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Moving a workshop online: what works and what doesn’t?

Based on our experience hosting the COPIM Publishers Workshop online on 16 March 2020, what are the do's and don't's of hosting an online workshop?

Published onMar 26, 2020
Moving a workshop online: what works and what doesn’t?

On 16 March 2020 the COPIM project held our first workshop, bringing together around thirty people from several different countries to talk about Open Access book publishing. Comprising a mix of academic publishers, scholarly communications experts and COPIM project members, we had planned to meet in Cambridge (UK) the day before the Redux conference.

Two weeks before the event it became obvious that, due to the spread of the coronavirus, a physical gathering would be impossible. Conferences were being cancelled right and left, so we had a decision to make: should we call off the workshop, or move to an online event? Not wanting to lose momentum in the project, and realising that we were likely to be restricted from physical gatherings for some time, we decided to experiment with holding the workshop online.

This is a post about what worked, what didn’t, and what we learned! We hope it will be helpful to others planning remote events, both now and in future, so please share and repost if you wish.

  • Rethinking the basics

  • Preparation, preparation, preparation

  • The schedule

  • On the day

  • What we learned

Rethinking the basics

We realised that to move the event online successfully, we would need to go back to the beginning and address some of the basics all over again.

When: since we had participants attending from Europe, the UK, the US and South Africa, we decided to move the workshop from 9am-5pm GMT to 12.30pm-6.30pm GMT: an early start for some and a late finish for others, but do-able for all. 

Where: we decided to host the workshop on Zoom. Although we would have preferred an open source alternative (particularly given some of Zoom’s privacy issues) we decided to prioritise two things at short notice: reliable performance and Zoom’s ‘breakout room’ function. 

We knew that bringing thirty people together for what was effectively a conference call was not without technical risk; we wanted to provide a relatively enjoyable experience for people who were generously giving us their time and expertise, and we needed to ensure that people were able to focus on the meat of the discussions rather than on the fact that the sound kept cutting out or the platform kept crashing. 

We also realised that the breakout room function was going to be hugely useful, given that we wanted primarily to facilitate discussion. With thirty people all on one call, nobody was going to be able to speak much (and the risk of distractions like ambient noise coming in from thirty different feeds would be increased). But Zoom’s breakout rooms would allow us to divide the participants up into smaller groups after the initial welcome and overview, allowing for focused discussion before moving back into the main ‘room’.

It’s also worth noting that we subscribed to Zoom Pro, since their basic (free) package limits group meetings to 40 minutes.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Our preparation basically divided into two phases: communicating about the new approach with our attendees and planning amongst ourselves. 

Communication: we contacted everyone beforehand by email with the timings and our planned schedule, the Zoom meeting link and brief instructions on how to download the app. We also included a few basic but crucial requests to make the event go smoothly: to find a quiet room with a good internet connection; to use headphones for the best audio quality; and to use the mute button when listening, so as to avoid ambient noise on the call. 

Planning: we had already sent round a questionnaire and solicited responses on the key topics that we wanted to discuss. We decided that these would form the skeleton of the day now that we were online, since they could act as a ‘grid’ that everyone would be familiar with. 

We divided the questions into four topics, and planned to split everyone into four groups in four breakout rooms. We would then have four sets of COPIM participants -- a ‘facilitator’ who would lead the discussion, and a note-taker -- and these would take a topic each. The sets of COPIM participants would then move between the breakout rooms of workshop participants, swapping rooms every 45 minutes and thus discussing their topic with every group at some point during the day. We built breaks into the schedule, and decided to set up ‘coffee room’ breakout rooms, in an attempt to facilitate some of the socialising and unstructured discussions that are such a benefit of face-to-face conferences (more on these later!). 

We split our participants into groups of four or five people, and attempted to include as best we could a diversity of publisher profiles and geographic locations in each group. We also mixed the groups slightly at the halfway point (being careful to make sure that nobody missed out on a topic of discussion in the process).

