Yesterday I ran the first full-day Netskills workshop run entirely online. Sadly I was in our training suite, rather than at the beach, but the participants could have been anywhere. The online event was adapted from a face-to-face workshop covering planning, producing and publishing podcasts and was intended to provide as rich a learning experience and meet the same outcomes. This post considers how the online event ran and highlights the more significant differences when remote training through Elluminate

For background, our face-to-face (f2f) podcasting workshop starts with evaluating and discussing ‘what makes an engaging podcast?’ before moving on to practical tasks where participants script, rehearse and produce a podcast for review with other participants. I’ll focus here on how the online event ran and highlight where this is significantly different from the original course.

Orientation

The first difference was running a pre-workshop online orientation a week before the event. This allowed us and the participants to introduce ourselves, to get comfortable with the elluminate environment (none of the participants had used it before), distribute the course materials (PDFs) and set a bit of pre-course homework. In future, I’d plan to do this even if the event runs f2f.

Presentation

For the workshop itself, we started off with a fairly standard approach to presentation – me talking with them asking questions and chatting in the chat box with my colleague Chris Thomson on hand to respond. As it was a relatively small group (8 participants), it was more feasible for all participants to use their mics than it is with larger groups. Although it felt a little formal, we still used the ‘raised hand’ feature to flag up when someone wanted to speak and we handed them the mic. As an aside on group size, our face-to-face workshops are limited to 12 people to ensure we can offer adequate support. For online events, maintaining that level of support probably means fewer participants or more facilitators.

Evaluation

In the first real task we asked them to listen individually to a range of podcasts and consider ‘what makes an engaging podcast?’ We allocated 40mins for this as a self-directed task. I set a countdown timer within Elluminate (with audio & visual alert), but must admit I was concerned about people returning on time for the next task. Maybe I got lucky with a good set of participants, but they all came back on time, everytime. We did have their phone numbers just in
case.

For feedback, we used the whiteboard to quickly add words/concepts describing an engaging podcast. I arranged these into themes, participants voted them up (+1) or down (-1) and then we had an open mic discussion around the issues raised.

Scripting

After a break for tea/coffee (make your own I’m afraid), we moved on to scripting, where participants create a script for a short podcast to record later. After a brief overview on why and how to write a podcast script (but avoid sounding scripted), I set them off writing on their own for 30 mins (with further direction in a handout).

Peer review

Next, we got the the bit people always cringe at – presenting their script and getting feedback from another participant. For this, I created a series of breakout rooms into which I ‘sent’ two people. This gives them their own room in Elluminate where they can use the full set of tools (audio, chat, slides, desktop sharing…) in a seperate space from the main room and other breakout rooms. As moderators, we could dip in an out of each room to listen in, check things were going OK and join the discussion. It was reassuring to see that they spent 25 minutes actively enagaging in this and in fact it seemed to work better than the same exercise in a real room. I’d put this down to less awareness of/disruption by other groups.

Production

The main task of the day came after a lunch break. We asked participants to record a short (2-5min) podcast based on the script they had written, with the option of including interviews, music and whatever else they thought made a good podcast. We assigned around 1.5 hours for this task, with it being mainly self-directed.

This is the point on the workshop where they start using new hardware and software that nearly always needs tweaking in slightly different ways to make it work properly for each person. This means lots of frantic support so they can get on with the real business of recording thier podcast. It was always my intention to provide support primarily within Elluminate, but I also made sure they had ways to reach us outside this system (email, phone, Skype…). In the end, the support within elluminate was so simple and effective that we didn’t need to use other systems.

We setup two support breakout rooms in elluminate to manage this. Participants needing support ‘raised hands’, then we moved into a support room for more private discussions. Most issues were resolved via chat or audio (as in talking), but we also used screen sharing to demonstrate a procedure, or to watch a participant demonstrate one to us (by making them a moderator temporarily). This worked very well and as Chris pointed out, removed the temptation to grab the mouse and solve the problem, rather than letting them work through it themselves

By the end of the event, 6 out of 8 people had submitted a podcast to our channel, listened to them and given feedback through comments or discussion. That compares well to the outcomes we get f2f.

As an experience, I felt more connected with the participants than I thought I would. There was a sense that we were part of an event, even if separated by distance. In some ways, I feel that this model doing practical work in your own (work)place, using your own kit, working on your own project in a self-directed way, but with support where needed, has benefits beyond convenience and reduced costs. I think it reduces the expectation of training as being something procedural, to something more like supported development, that I hope will make a long term difference.

Photo credit: My second patio office via marylkayoe (CC BY|NC|SA)

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