), as it allows to detect patterns and get a sense of a connection. Encourage your students to listen to what is not being spoken, apart from what is being shared.
- Share collective discoveries: the last phase is the process is called “harvest” and is the process of making the pattern of the World Café and the contributions visible to all. Ask the students to reflect and think about the questions and conversations that went on in the smaller groups and what has been reflected on the graphical representations. Ask them to share their thoughts and insights with the rest of the group.
The World Café addresses one overarching theme, which is divided into a limited set of subthemes. During the introduction the teachers presents the overall theme and the subthemes to the students. The students are then divided into smaller groups and sit around a table (in a similar matter as they would in a café or bar).
The students need to be instructed, so as the make sure that they understand that the aim is not to criticize other people´s ideas, but to try and find as many good/relevant ideas as possible.
In each of the tables, a host is assigned (which can be a student or other teachers) who is responsible for the subtheme assigned to that particular table/group. The table is to be covered with blank paper, so as to allow the students to take notes during the discussion. The host is in charge of ensuring that all comments, ideas and suggestions are written down on the paper.
The smaller groups at each table then discuss for about 10 minutes the challenge, problem or situation identified in their subtheme. After these 10 minutes the groups move tables (preferably clockwise or counter-clockwise for easier tracking of the movements).
However the host does not move and stays at “their” table throughout the full duration of the session. When the new group arrives at “their” table, the host is responsible for summarising what the previous group has discussed, and includes the new group in this discussion. Again the participants take notes on the papers (which are now already filled with comments, ideas and suggestions from the former group) and the host again takes notes. The rotation time for the table is 15 minutes (5 minutes more than the initial one as the host needs to explain the discussions from the former group(s)).
After the rotation, the host of each table summarises the results, which are then analysed and commented by the teacher.
The idea is that each group visits each table once, therefore it is advisable that there are maximum for tables, with 1 host and 5 people per group approximately.
How to implement this techniques online
Do conduct a Virtual World Café you need to use a video conferencing tool that offers the possibility to break-out in different “rooms”. Please check for the different options available and the potential work arounds you might need to allow participants to move freely between the rooms.
It is a good idea to set up the tool you will use beforehand (e.g. Miro Board) with different areas set up for the breakout rooms and embed it if possible in the videoconferencing tool. This facilitates the sharing of the ideas and outcomes of the different groups (better than words or drawings on a piece of paper).
Overall the preparation of a Virtual Café does not differ too much from a face-to-face one, except for the selection of the tool to be used and making sure the participants understand what it means to do the exercise in a virtual environment.
First you define the vision, purpose and goal of the World Café as well as the focus and content to be addressed, the same you do for the face-to-face one. For a Virtual setting it is necessary to create a storyboard, i.e. establish clearly the timing for each block or part of the activity, decide which visuals and/or tools to use and define clearly the role of the team members, Although this is also done in a face-to-face session, it requires more detail and thorough thinking through for the virtual activity.
With regards to the virtual set-up, make sure all participants know which tool will be used, and which version of the tool, customise the platform selected if needed.
Make sure to have technical support and a tech savvy staff member to help both students and yourself in case of need.
Last but not least make sure to prepare the tools needed well in advance and run a test session with some colleagues or friends to make sure it all works before initiating the session.
There are templates online which you can use, for instance there is a really useful one for those that opt for MIRO for the exercise: https://miro.com/miroverse/virtual-world-cafe/ (there is alos an explanatory video on the page with examples).
Examples and/or testimonials
TEDxValència organised a Worldcafé online. Barabara explains how this was done: I started by designing the script for a 1.5 hour session and trained our internal team to be hosts/moderators of breakout room discussions (coffee tables). Our TEDx events usually are very big, but with the new format of the TED Circles combined with a World Café methodology we allowed for small group discussions where really everybody was able to participate. We got amazing feedback from participants. Our team developed new skills of virtual facilitation, we attracted new people and overall, it can be stated that discussions were very in-depth. Each moderator/host in a breakout room had a prepared google document where he/she took notes that later on were shared in the plenary conclusion.
You will need a platform to share screens and communicate with the participants, such as for instance Zoom, MS Teams or similar, as well as tools for sharing documents, notetaking and brainstorming. Also polling types of tools can be useful.
- Concept Board
World Café Europe. Virtual World Café. Available at: https://www.worldcafe.eu/en/virtual-world-cafe/.
Venegas, B. C. How to organise and facilitate a virtual World Café? Available at: https://www.barbaracv.com/blog/how-to-organise-and-facilitate-a-virtual-world-cafe/
Hite, S. How the World-Cafe Model Can Enhance Online Discussion. Education Week. Available at: https://www.edweek.org/education/opinion-how-the-world-cafe-model-can-enhance-online-discussion/2020/05
Gurteen, D. Virtual Knowledge Café Process. Conversational Leadership. Available at: https://conversational-leadership.net/virtual-knowledge-cafe-process/
Villa, T. Virtual Knowledge Café: does it work? LinkedIn. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/virtual-knowledge-cafe-does-work-tiziano-villa-pmp-pmi-acp-cmc-/
Great Lakes Equity Center. (2020, July 26). Virtual World Café: Meeting the Needs of All Students During COVID-19. [Video]. YouTube. Available at: https://youtu.be/6r4FGZv3-i8
John Hovell. (2020, May 27). Virtual Knowledge Café- How can you lead change in your organization (especially virtual)? [Video]. YouTube. Available at: https://youtu.be/FXt8ERW7KOg
Kock-Africa, L. C., Jaffer, L., Titus, S., Filies, G. C. (2020). Hosting a virtual world café to promote interprofessional learning. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349945704_Hosting_a_virtual_world_cafe_to_promote_interprofessional_learning
Connecting Diverse People and Ideas. A Virtual Knowledge Café
Bo Gyllenpalm; Situational Services. Available at: http://www.theworldcafe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/virtualcafes.pdf
Anyacho, B. C. (2021). The Knowledge Café: Create an Environment for Successful Knowledge Management. Available at: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/634057/the-knowledge-cafe-by-benjamin-anyacho/