Lessons Learned from the Virtual ABCs
The first ever virtual Alternative Break Citizenship schools (ABCs) are behind us! We have reflected on what went well, what was hard, and what we are excited to try in the future.
Here, we are sharing tips, tricks, and the lessons we learned hosting a virtual conference. Our hope is that you find some tools to use in your virtual programming this year.
Vary the Structure Within a Workshop
We had a variety of ways to engage during the ABCs: whole-group sessions, pre-recorded videos, small-group sessions, Zoommates, and journaling. By not sticking to one particular structure, we hoped to mimic the flexibility of an in-person workshop, keep engagement high, and provide multiple opportunities to engage, depending on a participant’s comfort with sharing out.
We’re not going to lie — it’s super hard to keep folks engaged in a virtual large group. Session 1 of the ABCs had 70 participants and Session 2 had 100. The bigger the group, the easier it is to zone out.
One of the things that helped keep engagement up during whole-group was incorporating movement. Group stretches at the beginning of a session, “raise your hand/dance/make a funny face if…”, have people put their finger to their eyebrow once they’re done journaling, etc. (Be careful not to overdo it — there are only so many dance moves you can show off virtually).
Be conscious of your participants’ visual field — if you spend the entire workshop sharing your screen, that’s all they’ll see. We recommend using slides sparingly to maximize the amount of time you’re looking at other humans. Share out any slides before, during, and after the workshop for accessibility.
To give facilitators a break and to spice up the way participants received information, we incorporated pre-recorded videos. These were a significant amount of work upfront, but worth it in the end.
Pre-recorded videos helped break up the tone of the workshop. The videos could be over-the-top whacky or take on an appropriately somber tone, both of which land differently than when you’re doing it live.
To allow participants to hear from different people, the “stars” of the video were not the facilitators of the workshop.
ABCs participants largely preferred small-group sessions to whole-group ones. The virtual setting is inherently a little more intimidating. While it was easier to encourage participation in small groups...honestly, it was still hard. It typically took a few sessions for people to warm up to each other. Even then, we had to be really intentional about creating diverse opportunities for participation.
Some of our most often used tactics were Zoommates (see below), a shared Google doc/drive with resources and notes, or directly inviting participants to share with a “pass or play*” option.
*"Pass or play" is a good way to keep the conversation moving. Rather than ask a question then wait who knows how long for a response, facilitators directly call on someone to answer/share, with the option to “pass or play.” This gives folks an out, but softly encourages them to engage.
Avoid getting stuck in the trap of back-and-forth dialogue between participants and small-group facilitators. It’s natural for Zoom to feel like the participant “should” engage with the facilitator, but encourage participants to engage with each other (see “Shifting the Power Dynamic” below).
Zoommates was an idea pitched to us by one of our interns, RaShaun from App State. This tool was the runaway hit of the virtual ABCs — with the majority of participants citing Zoommates as one of their favorite aspects! The concept allows 2-3 participants to individually connect on a separate phone call, while still remaining in the Zoom session. Zoommates are great for encouraging more vulnerable conversations or engaging quieter participants, and can allow facilitators some extra time to review their notes or prepare for a transition.
We organized Zoommates by randomly assigning pairs within a small group (sometimes 3 people for an odd numbered group) and giving those pairs a few minutes during the first small-group session to decide how they would like to connect (phone, text, chat box, etc.). Throughout the conference, facilitators would have participants dive deeper into some questions or topics by connecting with their Zoommate.
Journaling is a helpful tool for giving participants a way to reflect on their own, however, be cognizant of how often you’re doing so. It’s natural for a facilitator to lean on journaling during a virtual workshop to give themselves time to plan for where they want to go next, but we recommend keeping journaling to once per workshop to retain its effectiveness. If you find that you’re often asking participants to journal, you can swap out a journal prompt with a Zoommate conversation.
Play gentle music (or hype jams, if that's your thing) during journaling exercises. It fills the space and is easy for a facilitator to keep time to.
Accessibility note re: music. Give people an opt out: have the facilitator wave their arms around when it’s time to come back so people can turn the sound off if desired.
Have a Designated Tech Person
When hosting more than a handful of participants, or when in a formal setting that requires a smooth pace, facilitating sessions while juggling tech functions or issues can be overwhelming.
At the ABCs, there were at least two tech people. One is probably sufficient for smaller scale events.
One person on the tech team was responsible for screen sharing and advancing slides on a designated screen sharing computer. This same person used another computer to manage breakout rooms.
The second tech person let people back into the room if/when their wifi cut out, troubleshooted miscellaneous tech issues, and provided support for facilitators and participants.
Non-verbal communication is even more important when you’re not together in person. During in-person reflections, this is more intuitive — people make eye contact, lean forward, nod along, etcetera, to show support and affirmation.
