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“I can see your tonsils, Ermin”: Lessons from leading virtual learning experiences.

One of the secrets to success is not to diminish your input by taking short cuts just because you have moved from a ‘how to’ face-to-face delivery into a virtual learning environment.

In July 2020 YouthBank International was invited by Europe Foundation, Georgia, to design and deliver an event we went on to name as, ‘Change the Conversation 2020: Shared Understandings, Shared Futures’. The notion of changing any conversation requires a high degree of trust in others and yourself as you make choices on what parts of your character you want to reveal. Premised on the fact that all that you change changes you, mixed with the idea that there is no real path until you walk it and do it yourself, was a heady mix. To transfer this intention, without the ability to meet face-to-face due to the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic, meant a sharp transition into the virtual learning classroom.

The conventional face-to-face format of bringing together young people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds has been based on creating fertile ground for personal connections, building trust, and helping participants identify what they wanted to change in their home communities and understand why they wanted to change it. Our starting point in the virtual learning space was to adapt and create a conversation about the kind of community young people would like to live in, identifying what their contribution would be to living in stronger, safer, more peaceful and inclusive places.

Designed as a five day event for 30 young people from YouthBank networks operating in Bosnia Hercegovina and Georgia, the programme was produced as fourteen 60-90 minute episodes, each a mini objective, which would culminate in five collaborative projects that will take place between September - December 2020.

With the start date a month away we underestimated the level of development the set-up effort required, the knock-on effect of accumulated stress and not knowing if there would be enough broadband width to handle the number of uploading and downloading demands. As the start date loomed closer we created a programme webpage to visually headline the content of each daily episode with internet links to outside resources, threaded chat responses and breakout rooms for small group work activity. With each episode designed as a challenge, and not wanting to rely on the ubiquitous zoom and associated tools, or Google Meet exclusively, we went with a combination of Google Meet and padlet software. In an effort to reduce communication difficulties each participant received a youthbank gmail account into which they submitted a number of pre event assignments. This also allowed us to reduce the likelihood of any outside interlopers into the event.

Once up and running time was well spent giving one full episode over to involving all participants in setting learning goals and expectations as a collaborative activity, as well as explaining best use of the platform and how, as facilitators, we would meet their commitments to the learning outcomes.

One of the secrets to success is not to diminish your input by taking short cuts just because you have moved from a ‘how to’ face-to-face delivery into a virtual learning environment. Still send out pre-event materials such as welcome notes or video messages that prime participants on what to expect, or links to access the preferred whiteboard with an invitation to acquaint themselves and ‘play’. Avoid opting for your set piece slide deck for overview presentations when you have the opportunity to get participants grappling with one of the event’s themes, or a key skill, right from the beginning. This helps to set the tone for the episode and signals your intention to immerse participants in doing, rather than simply talking.

Commit to including a broad range of warm up activities that are related to each piece of new content being introduced, be that metaphors or short stories/video clips to prepare all for what is coming next. We used the star rating system to poll and gauge reaction to a piece of film located within padlet, to discover the participants’ various reactions. They were able to indicate what they liked, which was a useful guide for facilitators and allowed them to comment on.

The breaking up of a 60-90 minute episode into four minute or multiples of four minute segments of activity, boost interaction when coupled with the use of placemat comments, commenting on chat or adding something to a whiteboard. Whilst interaction is one thing, the overriding importance of including a collaborative challenge for participants to undertake is crucial, be that designing smart interview questions, interview preparation and practice, receiving feedback, role play, working on shared documents to prepare funding proposals or discussing concepts.

One of the first significant differences from the face-to-face transition to the virtual classroom is the need to have several open available communication channels. In our online event, this prompted one participant to post a YouthBank member starter communication kit for online learning which consisted of eight essential apps.

Whether an extrovert or introvert, the format caters for a broad range of engagement and learning styles. For example, in an opening to one episode, all participants were asked to respond to questions posed with either a hand movement to indicate their answer yes or to stick their tongue out if the answer was no.The positioning of a webcam can be crucial in these circumstances which was evident when it was heard, “I can see your tonsils, Ermin”.

Some episodes ran 15-20 minutes overtime due to ‘internet connection drop out’ and we would now consider reducing each episode to between 40-60minutes in length and spreading an intensive five day event over alternate days to enrich opportunities for participants to practice the new skills and knowledge gained.

In hindsight more thought is needed to separate out the difference between interactive and collaborative activities, and being aware that interaction does not happen every time a participant clicks a button and the screen changes. Techniques utilised included musical interludes associated with a theme, such as teamwork, or basic origami to bring attention to communication issues. In any future online events we would consider adding five minutes at the beginning of an afternoon episode by introducing self administered hand and arm massage. This can be useful as a way of countering dips in energy amongst geographically distanced groups.

This could also help to counter the very real and obvious danger in an online event of screen time fatigue which was highlighted when participants became distracted by their phones and checking their emails. Another issue for participants was the absence of any social contact in ‘coffee breaks’ which could have been addressed by using breakout rooms that were always available, although on this occasion this was under-utilised and something we would signpost more clearly at future events.

Our challenge to return to is how to build more interactive, fun and effective virtual learning opportunities for all YouthBank networks.


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