Six principles for creating online trainings that inspire in-person action

TESA has been working with organizations to develop participatory and engaging online trainings for over six years. We’ve collaborated with a wide range of wonderful groups, such as Equal Exchange, the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, the Carolina Common Enterprise (CCE), and others. And with the arrival of COVID-19 last year, this work became even more urgent, as so much organizing, trainings, meetings, and day-to-day work were quickly moved online.

Yet despite – or maybe because of – the ubiquity of zoom and other online work these days, the challenges of digital trainings ring even louder. We often worry: Can online meetings and trainings successfully replace in-person work? What about digital accessibility? How can these online sessions be engaging and help participants retain what they have learned? How can we meet people where they are at in the digital space? What are the short and long-term impacts of online trainings and workshops? How can we translate online training into in-person action? What works and what doesn’t work in an online setting? Is it even possible to enjoy online sessions?

These are some of the questions we recently wrestled with when we teamed up with CooperationWorks! (CW), a national membership network for organizations and individuals that help form cooperatively-owned businesses. This was the third time in the last five years we have collaborated with CooperationWorks! on online trainings and workshops, and this time around, our focus was actually supporting their members in developing their own skills and tools to bring their organizing online.

Here’s what Alex Stone, the Executive Director of CooperationWorks!, had to say about working with us on this project: 

With everything from client and staff meetings to trainings going virtual, it was critical for our network to learn how to facilitate dynamic, engaging ways to interact online. TESA listened to our needs and tailored creative presentations to our members and training facilitators that provided hands-on exercises that demonstrated interactive techniques for engaging audiences virtually. Their trainings helped our network develop a robust toolkit to create “live” online spaces that encourage participation and networking, foster playfulness, and allow for meaningful learning.

At the core of this project we did with CooperationWorks!’s membership were six principles we’ve developed for making online trainings participatory, engaging, and inspiring. And we thought we’d share those principles with you, which you are free to utilize and adapt in your own 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 and accessible 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 digital 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 can be met with silence, 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!

We had a fantastic time working with CooperationWorks! and the two dozen members of their network we helped train. After learning more about their needs and challenges, we designed a custom workshop to both model and teach effective methods and practices for participatory and engaging online workshops and meetings. There are few things we enjoy more than working with practitioners in the field, and this project was no exception!

Want to work with us to develop engaging, dynamic, and online trainings or tools? Drop us a line!

Image via Chris Montgomery on Unsplash.

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