Turning your in-person trainings into virtual trainings: 6 tips & tools in the age of the coronavirus

These are unprecedented, and unpredictable, times. The coronavirus, or COVID-19, has wreaked havoc on everyone’s plans for in-person workshops, conferences, trainings, and other programs. By all accounts, we will need to be practicing social distancing for some time. Now, in order to keep our work and causes moving forward, many of us will need to unexpectedly adapt our sessions (workshops, conferences, trainings, and more) to digital settings using video conferencing and other tools

We at the TESA Collective, a ten-year old worker-owned cooperative, specialize in creating dialogue-based and interactive forms of education for non-profits and other mission-based organizations. For the past five years, we have also been working with groups to adapt and update their existing materials, sessions, and curriculum for virtual settings. We have also worked with these clients to build new digital materials, curriculum, and sessions from the ground up. And just like with the in-person resources and curricula we create for groups, we strive to make these virtual sessions as engaging, dialogue-based, and interactive as possible. 

Because we know so many people are going to be looking to adapt their in-person sessions and materials to virtual settings, we wanted to share six tips and tools we’ve learned during these past five years of doing this work:

1) Engage with power dynamics head on

Digital learning does not stop destructive social dynamics from playing out. Instead, digital learning spaces can often exacerbate these issues, as the first person to break the silence is often the one dominating the space, or the person who understands the technology best controls the flow of activity. You need to tackle this head on and discuss how these frameworks play out in all of your learning spaces, and develop mechanisms to mitigate them. Some initial steps could include an opening discussion on power dynamics and digital spaces followed by the development of group norms and protocols. Clear and transparent structure is as important as shared norms – you could include participants in developing an agenda while making sure the participants are always aware of objectives, learning goals, and processes. For more information on this type of thing, you can always check out AORTA’s awesome guide on facilitation and power dynamics.

2) Utilize free software when you can

There is a lot of expensive software to support online learning and interactivity, and many organizations can’t afford it. That being said, utilizing tools like google docs or slides can allow participants to all engage with a shared document, illustrate (figuratively or literally) things together, move around a “digital table,” and work in pairs. Once you start creatively exploring some of the ways that folks can interact with these tools, a whole new realm of possibilities opens up. For example: think about using the Google illustrator tools for a collective mind mapping activity, or, you could have folks move an icon with their name on it throughout a Google illustration to simulate their body moving through a space.

3) Use PowerPoints (and decks) as a supplement, not as your backbone

This is something we say to people whether they are building an in-person or a digital learning experience: a PowerPoint (PPT) should be a supplementary tool, not your primary one! PPTs can be a great way to frame a conversation or present visual information, but it should not be used as a replacement instructor. If you think 90 minutes of in-person PowerPoint presentations are monotonous, try watching a 90-minute PowerPoint from a remote setting. Instead, think about using a PPT for a specific activity, or as a skeletal framework to help guide a group through a more detailed, interactive workshop or conversation.

4) Break participants out into small groups and gatherings

Breaking up a large group into smaller groups for conversation or a focused activity is an excellent way to engage with participants more meaningfully and build a more participatory atmosphere. This is easier with tools like zoom, that have a specific breakout room function, but can also be done by setting up a handful of google hangouts and providing specific links to respective group members. This will take a little bit more set-up time (and you may want to create a roadmap for participants for their different breakout rooms), but it is something we have used with great success. We have found breakout rooms and small group activities to be essential in keeping people focused, engaged, and conversing in digital settings. 

5) Create “physical spaces” in your virtual sessions

Whether it is having people “seat themselves” in a digital circle or having people vote with their bodies in different digital spaces, simulating the physicality of learning is a great way to create energy and engagement. For example, you can have a google slide/illustration set up with a circle on it, and have attendees “seat-themselves in a circle” by typing their name somewhere on the outside of the circle. They now have someone to their “right and left,” which can be used in activities and dialogue prompts.

Attempts at digital participation are often met with silence, as it is an unfamiliar concept for many, which in turn can lead to reproducing traditional power dynamics in shared spaces. So take these steps to both build engagement, and to better structurally mitigate corrosive dynamics.  

6) Put participants in leadership positions

Digital learning often regresses back to the “banking style of education,” where one person is the expert, and the participants are accounts, waiting to receive said expertise like deposits. Don’t fall into this habit! Instead, engage with participants before you even get into the digital space. Have folks help develop learning goals, activity ideas, and crowdsource content. Even better: rotate facilitation throughout a learning session, integrate presentations and report-backs, and have different groups be put in charge of following-up on specific content sections. A little more up-front planning will be required, but the outcomes will be so much better!

If you want more help, TESA can offer a free, 30-minute consultation on converting your in person trainings, workshops, conferences, and more to virtual sessions. Beyond that, you can hire us to help you do the planning and legwork of building out your new virtual curriculum and sessions – and converting your existing programs to digital ones.

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