Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Mark Thomas. Mark is an ALPSP tutor, and helps STEM professionals communicate complex ideas in a more engaging way. His company, Glass Box Thinking, specializes in facilitating corporate leadership and communication workshops both online and offline.
What does it take to move a highly successful face-to-face workshop into the online world? This was the question that I was challenged with earlier this year. Like most face-to-face trainers and facilitators, when COVID-19 caused the UK to enter lockdown, all my workshops were canceled. Some clients had experience with online learning and transitioned relatively easily. However, most clients and organizations had no experience, and consequentially canceled all their workshops. Like many other organizations, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) moved quickly to tackle the online world.
I have run workshops for ALPSP for a few years. They had all been face-to-face, and the participants loved the interaction, with lots of breakout sessions and opportunities for experiential learning and sharing ideas. But could the same course be delivered online? Would we still be able to provide the same type of experience with 20 participants? How would the workshop be delivered?
Moving the date of the first workshop wasn’t an option, neither was canceling. This workshop had been booked months in advance and no one knew when the lockdown would end. So, I met virtually with the ALPSP training team and a few of the other ALPSP facilitators to work out what we could deliver in four weeks.
Fortunately, I had delivered workshops online before, although they had been built and designed initially for the online world. Adapting a one-day face-to-face workshop into a six hour online workshop was a very different proposition. It wasn’t a simple case of getting a Zoom account and presenting slides for six hours. Although that is one way, it’s not the most engaging.
As anyone who has attended or delivered an online workshop knows, the dynamics are different – online discussions are a lot harder – everyone talks at the same time or no one speaks at all. Distractions are constant – emails, children asking for help with their schoolwork, partners on other meetings, plus sitting in front of a computer screen for six hours can be energy draining.
Fast forward five months and ALPSP has delivered 12 virtual workshops up to October 2020. They have much more of a global reach and feedback has been so positive that they have decided to keep online workshops as part of their development program going forward.
So, what are the key factors that are making ALPSP online workshops such a success?
There are six areas that had the biggest impact and I will share why these are key for delivering engaging online programmes.
1. Decide what experience you want your participants to have.
Before you start designing your workshop, decide what will be the best format for delivering your content. Do you want an interactive session with opportunity for discussions or a lecture style session with Q&A or quizzes at the end? This answer will depend on what your focus is – time or content. If you have the time, then the former would always be my first choice. Sometimes you have specific content that must be delivered and a limited amount of time, in which case lecture style would work best.
Depending on your level of experience, you might want to start with delivering a lecture style workshop in chunks of 15 minutes followed by a Q&A. As your experience increases, you can experiment with more interactivity. ALPSP wanted to make it as near an experience to face-to-face learning as possible, which was highly interactive, with plenty of opportunities to share ideas and discuss real-life situations. It took me two days over the course of a week to change a full-day workshop into a six-hour online session. This was only possible because I followed point two.
2. Be precisely ruthless
A six-hour face-to-face workshop does not fit into a six-hour online session. I am not a physicist but one-minute face-to-face does not equal one minute online. When you are online, time accelerates. Therefore, you have to be ruthless with your content. What is fundamental to the workshop? What could be dropped? What could be covered at a later stage?
Feedback from previous workshops helped identify sections that created the greatest value. Each of those sections were then broken down precisely into individual activities and time was allocated to everything – to the minute! This level of detail helped us decide what we could include and what we had to get rid of if we were to create four 90-minute sessions.
That was probably the hardest part and took the greatest amount of time. My biggest fear was that cutting out content would impact the quality of the workshop. My fears were ill-founded. In fact, after the first delivery of the workshop another 15% of the content was cut for a subsequent event.
The most important lesson I learnt was that delivering an engaging and interactive workshop online requires less content and more discussions than a face-to-face workshop.
3. Know your tech
How do you take the skills and comfort level you’ve spent years crafting for physical events to the virtual world? Put simply – get to know what software you will be using and practice delivering your workshop with other facilitators. Don’t expect to be an expert on the software but you should know some of the common problems most users face. A simple online search will help you find out what most people find difficult when using that software. I have yet to find the perfect software, but I have found a few that are easy to use and fit for purpose.
