The present pandemic situation has impact on every aspect of our lives, including the way we go about our daily business at work. At universities around the world there is a huge push towards delivering lectures and teaching through digital platforms. At UiT the Arctic University of Norway (UiT), this is certainly the case as all campuses are now closed for students.
Closing the campuses, with most people working from home, also disrupts normal routines and procedures within the professional services. As a member of the continuous improvement team at UiT, I know we have been talking about the need to learn how to run digital workshops (and do online facilitation) for many years. At least since we became a multicampus university, with driving distances up to 800 km. Somehow we haven’t got to it, until now. Then again, now, we are doing hyperjumps into digital workshops. Here’s how our first ones went down.
Luckily, we have been using digital platforms for collaboration for some time now, which means that part of the sudden digital transition has been well paved already. As it is easy to get lost in the jungle of software for digital collaboration, and a short timeframe, we chose to use what we already had in our UiT portfolio: Microsoft Teams. To accommodate interactive participation, we used Microsoft Visio and Padlet.
MS Teams allows us to set up virtual plenary and breakout rooms, with easy switches between the different rooms. This also allows facilitators to move between the different rooms/sessions without having to be “invited” or “let in”.
Dynamics of the workshops
One of our fears of digital workshops have been that we couldn’t create and support the necessary dynamics or “good vibes” to make the interaction flow effortlessly. The question is: How can we enable participants to interact, discuss, challenge and create, when not meeting face to face.
For our first digital workshops (which we had really short time to prepare) we used MS Visio.
Visio let us display material for the participants, but allowing only facilitators to move, change, add etc anything. It turned out to be ok, and we were able to engage everyone for the duration of the breakout sessions (30 minutes). However, it would be hard to keep it going for longer time, standing the risk of pacifying participants.
For our next workshops we used Padlet. Padlet lets each participant interact with the actual material, depending on your setup. This gave by far a better dynamic to the workshop and helped foster good discussions. It also enabled us to let the participants familiarize themselves with the material, and to work on their own for parts of the workshop.
Our initial learning points
- Use the same language for digital and f2f workshops. Talking about plenary rooms and breakout rooms helps underpin the feel of a workshop.
- Lower your ambition for each session, at least at first. You’ll need longer time to explain the tech stuff, how they’re going to interact and what the goals are. Your first sessions probably shouldn’t exceed two hours. Remember to allow for breaks, just as you would in a f2f workshop. It is harder to keep track of/read every participant when using digital platforms.
- Make sure you master the digital tools you are using. Set up some time to practice and prototype the session. Tools for real interaction is highly recommended.
- Consider creating a facilitator’s communication channel outside the workshop environment. In f2f workshops, facilitators can easily discuss privately. This is more difficult with digital workshops. We have set up a WhatsApp group to solve this for now.
- Digital workshops work well. No need to sweat over them. Their just different from what you’re used to.
A challenge for ourselves and the rest of you
Are we just emulating f2f workshops, or can we challenge ourselves to take it further to really exploit the power and unique features of digital workshops?
-Svein Are Tjeldnes