The schedule

The day broke down as follows:

12.30-12.45 Log in and technical set up/sound checks

12.45-13.30 Introductions & welcome (including overview of COPIM and plan for the workshop)

13.30-15.00 Session 1

    13.30 – 14.15 Discussion session 1

    14.15 – 15:00 Discussion session 2

15.00-15.30 Break

15.30-17.00 Session 2

    15.30 – 16.15 Discussion session 3

    16.15 – 17:00 Discussion session 4

17.00-17.30 Break

17.30 - 18.30 Conclusions and next steps.

On the day

A few things helped to ensure things ran smoothly on the day.

  1. The willingness of our attendees to make it work! This was absolutely crucial. Everyone logged in on time and was mindful of our various requests, meaning that there was minimal tech set-up time and we actually began the breakout discussions early. There was patience and good humour during the setting up of the groups, and everyone navigated the slight estrangement created by the remote participation with consideration and aplomb.

  2. Having an overall facilitator who didn’t participate in discussions. This was my role: I was responsible for setting up the breakout rooms and ‘sending’ everyone to the right place, letting people know via ‘broadcast message’ when discussions should be brought to a close, and staying in the main Zoom ‘room’ in case people’s connections failed, causing them to rejoin the call in the main room (which happened a couple of times to one or two people).  

  3. Having the COPIM group leaders come to the main ‘room’ when switching between breakout groups, rather than crashing into each other’s sessions before everyone was ready! 

  4. Making everyone ‘hosts’ in Zoom as they arrived on the call, so that they could move easily between breakout rooms (although this functionality disappeared if they dropped out of the call and rejoined, which was annoying).

  5. Having a communication channel outside of Zoom. Although Zoom has a messaging function, which was useful, I made sure all the attendees had my email address in case they were disconnected and needed help getting back on the call, and the COPIM participants communicated via our Mattermost channel about how things were going and what needed attention as we progressed. 

What we learned

It’s tiring!
The first key takeaway was that onscreen engagement is much more tiring than in-person engagement, and I think we all felt this. Another time we would attempt shorter sessions with less packed into them (this has the added advantage of potentially being easier to fit in, rather than asking people to give up an entire day). 

We also wanted several of the discussions to continue longer than they were able, so trying to do less in a shorter session might have given some of these discussions more room. 

One useful piece of feedback was that we could have used more visuals. Apart from a PowerPoint presentation in the overview session, everything was pure discussion, and we could usefully have had the questionnaire topics posted onscreen at the very least, to help everyone focus.

We used Cryptpad for a number of things on the day -- we had a document detailing the schedule, the groups, the attendees and their affiliations, and we invited people to add their email addresses to this doc if they wished. We also had a pad each for the four groups, where the COPIM note-takers and anyone else in the group could add notes. We used Cryptpad because it’s open source and has great privacy values (basically the opposite calculation to the one we made with Zoom) and the structure of how we used the pads worked well, but when multiple people were making notes the software was laggy and odd duplications appeared, making it frustrating to use. 

Coffee rooms
These were a promising idea, but they weren’t really used on the day. One participant suggested that we could have assigned a topic to each room, so anyone interested in talking about a particular subject might have gravitated there. However, since the session overall was tiring, people valued the break time to step away from their screens -- unstructured discussion might have needed its own slot in the timetable to solve this issue. 

Use ‘gallery view’
This is a small but helpful thing. ‘Gallery view’ in Zoom allows you to see everyone on the call (with a yellow bar underneath the person speaking) whereas ‘speaker view’ fills the screen with the speaker, meaning you can’t see many of the other callers. Most of us found ‘gallery view’ much better for the sort of conversational dynamic we wanted to create. 

Overall, the workshop was a success online. We had good feedback from our attendees; the discussions held great value for us; and we strengthened some important relationships that we’ll continue to build. It was also heartening that, as we enter a period when remote gatherings will be all that’s possible, we found a way for so many people to come together.

Sincere thanks once again to all our workshop participants!

Header: photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

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