We’ve now run two sessions of Virtual Beavers, so I thought I’d share what we’ve done and what we’ve learned so far. (summary: use Zoom, it’s really good, Beavers love it and there are two ready-to-go hour-long programmes linked below).

The first week – programme here https://www.dropbox.com/…/Virtual-Beavers-Plan-2020-03-20.p… – we used Hangouts Meet and focused on the Communicator badge.

We asked all the Beavers to have pens / paper and an adult on hand at their end. Also to have their parent’s mobile number written down in front of them. And we recommended they use a computer / freestanding device or have a sibling/parent to hold a phone so they had their hands free.

Hangouts Meet is possibly the easiest for parents, as it works well in any web browser and you only need to share a link to the call. But it’s tricky in-call for big groups of kids. It doesn’t really have host / presenter controls, it relies on the algorithm deciding who is speaking. With Beavers, background noise and siblings that meant a lot of rapid switching from person to person, almost at random.

The host can mute people remotely – which I had to do to be heard / get control of the session. But they can only un-mute themselves, so it relies on them reactivating their mic if you ask them to speak.

Once we had Beavers mostly muted it was better. But still a bit of a challenge for the Leader as you can only see a few at a time, so it’s hard to tell if everyone has heard instructions / is keeping up with the activity.

We got through the programme, and the planned activities just about worked. Because the tech added extra distraction, I should have prepared more. For active phone number I lost track of how many numbers I’d already called out, and likewise for Phonetic Alphabet bingo which letters I’d called. I should have written out my phone number / the alphabet first and ticked off at my end so I knew where I was. Hands up Hands Down worked pretty well though – again the Hangouts interface made it tricky to keep an eye on / encourage the Beavers who had paused or finished their drawings. They got quite into the discussion afterwards.

For the first time ever, we finished a Beavers programme in less than the allowed time – mostly because we didn’t have to spend time getting them all to be quiet / into a circle / sitting down etc.

Despite the challenges, we achieved everything we’d planned and the Beavers had a lot of fun and enjoyed seeing their friends.

Week two – programme here https://www.dropbox.com/…/Virtual-Beavers-Plan-2020-03-27.p… – we used Zoom.

This was *much* better. Zoom’s host controls are quite powerful, you can mute and unmute participant microphones and you can also select a “spotlight video” to tell it which person to feature as the current speaker rather than rely on the algorithm.

The combination of muting and spotlight video is so effective that it feels weird to have everyone silent except the current speaker. We found it better to have a few people’s mics on so you could hear a bit of reaction. You do need to keep on top of this – listening and muting any Beavers that get a bit chatty, or a sibling/parent starts a background conversation, etc. Also with most Beavers not using headsets, if they turn the volume up you can get a delayed echo. Zoom shows a clear list of who’s microphones are on and which are currently sending audio, so it’s quite easy to spot where any unwanted noise is coming from and mute it.

There’s also the option to “lock” people’s mute – used effectively for a short period with one Beaver who was quite keen to turn his mic back on and chat over people.

Zoom also has a “gallery view” which shows up to 49 participants all on the same screen. You can see that in the videos of Simon Says / Port-Starboard. This allows you to keep track of how all the Beavers on the call are getting on, and to see who’s raised their hand to speak, whether everyone has heard the instructions etc.

If you select a spotlight video it switches you (and everyone else) out of gallery view – but you can then switch your view back to gallery while leaving the spotlight active. That worked really well for giving one Beaver control of a game or for the lip reading, while still allowing me to see everyone else.

The only tech issue we had was I’d edited together a video of the phonetic alphabet clips the Beavers had sent in from the previous week. I tried to screen share that with the group, and they got bits of it but the audio/picture quality was pretty poor so I sent it to parents afterwards for them to see it properly.

The programmed activities worked really well and we filled the full hour. They really enjoyed playing some familiar games, and got really into Art Apart and the Lip Reading. For the lip reading we kept the spotlight on the “speaker” so they could give a thumbs up / thumbs down as we unmuted Beavers to guess the message. The first person to guess the message correctly got the next turn.

Our experience is the meeting host definitely needs to manage the audio / video of the participants quite actively. This is fairly easy, but does take a bit of concentration. So far I’ve done that as well as running/facilitating the activities. It would be possible for a second leader to take on that role, although might be a little less smooth (e.g. leader in charge says “OK, let’s have Jonny” and another person activates Jonny’s video/mic – could be a bit of a time delay). That said all of this gets easier as you get a feel for it – probably by next week will feel a lot more natural.

Zoom is theoretically usable from a browser with just a link, but to get the best of it people really do need the app – which is available for almost every computer / device. You can set up a recurring Zoom meeting so that people can use the same link / meeting code every week.

I thought some parents / Beavers might have tech challenges – but that doesn’t seem to be an issue so far.

We’ve had loads of brilliant feedback from parents after both sessions:

“He absolutely loved it. Last week [on hangouts] was fun but probably not sustainable whereas tonight [on zoom] really was”

“It’s so nice to have something that you can say ‘its Beavers as normal’ when everything else has just stopped”

“Thanks so much for organising the Beavers call. The kids love it. It’s very much appreciated!”

“I just wanted to say well done. Finding a way to keep Beavers going is admirable, and I thought it went very well indeed! In fact having the facility to mute the kids is an advantage in some ways!”

“It was great to see the Beavers learning to use the technology and being able to connect with you and each other. It definitely made a difference to Harry’s day being able to keep his Beavers involvement going”.

And one from a Beaver, using the emailing-skills he learned in week 1:

“hi andrew, it’s me rory. that was an awesome beavers again. from romeo oscar romeo yankee 👺

Edit: I had a question offline about safeguarding. We’ve aimed to have two leaders on the call, but also asked all the parents to have an adult on hand at their end. Some Beavers benefit from that anyway in terms of supervision/tech backup but also means we have a good number of adults around if e.g. one of the Leader’s connections were to drop out. You can’t always see the parents on screen but can generally hear enough of them to know that we’re well covered.

Also in terms of emailing, obviously at Beaver age very few have their own addresses so it’s all done through parents anyway. With the one or two that emailed video clips from their own accounts we made sure to reply cc’ing a parent (as we do for comms from Young Leaders).

We’ve invited our Young Leaders to participate in the calls, so far none have done so but we’re hoping to get them engaged down the line (obviously everyone still just getting settled in to the new normal).

Andrew Coulton
Beaver Leader