Blog post: How to turn a face-to-face facilitated workshop into online sessions - Dr Kris De Meyer

At the end of March 2020, UCL Public Policy, in collaboration with the LGA, had planned to run a one-day workshop called Pathways to Net Zero. The aim of the workshop was to foster partnership working between council staff responsible for local climate action plans and experts in emission reductions working in universities.

When COVID-19 struck, we - the workshop organisers and facilitators - faced a choice: postpone, or turn the workshop into an online offering. Sensing we'd better learn to adapt to a new normal, we decided to move it online. Here is an account of some of the choices we made; what we learned about what works well, or even better, in an online format; and what doesn't.

Choices we made

From the outset we wondered how to build the intended sense of community and collaborative practice that was at the heart of our planned workshop in an online space. Our usual face-to-face workshops rely on quickfire rounds of pairwise chats to get to know each other; and frequent switching between content delivery, small group discussions on specific questions, and plenary reflection periods. How would we be able to replicate this format using digital tools?

What had been scheduled as a six hour face-to-face meeting we decided to split into two-hour sessions (any longer would be too much). When we started to map out the content and activities, we quickly realised we'd need four instead of three two-hour slots. Starting up and winding down a session adds time, while group discussions need more space to breathe online, hence more time is needed to cover the same ground as in face-to-face meetings.

Technology-wise, we knew we needed a video conferencing platform that would allow pair work or small-group discussions, and a 'gallery view' in which all of the participants could see each other side-by-side. At present, many video call sessions end up being glorified conference calls with an increasing number of people switching off their cameras over the course of the call, which doesn't help with attention or building a learning community. We wanted to avoid this and actively use video to compensate for the lack of face-to-face connection. These facilitation constraints meant we needed to use Zoom - as the college recommended Teams neither had breakout rooms nor showed more than a few participants on video at the same time.

We wanted to use a digital equivalent of a flipchart and post-it notes to capture discussion outputs. Zoom's built-in digital whiteboard is sub-par, so we settled on Google Jamboard, but tried the more feature-rich Mural App too. Presentation-wise, every evening before a session we emailed a link to an online Google Slides document. This gave us the flexibility to make last-minute changes, and also gives participants access to the slides during breakout sessions.

Last but not least, we relied on old-fashioned pen and paper, frequently asking participants to write down or draw something on paper, and then hold that up to the camera. We didn't use polling tools; we found the low-tech pen-and-paper option to be the most convenient one.

We planned the four sessions on Friday mornings for four consecutive weeks, the regularity of which the participants as well as us quickly came to appreciate. We settled on 15 participants. Much more becomes impractical: the whole group won't fit into one Gallery View in Zoom and it becomes harder to quickly assign people to breakout rooms. 

What we learned: what worked and what didn't

  • Breakout group discussions need clear tasks and questions. For example: "Describe one concrete example of a problem you experience in..." rather than "Discuss this really complex problem X". We frequently switched between pairwise and small group discussions, relied on random as well as pre-assigned groups, and discovered that eight minutes on the clock is often the right length and makes discussions more focused than they sometimes are in face-to-face meetings.
  • With 15 people who can only strictly speak in turn in a video call, a plenary is not the place to get an exchange of opinions going. Make sure they are well-structured, meaning you know exactly what questions need answering or what experiences from the breakout rooms you'd like participants to share. Use them as reflection and sense-making moments on what happened in the breakout groups.
  • Be careful with the amount of content to be delivered. In at least one of the sessions, we had too much of it. Even though we had broken up content with breakout and plenary activities, the balance wasn't right. We rushed through the activities with the result they felt too short, and didn't allow enough time for individual and group sense-making.
  • The digital whiteboards we used (Jamboard, Mural) are great to capture the salient points of the group conversations. It worked well for those participants who had access to a second screen with the Zoom video open on one screen, and the whiteboard on another. It worked less well for participants who had only one screen. Also, make time for a 'how to use this technology?' exercise (or ask participants to do something on the whiteboard before the session starts) so everyone can use the basic functionality, some of our participants struggled.
  • 'Homework': we quickly discovered this is one of the perks of breaking up a one-day workshop into four weekly sessions. As the aim of the workshop was to foster partnership working, we wanted for pairwise discussions to continue between sessions. If a task was too complicated to do during the session, or if more time was needed for applying a learning of the workshop to their own practice, we assigned it as a 'homework' task. We would always come back to the homework at the start of the next session, such that it had a real purpose in the overall design of the programme.
  • Timing: design your workshop so that you know what you will do to the minute. Give yourself five minutes of 'landing time' at the beginning, and end with never less than 10 minutes of plenary time at the end, so that you have a bit of flexibility of running over time in other parts. Be flexible: on one occasion, we made a change halfway through when we discovered a particular discussion had needed more time to come to life.

By and large, participants loved how we used the technology, and having endured many dreary hours of video calls, were amazed at what can be achieved if technology is used correctly. Several of them told us they picked up facilitation ideas from taking part, which made us very happy. We learned a lot through making this step, and felt the process went so well that we decided we'd made the right choice to not postpone but move the workshop online.

That was the process. Next we'll dig into the content of the workshop sessions: how to support councils to deliver climate action plans and transition to net zero carbon emissions.