Lessons Learned: Pivoting to online learning in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic

Elizabeth Dartnall and Anik Gevers
SVRI

A core part of SVRIs grant-making involves an annual workshop bringing new grantees together to meet each other, learn more about the grant and develop a shared understanding of key research concepts in the VAW and VAC field. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, lockdowns occurred at the same time we had planned to hold one of these important annual workshops. This rapid shift from a face to face event to a virtual space raised multiple questions for us:

  • Do we have the skills to provide effective and engaging online training?
  • What barriers – if any – might grantees face in participating virtually?
  • How do we create bespoke support and respond to arising needs when no longer meeting face to face?
  • How do we ensure we integrate self-care, kindness and connection before, during and after the workshop series?
  • How do we manage the time differences across grantee locations?

Upskilling: Did we have the skills to host online meetings in fun and interactive ways?

To make sure we had the necessary skills to make our online workshop great, we signed up for training on facilitating online meetings and workshops. Training required only a small up-front investment and continues to reap dividends as we continue to fill our meetings and workshops with creative techniques for keeping participants engaged. As we all continue to engage in various online meetings and workshops, we have enjoyed learning from one another in how to make these online spaces effective, interactive, and enjoyable for everyone. We also checked in with all grantees on their tech requirements and experience, including areas of concern e.g. what might be lost and gained by not meeting face to face? None of the grantees faced any major hurdles to participation other than being spread across a 14-hour time difference.

Creating connections: Would moving online be a barrier to relationship building and networking?

Whilst face to face meetings remain a central approach for creating partnerships and relationships, online mechanisms also provide wonderful and creative ways of bringing people together. We introduced multiple, mutually supportive activities into the workshops that helped build a sense of community online. A WhatsApp group was created for informal updates and as a first exercise each participant recorded and shared a selfie video on the story of their name, their location and where they work. This activity was appreciated as a great ice breaker exercise by the participants. We also set aside space at the beginning of each session for a quick check-in, and short self-care activities such as chair yoga and screen breaks were interspersed throughout sessions. We had a policy to always have video on (where bandwidth allowed) and one guest facilitator shared: “this is very important – I’ve enjoyed the connection one feels from being on video with other participants during the workshop.”

Workshop schedule and structure

Sitting in lengthy virtual meetings is very taxing on people. We held a series of shorter workshops over a longer period. Five sessions of 2-3 hours each were held over a 10-week period. With each session typically structured as outlined in the table. Online safety procedures were developed along with agreements on how to interact with each other respectfully, kindly and openly.

Preparation and practice

Preparation and practice are important ingredients for a successful workshop series. The SVRI team prepared meeting agendas well in advance of the workshop allocating tasks to team members such as facilitator, note-taker, production. The team then practiced the run of show making sure everyone was clear on their responsibilities and roles prior to each workshop. We also came up with back up plans in case any team members had technical problems (e.g., loss of electricity or poor internet connection), illness, or, in our case, a baby arriving early! These preparations meant that the workshop sessions proceeded smoothly even in the event of different challenges or unplanned absences.

Workshop learning content

In addition to core components we include in all our VAW and VAC research workshops, we ask grantees what they would like included and develop a bespoke training offering based on their feedback. Key learning areas identified by the participants included: adapting to COVID-19, developing and using a theory of change, grant reporting expectations, quantitative and qualitative VAW and VAC measures and tools for their specific research questions, how to disseminate findings to key audiences, learning from one another and developing a community of practice, and ethical issues.

One participating team shared how they replicated many pieces of the workshop with their own partners and especially emphasised the self-care and kindness theme that was new to them in a research workshop setting.

Continuous learning    

“Congratulations for  your incredible work; organising and running these online workshops was really challenging and you made it a great learning and social experience” – workshop participant

Throughout the process, multiple approaches for feedback, sharing and ongoing learning were woven throughout the online workshop series. Evaluations and questionnaires were shared after every workshop, the findings of which were shared at the beginning of each workshop and used to inform the content and processes of the next workshop. Readings were distributed in advance of each workshop and exercises after workshops. In participant feedback, it was noted that “readings were extremely important.” 

All these learnings and more are detailed in the newly published SVRI Knowledge Exchange.

You can read other what others[1] have learned in their experiences of pivoting to online delivery of classes, trainings, and workshops:

  • How to adapt 16 hours of in-class teaching material to an online format in 5 days: “Instead, taking a step back and familiarizing myself with the tools and strategies that other online lecturers were using helped me better prepare and plan how I would achieve my learning objectives. Just taking what I already had and changing the format wasn’t enough.”
  • Equipping PhD researchers for social media success: “The two-hour slots were long enough for materials to be presented and discussions to take place, but not so long that participants might lose concentration. They also mentioned that the gap between sessions had enabled participants to apply what they had learned, and reflect on their experiences.”

Please share your own tips for making online workshops fun, engaging, interactive, and effective by adding to this Padlet.


[1] If you have written a blog or other knowledge product with your experiences, tips, and learning related to online meetings, workshops, or training please share them with us and we can add the links to our page.

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