By Tiffany Howe, MBA, CSFA, CST, FAST, Vice President for Teaching and Learning, Western Dakota Technical College

The COVID pandemic has forced us to rethink how we keep our programs moving forward during such a challenging time. Our lecture content, lab competencies and clinical hours tend to be our highest priority; however, there are many other moving parts to a successful program, including maintaining a strong Program Advisory Committee (PAC).

You have likely held traditional face-to-face advisory board meetings in the past and are now looking to restructure into virtual meetings. Here are a few helpful hints for hosting effective virtual meetings with your PAC:

  • Use video conferencing. To help board members feel like they are all at the same meeting, use video conferencing rather than traditional conference dial-ins. Virtual meeting platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and GoToMeeting, help to personalize the conversation and keep participants engaged.
  • As a Plan B, always provide an audio dial-in option. Video conferencing can work well, but it relies on a strong internet connection that may not always be available. PAC members need the ability to participate via audio, but clarify that video participation is favored.
  • Test the technology ahead of time. Nothing kills momentum at the start of a meeting like a 15-minute delay because someone needs to download software or cannot get the video to work. Prior to a virtual meeting, all participants should test the technology and make sure they are comfortable with the major features. You can offer to test the technology with board members who have not used it already.
  • Make sure faces are visible. Video conferences are more effective when people can see the facial expressions and body language of others. This also helps to recreate the intimacy of a face-to-face meeting.
  • Send out meeting agenda and other documents ahead of time. At least a week prior to the meeting, send out the agenda, past meeting minutes and all other documents you will be covering. This allows time for board members to review items at their convenience and to be prepared with questions. Follow Robert’s Rules when it comes to approval of items just like you would during an in-person meeting.
  • Minimize presentation length. The only thing worse than a long presentation in person is a long presentation during a virtual meeting. Help your PAC facilitate productive discussions by determining time limits for each agenda item and adhering to them. Offer to move conversations offline as needed.
  • Assign a chat monitor. It can be harder to manage a virtual discussion than an in-person one. If you have a large number of participants, you may find it helpful to have a board member be the chat monitor. While the program director and faculty members guide the conversation, the chat monitor can let you know if anyone has added a comment or question to the chat feature.
  • Call on people. Getting everyone to participate without talking over each other is one of the more challenging aspects of a virtual meeting. You can periodically call on board members to speak, even by virtually “going around the table” before a decision is finalized. Most virtual meeting platforms allow attendees to “raise a hand” if they want to speak. This can help the meeting leader drive closure on a topic without the risk of excluding an introverted participant’s views.
  • Don’t be afraid to tackle tough issues. Meeting virtually is a learned behavior; you will be amazed how much you can get out of the format once you and your advisory board become comfortable working this way. It may seem natural to wait to discuss tough issues until everyone is in person, but that may not be an option.

Our campus normally holds face-to-face PAC meetings; however, moving them to a virtual format last spring helped increase attendance. Board members are incredibly busy and eliminating the commute to campus has been beneficial in overall participation. Your PAC members want to know what is happening with the program and how your college is handling the challenges of the pandemic. More than ever, your program needs a strong PAC who will continue to support your efforts. Showing your support by hosting efficient and effective virtual meetings will only help that relationship grow.

Bonus: Finding the Positives of Virtual Meetings

“I used to think virtual meetings were rather impersonal. However, by providing visuals and having planned questions, participants are more likely to stay engaged rather than just staring at their computer screens. When we started holding virtual meetings, I researched tips to improve the meeting format. One great resource I found was ‘10 Strategies for Virtual Meetings That Win.’

“While it is best to have these meetings in person, virtual meetings can still be very productive. We may not be able to see each other in person, but we can still cultivate trust and professional relationships by displaying that we care through our tone and facial expressions.”

Margaret Griffith, BA, CST, Surgical Technology Program Chair, North-West College