The following is guidance based on the Software Sustainability Institute staff and collaborators running online training events which have become more needed due to the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Steve Crouch has run afternoon training events online for the Scottish response to the Royal Society RAMP COVID initiative; Mario Antonioletti, Lucia Michielin, Aleksandra Nenadic and Giacomo Peru have been running Edinburgh Carpentries events online; Aleksandra Nenadic and Steve Crouch have run and facilitated workshops and instructor training events online. Rachael Ainsworth has excellent online event management experience especially during the recent delivery of Collaborations Workshop 2020 online. Shoaib Sufi has oversight of the Collaborations Workshop series of events and moved the selection of the Institute Fellows from a face to face meeting to a successful online event which has taken place for a number of years now.
Given these experiences, the Institute’s Community Lead, Shoaib Sufi helped document the conversation with the other authors around best practices for running online training events. Below are things to consider and actions to take before, during and after running an online training event.
You may or may not have a choice about which online platforms you are able to use. Perhaps your institution uses and mandates Blackboard Collaborate, Microsoft Teams, or you have access to Zoom.
If you have a choice then ask others who have used the platform which they prefer. In any case familiarise yourself with the platform as part of the preparation for the workshop, as you (or a designated facilitator) will need to guide your delivery team and attendees around the system to use it effectively for online training.
As well as video conferencing you might consider the chat system you will use to keep everyone engaged. Some conferencing platforms have this built in (e.g. Zoom) but using standalone systems e.g. Slack might help attendees get help and have side conversations in a way that is less distracting and easier to catch up with than using integrated chat.
Collaborative note taking can also be useful - there are different platforms for this such as using Google Docs, Hackmd or etherpad.
The actual teaching material may also be hosted somewhere, e.g. for The Carpentries they have a lesson format which is web hosted.
It is much harder to resolve technical issues online than at a face to face event, hence the need to balance the ratio of attendees/helpers differently. Be sure to size the event appropriately so learners get the attention they need.
Online training needs extra facilitation; something which is not needed in a face to face event.The event facilitator will help make sure the virtual event is working well and people are aware of what is happening next and which resources to use. They can also help manage participants by muting those who aren’t speaking to minimise background noise.
It can be tiring and time consuming for the active instructor to monitor the chat, non-verbal feedback from participants and documents while they are presenting. An event facilitator can bring anything from the chat to the attention of trainers/helpers, freeing up the instructor to instruct and the helpers to focus on helping.
They can also explain logistical matters, e.g. explain the purpose and structure of using particular features of online platforms (e.g. breakout rooms).
You can normally expect to get a variation in skill levels, but in online courses that variation is more apparent to the flow of the event. Variations in how quickly people get through exercises, material, or technical difficulties tend to be even larger.
If there is a mis-match in skill levels, e.g. you have an intermediate level cohort but happen to have someone attending who is at novice level then they can fill the schedule with many basic questions and issues that hold up the more advanced attendees.
Use a pre-workshop survey to gather learners’ backgrounds and gauge their current skill levels.
The agenda for an online event must have sufficient breaks for it to be effective and less tiring for those who are attending.
There are a number of model agendas one could use, for example for a two day or an afternoon workshop.
A workshop that runs from 9am to 5pm for two days:
Consider teaching for 60 mins in the last session to allow an earlier close at 16.30 and a less tiring day.
Consider teaching for 45 mins in the last session to allow an earlier close at 16.30 and a less tiring day.
This could run in the morning (e.g. 9am to 1pm) or the afternoon (e.g. 1pm to 5pm).
Half day structure (blocks or 40 minutes teaching with 10 minute breaks and a longer break in the middle):
E.g. for an afternoon workshop:
Things are likely to take longer in a virtual setting than face to face:
Build in extra buffer time for technical problems and people having not read or set up what you have told them to, since resolving such problems online can take much longer. Be prepared to troubleshoot during breaks or lunch time, in which case having longer breaks comes in handy and still leaves some time for an actual break.
Make the agenda with exact break times available as early as possible. This will allow people to plan their day and any caring responsibilities as much as possible. Stick strictly to the break times - make changes to your teaching plan if you have to on the day but not the breaks.
Encourage attendees to use local storage on their machines wherever possible to download datasets to and access them from. This will decrease any access problems and increase performance around any data access. For example, they should be discouraged to download any needed datasets to university file servers which they might have problems accessing due to network or availability reasons.
When giving instructions on where to download needed datasets from, consider using public repositories or cloud file systems for storing any needed datasets (e.g. Figshare, Zeonodo, Dropbox, Google Drive).
If there are any data privacy issues with the data you are sharing you will have to plan your workshop accordingly.
Have a pre-event rehearsal for hosts, facilitators, instructors and helpers to help things run smoothly and on script on the day.
This is a good time to cover:
A mandatory pre-event meeting for attendees can clear up a wide set of problems which could derail your actual day so it’s well worth having (and mandating!). Even though the pre-event should be mandatory, a nice tone which conveys the purpose of the event should be used when communicating to attendees, e.g. “Come and learn about the platform and have your setup checked”.
Things which should be covered:
If it’s difficult for everyone to attend a pre-event meeting then alternatively drop in sessions could be scheduled to allow participants to get help before the event at a time that suits them.
Giving advice on physical setup for learners can really help them get the most out of the experience.
In live coding workshops, following a screen share (with enough screen real estate to see what is happening), chat, reference material, shared documents and their own terminal window can be a real problem. There are setup tips which can help here:
Keeping attendees in the same online space or room for the entire event, especially if there is a fairly small number of them (e.g. 7-15 people) is preferred and from experience better for the flow and efficiency of the workshop.
For larger groups, platforms such as Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate allow breakout rooms, side virtual meeting spaces from the main meeting. If you are using this feature then there are some factors you need to take into consideration:
Share information about the meeting (e.g. connection details, shared documents) with those who are registered for the event. Do not publish the details for all to see and be clear to attendees about which information should not be shared (e.g. on social media). This is to protect your event from being disrupted by random individuals.
A video conferencing code is a policy on how the meeting will use various features and modes of interaction in the online meeting in a consistent and accepted manner. Introduce and use a video conferencing code when running the meeting:
Platform features can aid communication and coordination at event:
Use a collaborative document for the agenda, note taking and as another place to collect questions:
Consider using closed captioning to help people review what’s been said and catch up if they have to step out with a helper or other reasons.
If you are going to use or publish notes and resources created at the event then it’s important to let attendees know about this before you start.
Also if you are going to take any screenshots of the event or screen record the event it’s important to let attendees know and give them the option of turning their cameras off. It should also be made clear to attendees what these videos and photos are going to be used for.
Learners need to know what type of learning culture you are creating, so it’s important to give permission for the behaviours you feel will help the effectiveness of the workshop. Interruptions in general should be accepted more than at face to face events because these may be the only way to gain the attention of the presenter to an urgent situation which they haven’t noticed.
So let learners know it’s ok and even expected to:
Instructors should consider using an on-screen countdown timer when sharing their screen for exercises with the learners. It can reduce the need for attendees to check how much time they have left, allow them to focus on working on the solution and let them know when the instructor will work through the answer.
It is best to ask participants to fill in a feedback form before they leave the event; otherwise the feedback rate drops significantly. It can be helpful to include questions regarding the online delivery of the event separately to the course content, so you can judge this aspect on its own without having the two aspects conflated in the feedback.