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UCL Public Engagement Blog



8 Simple (recommended) Rules for running online training.

By Briony Fleming, on 28 April 2020

This blog has been written by Ben Littlefield (Public Engagement Manager – BEAMS).

The UCL Engagement Team is dedicated to supporting people across UCL to get involved in effective, mutually beneficial, public engagement. One of the primary ways we do this is through training and skill development.

COVID-19 and social distancing hit right in the middle of our main training delivery period, so we had to adapt quickly and meaningfully – skirting the balance between rapid ‘knee-jerk’ response and reflection-based best practice. After scouring the internet and delivering both ‘flipped’ style (participants work through content independently before all joining a live Q&A/workshop session) and interactive practical sessions in Microsoft Teams (MS Teams) we have the following reflections to share in the hope that they are useful.

The methods we used:

Flipped learning sessions were delivered via participants taking part in asynchronous learning (participants learning the same material at different times) on an online platform (in our case UCLeXtend) followed by a live Q&A session in MS Teams (participants were also asked to use a 3rd party platform to ask questions anonymously – we used Slido)

The majority of the reflections in this blog are based on our experience of running practical sessions- including all-group seminars and smaller group breakouts – in MS Teams; shared working documents on sharepoint; and Q&A throughout on Slido. If you are interested in reflections on flipped learning we recommend a great in-depth reflective blog on the difference between face to face and digital training by UCL’s Professor Muki Haklay.

Rule one: Things will go wrong

Either for you or your participants! Whilst some will be very familiar with your software and approach, for others it will be completely new and not intuitive. You can attempt to mitigate this by providing tutorials and very clear (and accessible) instructions ahead of time. However, you will still encounter challenges; be honest and open and explain at the beginning that it will not all run smoothly. People are very understanding but it helps to acknowledge challenges, to manage expectations from the outset.

Technical issues will happen. We’ve encountered broken mics, Mac computers not accessing shared documents, people invited to meeting slots not being able to access them, and many more. Be prepared to rapidly troubleshoot – we recommend having someone on standby whose role it is to do this, so you are free to manage the rest of the session. With that in mind…

Rule two: Don’t do it alone

It is possible to run a 15-person session, with an audience Q&A platform and 5 breakout sessions by yourself. It is, however, not advisable! Based on our experience we wouldn’t want to run an interactive session with more than 10 people by ourselves, particularly if you are facilitating ‘break-out groups’ or smaller meetings within your session. The quality of the learner experience drops the more breakout groups each facilitator is managing – the ideal is one facilitator per breakout group.

In our experience, and you may find this different, the following ratios work for practical online sessions:

Number of participants Number of breakout sessions Number of leaders (roles)
Up to 10 people Up to two breakout sessions One (smoother with two)
10 – 30 people Three to six breakout sessions Three, with one person in each of the following roles:

‘Presenter’ who leads on content delivery

‘Host’ who keeps the session to time and facilitates the whole group sessions

‘Technical’ who explains the platforms, troubleshoots when things go wrong and manages the Q&A platform

These three people can each facilitate up to two breakout groups as well

30 + people As many as required, not going above five people per group (unless called for in your activity) Three+

Ideally a facilitator per breakout group.

The ‘Host’ and ‘Technical’ roles shouldn’t have facilitation duties in larger groups and instead concentrate on keeping the sessions to time and troubleshooting

We’d recommend avoiding practical sessions for 30 plus people, it may be better suited to more traditional ‘Flipped learning’ or seminar approaches. You can see it can quickly become complicated so it is essential to…

Rule three: Keep it simple

Our first practical session attempted to transpose the style of session we’d run in person (with both smaller and larger breakout groups, changing participants each time to maximise the cohort getting to know each other). This was impossible. Chaos ensued.
Instead, we’d advise:

  • Setting up sub-groups in advance and having one consistent sub-group throughout the training. This way participants know who they’re supposed to be with at all times.
  • Set up a single working document for that group to work on. If you have multiple group activities, put them all on the same document and remind participants to keep that document open and simply move to the next page. This will reduce the level of confusion in what is being worked on, when.
  • Ask participants to introduce themselves and accept that the first 10 minutes of your breakout will be spent with technical issues and introductions, allow for more time accordingly.
  • Try to minimise movement between all-group and breakouts – in two hours we had five moves (all group – breakout – all group – breakout – all group). We would say that is the maximum you can attempt, and was only successful by following…

