As we adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, how to recreate meaningful and in-depth communications through video conferencing and other online tools is a challenge (and opportunity) many of us have to confront in our day-to-day working. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of the lessons we are learning from this enforced period of isolation may hold long-term benefits for the operation of international research projects.
Drugs & (dis)order recently hosted an online knowledge exchange workshop on data management, led by our Data Manger Veerle Van den Eynden. This workshop was aimed at the 40 or so GROW (Growing Research Capability) projects under the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) managed by UK Research Innovation.
It was originally planned as a traditional one-day, face-to-face workshop in March 2020. As it became clear that we could not hold the event at SOAS, we moved it online. We decided to use Zoom – the seemingly ubiquitous technology of the pandemic – due to widespread familiarity and uptake. We combined it with other online tools, such as Mentimeter interactive presentation software and Google docs to encourage engagement and participation.
In spite of the inevitable compromises of not meeting face-to-face, there was much to gain and learn from this shift in approach. Outlined below are some key take-aways that others might be able to benefit from!
Planning and practising
Rigorous planning, practice and detailed instructions for everyone involved helped to make sure that the entire workshop ran very smoothly and to time.
Ensuring your event is engaging and allows for active participation is key. It is a given that you need the content to be sufficiently interesting and well-pitched to sustain interest. But online meetings pose an additional barrier in that they can feel quite detached and there is more scope to disengage.
The temptation to stick to a presentation and Q&A format is compelling and, in many cases, especially larger meetings, completely appropriate. But when something is planned as a participatory workshop more consideration needs to be given to active participation, and this requires thinking through the resources at your disposal and what will work in the context and time available.
It is also wise to rehearse – more than once – to ensure you have a grasp of the functionality of the software you are using and how it will work within the session. The process of rehearsal often provides a steer on how to incorporate new technology in a way that is timely and effective. Finding some trusted colleagues to run this through really benefitted our event.
In our case, it was clear that we should not try to simulate a full-day workshop online and it would need to be shortened.
We thought about the key elements we wanted to cover and streamlined the content into just over two hours. This included over an hour for plenary and half an hour for structured breakout discussion groups.
On reflection more time could have perhaps been devoted to the breakout groups, but dividing the workshop between one plenary and one break out worked well.
Ensuring that participants could actively engage with the presenters and with each other was an important consideration. The Zoom chat function allowed participants to submit comments and questions during and after the presentations, which were responded to by the presenters.
In addition, we used an interactive presentation software that was integrated into the main plenary session. Instructions on how to submit responses to questions through Mentimeter and a couple of test questions were given at the outset. Then, between each set of thematic presentations some associated interactive questions were posed to participants and results were visualised in real time. This complemented the limited time available for Q&A through the chat, which was moderated by the workshop facilitator.
Within the breakout session, instead of the flip charts that are so familiar to us in conventional workshop settings, links to Google docs with four key questions were given out. All participants had permissions to submit synchronous notes and resources within the Google doc, but there was also an assigned note taker and facilitator for each session.
Ensuring that the workshop – as primarily a knowledge sharing event – had scope to incorporate presentations from a number of projects was important.
Six project presentations were included. We gave them guidance on thematic focus, number of slides and timing (five minutes only) in advance.
Invariably there was overlap in terms of issues raised and solutions sought, but it allowed for a broad range of perspectives, which was critical.
Managing the timing of such a structure is vital and it was decided that people could raise questions of clarification in the plenary, but the main discussion would be kept to the breakout sessions and this worked well as a format.
Emerging from the pandemic
There is much to be gained from our exploration of new ways of engaging with our online environment. Running this event online not only meant that we could include more people, but also that we could extend it internationally in a way that would not have been possible for a physical event.
What was lost in depth of discussion and the informal networking opportunities was largely compensated by wider participation, the ability to easily record proceedings and the savings in financial, administrative and environmental costs (no name badges, no rooms to book, no catering to organise, no institutional IT and AV support required, no travel or accommodation to arrange and pay for) resulting in a much more efficient use of people’s time.
Clearly there are still issues when it comes to online access and bandwidth, especially when extending events to participants in the global South. But physical events often pose far greater obstacles for international representation.
Whilst I do not advocate replacing the richness and opportunities for relationship building that physical events offer, I am slowly converting from an online sceptic to champion. My hope is that international projects such as ours, which have always faced communication challenges, will emerge out of this current situation with more tools at our disposal to promote meaningful collaboration.
To end, a summary of practical tips from our Data Manager:
- Decide which tools you will use: we chose Zoom, Mentimeter and Google Docs.
- Have one person dedicated to technical facilitation: for example, to admit people, mute mics, send people to breakout rooms, monitor chats, and so on.
- Streamline your event: we asked participants to send us their slides, so we had one single Mentimeter presentation and could move on seamlessly.
- Have clear housekeeping rules and show them to the audience: for example, when participants will be (un)muted, will they share video or not, how can questions be asked, and so on.
- Build in ways for participants to engage so they feel part of the event and can contribute their views: we had polls and surveys, presentations, Q&A and breakout groups.
- Prepare materials and practical organisation in advance: for example, who will facilitate and take notes in breakout sessions, or how will participants get allocated to breakout groups.
- Rehearse … a few times.