The COVID-19 outbreak has made it difficult to run in-person participatory workshops, which is challenging for those who use workshops to engage with different groups and run co-design activities, such as design researchers. This challenge is affecting many others, including a national education charity I have been working with as part of my PhD research. The charity supports interactions between school pupils and relatable school alumni (friendly former-students, who want to support current students) in state schools across the UK, enabling vital career guidance, support and mentoring.
The current necessity to take workshops online has prompted me to share a few thoughts. I base this on my experience of co-facilitating two online workshops for design research with very different participants, all of which I did not have the opportunity to meet in-person before the workshop. I have also participated in a couple of training courses for facilitating online workshops, including a fantastic workshop on engaging community groups, facilitated by Eden Project Communities on Moving Community Activity Online.
Design Research Workshops
Workshop 1 – Collaborative workshop for the Interfaces Conference for PhD researchers funded through the AHRC.
75 minutes on Zoom
20+ participants, 5 facilitators from Transformation North West
Aim: Co-create a charter for the future of doctoral research
Workshop 2 – Exploring young people’s views on career support and ideas for improvement in collaboration with the charity
60 minutes on Microsoft Teams
5 participants aged 13
2 facilitators; myself and a careers guidance practitioner from the charity and technical support from another Transformation North West PhD researcher.
The latter will be focused on more in this post, as it was more challenging and perhaps more unusual experience. Both of the online workshops I have delivered are very different therefore I believe it’s important to recognise that one approach does not suit all.
Preparing for An Online Workshop with Young People
Originally, the charity and I had planned three two-hour in-person creative and interactive workshops to be conducted in the North West of England, exploring school pupil’s ideas for improving interactions with former students. We successfully delivered one in-person workshop before COVID-19 stopped us in our tracks. I decided it was worthwhile trying to run an online version of the workshop, given the confidence I had gained co-delivering the online PhD conference workshop, it would also be a learning experience and would enable us to engage with another group of young people on the project. Before starting this, my charity project partner was in contact with a teacher at the school to assess whether she thought the young people would engage with an online workshop. As a result, I had to transform the original plan for the workshop into a format that would work online, with the support of two experts from the charity.
A key part of the original workshop plan was to make a number of topics visual and accessible for everyone participating, such as areas where they would like support in their transition from school to work life. One of the advantages of the visual tools is that it makes it possible for all participants, some of which may have low confidence to contribute their ideas. Myself, the charity experts and the teacher at the school believed physical activities as well as digital activities would be more engaging for the young people. Therefore, one of the activities from the original workshop; a large timeline style tool for planning steps to reach a future goal, which worked particularly well in its physical form was mailed to each participant before the workshop. It included simple guidelines to support completing the activity in the absence of a facilitator, as well as coloured pens and stickers.
With a number of outcomes in mind, I tested a number of existing online workshop tools, including Miro and Google Jamboards (both digital whiteboard tools), Padlet (boards for questions and answers, amongst other functions) and Mentimeter (live polls, quizzes etc.). I selected tools that could emulate the original activities of the successful physical workshop, were easy and quick to use and would allow the flexibility to design my own features. For example, I added a tool I had designed for the original workshop to Google Jamboards to prompt discussion and ideas that could be placed around it using digital ‘sticky notes’. The photographs below show a comparison between the physical and online workshop.
We were met with a number of challenges during the workshop. Firstly, the chat box function on Microsoft Teams was inaccessible to the participants, despite measures put in place to avoid this. We selected Microsoft Teams as a platform for a couple of reasons; Lancaster University does not support the use of Zoom due to security reasons and the schools pupils were familiar with using Teams for school work.
Another challenge was that our participants did not want to turn on their webcams and were reluctant to speak. A combination of a variety of interactive activities, both physical and digital, as well was conversation and questions from myself and the co-facilitator from the charity helped to draw out responses from the participants. The conversation eventually started to flow, but it took them longer to achieve than it would in an in-person workshop.
Online Design Workshop with PhD Students
The online workshop with PhD students was quite different. With over 20 participants and a full Zoom license, we were able to use the breakout room function to place everyone into small groups, discuss themes, generate ideas and then come together to share them at the end. The group were confident in sharing their views online, as you would perhaps expect. However, they were reluctant to interact with the online whiteboard we shared, preferring to let the facilitators write their ideas, rather than try out a new tool during the discussion.
What was particularly successful at the end of the workshop, was when we asked all the participants to write their key learning from the workshop on a piece of paper and hold it up to the webcam. This caused a lot of excitement, as it prompted everyone to actively provide their personal views. The group had been asked beforehand to have paper and a thick tipped pen on hand. This formed a visual charter for doctoral research taken in one screenshot, as shown as the header of the blog post.
Recommendations for Online Design Workshops
Based on the experiences and follow-up conversations with those involved, I’d like to share a number of recommendations:
Design and Test
Consider who will be taking part in the workshop because as demonstrated, one set approach may not work for all types of audience. Create a plan of the workshop beforehand that breaks down the time you have. Consider your participants, the amount of time needed for people to log-in at the beginning, get settled, introduce the session and transition between activities. The workshops mentioned were designed to feature tasks that build up from getting to know people, all the way to getting participants to generate ideas together.
Support Before and During
Be prepared to be on-hand for technical help or to answer emails or phone calls a couple of hours before the workshop. My project partner and I had emails and phone calls running up to our workshop in regards to whether individuals had done the pre-workshop activity right, and from participants who had lost the link to join the session.
Use slides, but don’t use too many. We only used a few slides to introduce both workshops, which helped to explain what the purpose of the workshop was, as well as information on how to join in.
Facilitation throughout the activities is really important in both an online and physical workshop. In both workshops, we learnt that more than one facilitator works well because they can maintain a lively conversation and reduce awkward silences. At least one facilitator needs to be confident in using the technology and dedicated to making sure the workshop runs smoothly.
Include opportunities for the participants to be actively involved in the workshop, not simply sitting and listening to a presentation. Make your workshop an opportunity to hear everyone’s views. Consider whether it is possible for you to engage participants creatively, and think and design different approaches to achieve outcomes.
Make use of online collaboration tools, such as Padlet, Miro, Google Jam Board and Mentimeter. Some participants may not feel comfortable with speaking out loud in an online workshop. Providing them with something visual and interactive with could be a way to engage them and draw out their valuable views.
Sending the individual participants activities to do at home, school or work in the mail could be a good way of engaging and preparing them before a workshop. In the example discussed, I found that creating a designed pack of physical activities was appreciated by the participants as a useful and enjoyable activity to help them reflect on the support they need for the future. If appropriate, it works well for some workshop participants to hold up pieces of paper with key thoughts while on camera.
It is hoped that these reflections and recommendations will be useful to those who are currently working on transforming their engagement activities to work online, whether it be researchers or practitioners working in a variety of organisations.
Laura Wareing is a PhD researcher at Lancaster University and is part of a programme called Transformation North West, funded by NWCDTP through the AHRC. Her PhD research explores design’s role in meaningful engagement with young people, who live in underserved places in the North West of England, around their future prospects. She is conducting this through a series of collaborative projects with organisations and businesses in the region. Laura has extensive experience of designing and delivering co-design workshops.
The workshops with young people were developed with support from the education charity, Future First. A big thank you to Future First and thank you to Jess Robins from Transformation North West for being on hand during the workshop.
The PhD conference workshop was delivered in collaboration with Phoebe Kowalska, Veronica Pialorsi, Alexandros Kallegias, Jess Robins and Gemma Potter.