ALPSP decided to use Zoom. Some of the facilitators had been using Zoom for years, others had only heard of it recently. So, we created a cheatsheet of how to use the basics and then set weekly meetings to practice getting familiar with the software. During this process we learned what worked – how to share screens and allocate participants to breakout rooms – and what didn’t work well – virtual backgrounds, dropping off the call and how to re-join if you are no longer the host (hint – make someone a co-host). This practice was vital for boosting confidence and finding out how the system worked both as a facilitator and a participant. It also helped me confirm and tweak the timings of the agenda.
4. Use different tools to engage
Most software systems have built-in tools that help you to interact with participants. Use them to your advantage. Polls are quick and easy to use and can be set up in advance. Chat is a great function for getting short answers. Using emoji reactions was also a fun way to get feedback and find out how people were feeling throughout the workshop.
We found that using breakout rooms was by far the most powerful way to keep engagement high, especially if everyone was visible, i.e., with their video on. Breakout rooms were used multiple times during the workshop. Each breakout room contained 2-5 participants depending on the purpose of the exercise and the time allocated – larger groups required more time. We also frequently changed membership of the breakout rooms so that participants could meet different people and learn from different perspectives.
The feedback we received after the course confirmed that the mix of chat, breakout rooms and frequent breaks helped keep the energy and engagement high for the full six hours. In fact, consolidated feedback confirmed how important regular breaks were. In workshops where breaks were shortened due to time restraints, or not frequent enough, engagement and participation decreased noticeably.
5. Find a co-facilitator you trust
I was lucky. I had already delivered a face-to-face workshop with May, my co-facilitator. We knew how to work with each other and we had built up a good level of trust. We set up additional practice sessions just for the two of us and worked through the agenda looking for areas that could cause confusion. We were honest about what worked, what needed to go, and what needed to change. We agreed upon roles – who would deliver what, who would manage the breakout rooms, and how the chat would be organized. On the day of the workshop, we met at least 30 minutes before the start to check that everything worked. Amanda and Melissa from ALPSP managed the waiting room at the start of the session and stayed in the background in case participants were disconnected. We also set up a separate WhatsApp group on the day of the workshop for the four of us to instantly communicate outside the online platform. At the end of the workshop we had a short meeting to review how it went. This instant feedback was really useful in identifying what improvements we could make next time.
6. Invest in a few extras
When I first started delivering virtual workshops I had one laptop and a table lamp. This worked fine to start with but it was a challenge managing everything on a small screen. Once I invested in a second monitor, headphones and LED lights my experience was transformed. And so was the experience of the participants. The second monitor enabled me to have the participants on one monitor and the slides/content on another. Being able to see the participants rather than just talking to a slide felt like I was in the room with them. The headphones included a movable microphone. My sound quality improved because the microphone was closer to my mouth and the headphones blocked out the noise of external distractions. Finally, I bought some LED lights and placed them behind my webcam. The participants could see me without shadows or a halo from background light. LED lights were also easier on my eyes, so again I had much more energy to focus, creating an engaging experience.
What else did we learn?
Delivering the workshop on Managing and Influencing your Editorial Board was great fun. We enjoyed it, and so did the participants. However, facilitating an online workshop does take it out of you. The following day, we were exhausted. So, my final insight is to build in some me-time post workshop.
The virtual workshops were such a great success, both in terms of accessibility and interaction, that ALPSP were soon inundated with requests to run additional workshops. Like most organizations, ALPSP was considering increasing their global reach by including virtual courses and the pandemic helped accelerate their decision making. Amanda Whiting, Training and Member Engagement Manager, ALPSP, said, “Now that we have the evidence, demand, and experience to deliver virtual workshops, we will be offering these across multiple time zones in North America, Asia, and Europe. This has shown us how rapidly we can adapt to meet our members’ needs.”
Three months later, we delivered the same workshop but with a few tweaks. The workshop was delivered over two consecutive afternoons. This was partly from feedback, but also partly a request from ALPSP members from North America who wanted to attend. The content was also adapted to allow for longer and more frequent discussion times. I was surprised how effective splitting the workshop was. Not only did the engagement stay high over the two days but the depth of discussion also increased.
If you want to successfully transition from face-to-face to online workshops, then follow the first five points above. Once you are satisfied that you have done everything you can, then move onto point six. Great equipment will not make you a great online facilitator unless you have dealt with the fundamentals first.