You can make your online sessions better, here’s how

It takes time and resources to create a seamless, engaging, and effective online workshop. But it can be done. Last week I took a deep dive and learned one approach. It worked for me. It can work for you.

But it also means taking time and resources to learn to become better at this.

What did I learn?

I took a really great workshop last week that I’ve been meaning to take for some time, but the timing never really worked. It was the Session Design Lab by Dirk Slater of Fabriders. We did a “deep dive into adult learning and review research that led to a session format known as ADIDS (Activity, Discussion, Input, Deepening and Synthesis).”

There are so many models and approaches to crafting an interactive and engaging workshop or learning session. And one of the things I hear a lot from folks in the sector is that they get the technology and how to use it (although I would always suggest there is more to learn), but where they struggle are with the facilitation and engagement pieces.

Too often folks are simply presenting PowerPoint slides and then having a Q&A at the end. It typically doesn’t work in person, but it certainly doesn’t work online if you’re trying to keep an audience engaged. Models like ADIDS provide a great template and canvas approach to plan out a session with reminders about engagement. But also about how much prep you can and should do with folks before the session.

I also learned, through his modelling, how to effectively facilitate a small group session among participants who are strangers before the session.

What did I enjoy?

It was a format that I’d been meaning to dive into more actively. And I’ve even recommended it to others. It just makes practical sense, asks good questions, and helps create a logical structure for a session. But I felt like I needed a deeper dive to get into it with Dirk and others to really learn more.

Learning the ADIDS format with Dirk’s Session Design Canvas (free to access and use) was the main point of the session and what I enjoyed. But, the group work with other participants, including getting peer review of our session design was incredibly helpful. 

Also being able to peer review with them. We all put our thinking and creative hats on, shared and learned together. It was a powerful example of just how much you can connect, build rapport, and accomplish things online with a group of people who previously didn’t know each other, and had completely different professional paths and situations. 

Spiral Model for facilitation from Educating for a Change

I also like that it intersected really well and reminded me of the Educating for a Change approach I was trained in almost 30 years ago. The approach mirrors in many ways the ADIDS perspective of building on and off of the experience and knowledge of participants. 

Dirk was a great modeller of effective online facilitation, from pre to during and post-session messaging and communication. I really liked his pre-session document, which we actually used during the session and he continued to build on. What it did was prepare us for the technology we used, how he expected us to participate, and some simple ground rules for how we worked together. 

How am I using what I learned?

I used the learning session to design a webinar/workshop that I was doing the week following the Session Design Lab training. And it was fantastic. I also used the Canvas to design a longer in-person session the next day. 

The Canvas is a great tool that I’ll be using throughout my training and facilitation work for now on. Dirk has licensed his website content under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. I assume the Canvas is licensed this way as well. Which means that if I modify it at all I’ll share it back with him to see if it helps anyone else.

I also followed Dirk’s pre-session document approach for my online workshop. I sent folks a document with the complete agenda, expanded upon, along with what technology we would be using, how I expected us to participate, and ground rules (Dirk’s really, I quite liked them) for how we would work together during interactive parts of the session.

It worked. It worked really well. Not only did it ground me in creating the session and making sure I built out what was needed, it also gave me some flexibility during the session. For example, in both sessions I over planned and ended up skipping some activities, because the previous activities were active enough and took more time. That was some really good learning. I like having the extra options, in case one activity flops, and in my post-session notes and sharing, I can share the resources that weren’t discussed or worked on during our session.

It also leads naturally to a follow-up session that I can do.

Why it matters

I got feedback from folks who really liked how comprehensive the pre-session information was. And from folks who liked the interactive elements during the workshop. Which lends more support to the need to train people on better facilitation, and ensuring that sessions are active, using the technologies we have.

I also followed my own recommendation of becoming a power user of the tools you have. Instead of jumping out of Google Jamboard to whiteboard, I experimented with and used Zoom’s whiteboard feature, which worked quite well for most people. 

I did go outside of Zoom to use Mentimeter, because it seems too cumbersome to use it as a Zoom app (my understanding is that everyone has to have the latest Zoom software, etc., and they don’t always and it’s hard to get a large group to commit to that, but likely easier with a smaller group,etc.). It worked well and I have some fun session artefacts to share now.

I’m feeling pumped about my facilitation skills now more than ever. And I want to continue to explore and refine my approach to the ADIDS format. And I also want to recommend it in a meaningful way for others to use in their work and practice.

I can see playing with it a bit to add more context from Educating for a Change. 

Not necessarily in the actual structure of the Canvas itself. I think it’s excellent and lends itself completely to the Educating for a Change approach. But perhaps more in the preamble, the why and how of facilitating online, and how you can bring ideas and activities into your practice from Educating for a Change. There are similarities with the Liberating Structures facilitation approach. That’s another format that I want and need to learn more about.

There’s a group in Vancouver doing some great work in this area. In particular, how Liberating Structures can be used with virtual facilitation. That is next on my learning agenda. 🙂

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