Rule four: Prepare as much as you can

For a 2 hour session with two breakouts and 15 participants you are looking at up to 60 minutes of pre-session logistics to help it run smoothly, when running this type of session we prepared:

  • A clear, bulleted e-mail to all participants containing joining instructions and a warning that they will receive a large number of meeting invites. This e-mail should also contain the link to the specific platform you are using to host your training.
  • Inviting everyone to the all-group meetings you have set up, including the ‘Introduction’ meeting.
  • Inviting individuals to their breakout sessions (this is essential – if people get lost they can just look at their calendar and click ‘join’ to be in the right place. Don’t forget to tell people they can do this!).
  • Preparing SharePoint documents clearly outlining the group activities; it really helps to have the link to this in the participant’s break-out meeting invites AND on the meeting platform for your session. That way if a participant cannot find their group activity document, you and they can quickly locate the link.

No matter how well you prepare, people will still have difficulties and it is very important to remember to…

Rule five: Get everyone to check access before the session

In your joining instructions e-mail make sure you ask people to check they have access to:

  • The training software you are using
  • The documents they will be working on
  • Slido or any other external Q&A platform you might be using
  • Ensure they are not streaming anything at home (and ask anyone else in their household if they can avoid doing so too)

In the training we’ve delivered common issues have arisen when people haven’t joined the MS Teams channel, have downloaded the SharePoint document rather than open it ‘live’ in their browser, or haven’t accessed the Q&A platform in advance. Breakout sessions may also need re-thinking in the moment too, because….

Rule six: Not everyone will turn up

Life is complicated at the moment – people have a lot of demands on their time and so expect that you will get several people either sending last-minute apologies or just not turning up. This may impact your breakout sessions as you could find people in a ‘group’ by themselves! By having someone in your delivery team tasked with resolving these issues if they arrive you can ensure your participants stay engaged. The important thing is to have that one person (the host) keeping an eye on all the breakout groups and communicating directly to participants who find themselves in that situation to avoid frustration. To keep retention high in your sessions and make sure people are able to follow instructions easily remember.

Rule seven: Don’t talk too much

10-15 minutes of presenting at any one time should really be the maximum. It is difficult to maintain attention longer than that. We also recommend building in a 10 minute buffer to any breakout sessions to allow for technical difficulties and consider telling people it is ok to have a break during the sessions. The evidence is coming in about how exhausting video-based engagement is so insist on breaks and reduce the pace slightly. Accept that you will cover less than in a face to face session so work out what’s essential.  Remember that online sessions are fundamentally different to presenting in real life – you cannot expect them to translate perfectly. So instead, we recommend focusing on…

Rule eight: Facilitating, enabling and ‘chipping-in’

We believe the exciting and valuable learning happens when people work together on shared activities. This is where the real advantage of ‘live’ shared documents (such as in SharePoint) and small breakout groups lies. Dedicate as much time as you can of your session to this type of activity, bearing in mind that you will not be able to as easily address individual learners’ needs (as you can in face to face sessions), consequently thinking through how you can offer a pathway for people to discuss their individual needs afterwards can really maximise the value of your sessions.
If you are facilitating a group remind them that you are there! (In one session I forgot to tell everyone we could hear them, and they didn’t take too kindly to me responding in the chat to something they said!). Using a Q&A platform can help to collect questions throughout and dedicate specific slots to answering them, which can help you keep to time.
At the end of any breakout session – pool constructive reflections from each group and share with all participants.  Another benefit to using shared documents is that you can encourage participants to look at each other’s after the session has closed.


We’re in exciting and daunting times for digital learning; it is of vital importance that we as educators/trainers/coaches are patient, understanding and kind to our learners as well as ourselves. This can feel less effective than face to face methods we’re used to: we can assure you that the feedback we are receiving shows it is just as valuable and participants appreciate having something to work on in these uncertain times. We are also always learning too, so please let us know if you try something different that works for you!

For more technical tips and information about other platforms read our ‘Technical Tips’ guide.(Word)

2 Responses to “8 Simple (recommended) Rules for running online training.”

  • 1
    Pearl John wrote on 1 May 2020:

    Hi Ben, thanks for that. What were you training people to do?

  • 2
    Briony Fleming wrote on 4 May 2020:

    Hi Pearl, thanks for you comment, the team were delivering training into public and community engagement, encouraging people to think about how to connect research and teaching at UCL with our wider communities, and how to think about meaningful dialogue and mutual benefit as a key part of this. You can read about the most recent projects funded through this programme on our website: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/projects/2019-train-and-engage-projects-funded

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