During her Master study Conny van der Wouw researched how to keep participants involved in an online learning environment. For her graduation assignment she explored strategies for a creative learning environment online. She relied on Ekvall’s work on creative climate and the Torrance Incubation Model for creative learning. In this blog she provides tips to get started online.

An abrupt thought took me out of my concentration. What if while facilitating an online live training session I wasn’t able to keep the participants involved? That it seemed as if they were involved, but in the meantime they were playing a game or -even worse- making coffee in the kitchen?
I had attended a webinar myself a few days earlier and felt very uncomfortable during the session. The webinar was live (real time), but I got the feeling I was watching a recording. The results of the limited interaction might as well have been acted instead of spontaneous. Were other people attending the webinar as well? And who was the guy talking most of the time?

When I formulated my vision during my Master study in Creativity and Change Leadership, in which I envisioned giving online live training courses in creativity, I clearly had a different picture in mind than the event described above. I wanted to provide a lively, interactive training session, in which participants could work with each other in an experience-oriented way. I know how to create such an environment in a face-to-face setting. But how to create that online? And is that actually possible? My search had started.

We are now some years further and I know now that it is possible to conduct a lively, experience-oriented training online. Most of you have gone through a steep learning curve recently when it comes to online collaboration. You have probably already walked into a number of pitfalls. Or perhaps you have experienced how you do not want it to be and are looking for other ways to collaborate successfully online? In this blog I will offer some basic tips that I have collected from literature and distilled from my own experiences.

1. Redesign your session or training program

To have participants easily involved and in flow, it is important to apply resources -in this case mostly the software- that are intuitive in use. Compare it with eating soup using a fork: it is uncomfortable and not very effective. The same goes for your event in an online environment: you want to use the best way to collaborate and learn for each step of your session. It is therefore essential to redesign your session. Divide your session plan into small steps. For each step you consider what might be the best way to go about. Is it necessary to work together in this step or is it better to work individually? Is it desirable to work on this part all at once or can it also be asynchronous? Do we want to see each other while working together or does that not add much value?

When you have answered these questions for every step, you choose the software that best supports that particular step. This can also be a combination of different software products. For example, you can create a Mural to generate and select ideas. If you would like to see each other while generating, add video conferencing software, for example Zoom or Google Hangouts.

Mural is software to work together digitally and remotely. There is a wide range of software to brainstorm and make decisions online. Choose one or two products that best suit your objective and become apt at using it.

By designing your session specifically for working remotely -taking into account the limitations as well as the extra possibilities this offers- you will not only keep participants involved, you will also make optimal use of the advantages that modern technology offers. How easy will it be now for someone who can’t attend a session to catch up later by watching the recording.

2. Keep it short, keep it simple

Redesigning your session(s) also allows you to keep the time you are live online short. I would say up to 1.5 hours max. The media are now full of it: video calling is exhausting. This does not only have to do with the use of a screen and the delay in video and sound, but also with external factors. For example, you may have to work remotely, because you work with different cultures around the world. In that case language barriers and time zones might cause fatigue. We currently all have to work from home, perhaps not the ideal environment to isolate yourself for hours on end in order to participate in a live online session.
Keeping it short also means that one participant does not speak for too long. Provide enough variety in speakers and make sure everyone has a chance to speak.

Keep it simple by using only software that matches your purpose and is easy to use. It is nice to generate ideas on an online canvas with digital post-its, but generating options together in Google docs is also an option. To give you an idea of ​​what you can think of when selecting appropriate software, I often refer to this blog.

3. Ask a process buddy

A few years ago when I wrote a paper about “How to engage learners in a virtual environment?” I found in the literature that many people were hindered by their belief that they are not enough technically skilled to learn online. Of course, this is not always just a belief. There are so many products and developments go so fast that you cannot be familiar with all software products. Not to mention that there is also a chance that something does not work. However, this might also happen when giving a presentation in a face-to-face setting.

In all textbooks for online learning you are advised to use a so-called producer. In the creative sessions we facilitate, we already know the process buddy, the one who helps the facilitator with keeping time, collecting the post-its and putting the flip-over sheets on the wall. In an online environment, the process buddy is responsible for the technology. By enabling a process buddy, your session can continue as normal, while the process buddy solves a technical problem with a participant via a private chat or by telephone. The process buddy can also ensure that the screen is shared with the correct presentation and that it is changed when the subject changes. The process buddy also keeps an eye on the timing in an online live session.

You will want your participants to start the online live session with confidence. You can opt for practicing and testing with the technique that will be used. Most software gives you the opportunity to test connection, video and sound before the start of a session. You could also plan some time to practice using the technology with a playful warm-up exercise.

4. Create connectedness

As I already underlined in my first point about redesign, I am an advocate of blended learning. My preference will always be to combine face-to-face sessions with live online sessions as part of a training. If that really isn’t possible, create connectedness in another way. Often the connecting conversations take place at the coffee machine or at the bar. Create such a space online, for example by meeting fifteen minutes earlier in the online coffee room. Software with breakout rooms are ideal for informal conversations and for working in groups in different compositions.

Or surprise the participants prior to the start of the session by sending something by snail mail. I expect you are creative enough to think of engaging ways yourself. 🙂

Good luck with your online live session! If you have any questions, please contact me through LinkedIn.