In the virtual world, it helps to name that dynamic and encourage people to nod their head, snap their fingers, post something supportive in the chat (e.g. “that really resonates with me”), and/or use the thumbs-up and clapping reactions.
In fact, naming upfront that virtual events are hard and inevitably different than in-person ones helps take away the awkwardness that can be (and usually is) present in virtual events.
Shift the Power Dynamic
In small-group discussions, facilitators should shift the expectation that they will act as an intermediate between each contribution, i.e. responding to each comment made and calling on the next person.
That dynamic can hinder the shared ownership and collective energy of any gathering, but it plays out particularly powerfully over Zoom. Unlike in-person, it’s not enough to just say “I want this to feel like a conversation, so I won’t be calling on people.” Facilitators need to have another system to minimize interruptions.
One trick we liked was having people use the chat box as another way of indicating that they’re about to speak. Participants put a letter/number/symbol/emoji in the chat box and then unmuted themselves. If someone else is speaking and you have something to say, the chat box becomes the waiting list.
Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering, one of our favorite books about facilitation, discusses power dynamics virtual gathering guide, which can be downloaded from her website. We'd recommend it to anyone planning a virtual event.
Managing Zoom Fatigue
We’re all learning how to best maintain our energy and attention while on video conference for multiple hours a day. Scheduling breaks is important, but many of us default to mindlessly scrolling through our phone rather than taking a true screen break.
In response to feedback from our first session, we created a Virtual ABCs Survival Guide, shared links to short meditation or movement exercises before breaks, and reminded participants to be mindful about how they were using break time.
Utilize Zoom Functions
We mentioned above using the chat box as a waiting list to talk. We used this tactic in both whole- and small-group settings.
It’s also good practice to put any questions the facilitator asks or journal prompts in the chat box. That way, it is available for participants to refer back to.
The chat box also serves as a way to get quick responses to a question (“what comes to mind when you think of reflection?”).
Accessibility note. The chat box can be quite overwhelming and distracting for some. Though we could not figure out how to mute it from a participant view, we came up with a work around. If you pop out the chat box, you can put it fully in a corner of the screen so it is completely out of view. We found this only works on a Mac.
If anyone has another work around they have found that works, or if you know how a participant can silence it on their end, please email email@example.com!
Facilitator note. We found there needed to be an additional dedicated person to manage the chat box. This will be especially helpful if your chat box is quite active.
We used the breakout room function for small-group sessions. Since participants were manually put in breakout rooms, it was easiest to have folks change their Zoom name each session.
We asked participants to change their Zoom name to Preferred Name / Pronouns (optional) / Team name. This ensured a seamless transition to small-group time for both participants and the tech team.
Facilitator note. If a participant leaves the Zoom call, it will reconvert their name to whatever it is set to on Zoom. So you’ll need to remind them often to make sure they change it back to whatever you ask them to.
Having more breakout rooms than teams also proved to be a good idea. For instance, if you have 7 teams that you’re manually sorting, create 10 breakout rooms. This allows the facilitators and event staff to have a room to meet in or for other groups to meet around unplanned topics, should the need arise.
Screenshare is most frequently used for showing slides and video, but we (and participants) found screensharing particularly useful for conveying information before the start of each workshop.
We had participants stay in the same Zoom room for the entire day rather than leave and come back (see note about Zoom names above), with the instruction to turn their cameras and microphones off while on break.
During breaks, we would share a desktop with general information, the schedule, and a countdown clock to our next session.
Participants liked having the countdown clock as a reminder of when to be back from break. Shaun used Smart Countdown Timer, from the Apple App Store, but there are tons of options available on YouTube.
A Note on Accessibility
We knew there would be some accessibility concerns to address once we made the decision to go virtual. While a virtual format allowed for increased financial accessibility, things like wifi access, sitting in front of a screen for 7ish hours a day, a quiet space that allowed full engagement, etcetera, were other challenges that participants may face.
It’s important to keep in mind that all of your participants are in their own unique environment, which could keep them from being fully engaged. We found that naming this up front and inviting people to connect with us directly if they needed an accommodation went a long way toward making people feel more comfortable to engage in different ways.
Break Away believes in radical accessibility. We tried our best to accommodate all accessibility requests — owning that sometimes we messed up. Doing your best to make it right is something that we wholeheartedly believe in. We encourage you all to practice this as well.
BE OPEN TO FEEDBACK FROM PARTICIPANTS
We had the opportunity to chat with a participant from Session 1 who is a self-identified member of the learning disability community. This person was willing to call us in on where we could improve and even provided some tips on how to adjust our programming for Session 2.
We were grateful that this participant was so gracious with their time, insight, and sharing their experience. That conversation allowed us to better support Session 2 participants.