Learning from our virtual co-creation: accessibility and adaptability
By Rory, on 21 June 2020
This blog was written by Scott, one of our co-producers, and Rory, the project co-ordinator for the Centre. We share the learning from the two ‘Co-creating Our Strategy’ virtual sessions held in early June 2020.
Thoughts from Scott
For those of you that don’t know me I’m Scott. I’m a father, a husband and an all around easy going individual. I am also passionate about the co-production of services and in particular how we can increase the accessibility or inclusivity of co-production to as many people as possible. This passion was really spurred in me after 2007 when I suffered a major Stroke which caused me to lose my vision overnight and suffer serious physical impairments, aspects of which are still present almost 14 years on. I went from being a very privileged white middle class male who was very physically active, where no door was ever not open to me to being in a position (still white, very privileged and middle class) of finding that some doors were beginning to close on me due to my impairments. It is for this reason that I have made it one of my missions to improve accessibility and inclusivity wherever possible and in particular in co-production.
I was lucky enough to be part of the UCL Centre for Co-production’s virtual co-creation sessions of their new strategy on the 3 and 8 June (when we say ‘strategy’ we mean a statement of who we are, why we exist, and what we’re working towards. It covers our core purpose, what makes us distinctive and where we fit in the wider world). These were fantastic sessions that happened over Zoom that brought together a group of individuals from different backgrounds to discuss the aims and strategy of the centre going forward. These sessions were a showcase in technical wizardry utilising features such as break-out rooms and virtual white boards to replicate the main stay of any co-creation session… the sticky note. Since these sessions I have been reflecting on their accessibility and inclusivity and here are my thoughts:
The use of Zoom
The reasons for using a virtual meeting platform in a pandemic are pretty apparent and as platforms go Zoom is just about the best from an accessibility point of view. Zoom is great at offering fantastically accessible apps on just about any platform going and as a participant all of this is completely free. The Centre team also did some really great things to further increase the accessibility of the platform, including running a live transcription plug-in for anybody that was hard of hearing which allowed them to read what the presenters were saying in real time. Another great thing that the Centre team offered was to help fund the cost of internet connectivity for anybody for whom this might be an issue. I am lucky in that I have a high level of technical literacy to be able to use a platform such as this, but my concern is that we could be excluding a large sector of the population whose voices we need to hear by moving completely online for our co-production needs. Please have a read of the Co-creating our Strategy blog (once it is live) which outlines some ways that the Centre are working to address this.
Another great feature of these sessions was the use of a virtual whiteboard to replicate the ubiquitous sticky note. Although a fantastic resource for the sighted individuals in the group unfortunately this platform was completely inaccessible to my screenreader. This was not the fault of the organisers, I have been on a quest to try every virtual whiteboard product and unfortunately they all seem to be lacking in accessibility. I have been doing lots of thinking about viable alternatives to this and the thing I keep coming back to is the good old fashioned spreadsheet. Each cell could represent one sticky note, cells can be different colours and we are now at the stage technologically where we can have multiple people editing a spreadsheet at the same time so that we do not lose the collaborative aspect of the virtual whiteboard. Sure it may not look as aesthetically pleasing but nothing is stopping us from exporting the spreadsheet into virtual sticky notes for presentation purposes.
Is virtual co-production the answer to increasing our reach?
One of the things I have read about a lot online recently is how virtual co-production is the silver bullet and although I think it offers us immense gains we need to urge immense amounts of caution. I am part of the team organising the next Co-production Network session on 14th July (email email@example.com if you would like to attend) and one of the questions I am really keen for us to discuss is ‘how do we ensure that virtual co-production is as inclusive as possible?’ We need to be very careful that we don’t go down the rabbit hole of it being a homogeneous group of individuals who have the equipment, finances and know-how to attend an online get-together. I am also really keen to state that, done well, virtual co-production could be the best opportunity we have of drawing on the experiences of people who are not able to attend face-to-face meetings. This could be for a range of reasons – geography, social isolation, health needs – but either way, they do not take a seat at the table and their voices are not heard.
Over to Rory
To close off this post, I wanted to add a few words about what I’ve learned from attending these sessions. Ahead of the Co-creating Our Strategy Session on the 3 June, we shared a timeline of our development called The Story So Far (if the content on the page is too small please zoom in using the plus symbol in the bottom right of your screen). We also asked our members before the event to imagine a future scenario and share feedback, so we could discuss them further on the 3 June. The scenario was this:
It is 2022 and the UCL Centre for Co-production in Health Research is going from strength to strength. You are delighted by where we’ve got to! What excites you the most?
It was great to see so many people email us before the session to share initial thoughts about this scenario, which provided an excellent starting point for a structured debate with more targeted questions. In addition, to the signature informal atmosphere of our co-production sessions, I’ve found these thought-provoking questions to be most helpful when collaborating to write a strategy as we are. For our second Co-creating Our Strategy session on the 8 June, we did not have a future scenario to consider beforehand. The aim was to take what the first session had produced and think about the practical steps we need to take to get to those goals. So, it was instrumental that the first session had already laid the groundwork for the second. My favourite question was about an imaginary headline in the future about the Centre. It gave us a lot of creative liberty to work with without making the mighty task of coming up with a vision statement too jargon-heavy.
Delivery of the sessions
Unlike our previous virtual sessions, the strategy co-creation events have been delivered using Miro boards to instantly capture the discussion and map out our thoughts. This was done with the help of Jane and Lucy from Involve4Impact, and Chris and Danny from Co:Create. They each had different questions to ask the attendees, who were split into random groups. As before, we used the Zoom feature of breakout rooms to arrange these groups but with the added bonus of having a facilitator join each team to help tease out important information. I was in the Blue Room on the 3 June and was thoroughly impressed by this rotation act. Of course, as with any Zoom call, there were some tiny glitches but we were all patient, and sure enough the technical hiccups like spontaneously frozen screens were resolved quickly. I felt like I could really concentrate on answering the questions without having to worry about the logistics of how my comment will be captured and how it will be made part of something bigger. The facilitators typed up the comments as each member of our team shared their thoughts. Each comment then became a little blue sticky note on a giant virtual whiteboard. We saw this process because each facilitator was sharing their screen with us as they were working on the board. Crucially, we were asked if there’s anything else we’d like to add or change. I think this is particularly difficult to achieve in a virtual meeting, especially with the time limits that the facilitators had: once time was running out, a comment flashed on the screen telling us that they will be whisked way in a few seconds.
Planning adequate time for breaks is another key element of a successful virtual co-creation session. There is only so much time one can spend staring at a screen without losing focus. But, having even as “few” as twenty people on a call at the same time is extremely stimulating mentally. That’s twenty voices, twenty changing expressions, twenty backdrops giving a peek into homes that you most likely would never see otherwise. We are concentrating on very strategic questions but we are also taking in actual emotions and experiences. I felt like I was reading twenty books at the same time – it was exciting but the tea breaks came at just the right time to allow for everything I just heard to really sink in. It was also a great opportunity for those of us who wanted to just have a light chat with the other attendees and get to know each other more.
The two sessions have not only been an opportunity for active learning but were also greatly successful in formulating our vision and mission statements and highlighting priorities. Probably my favourite part of the whole experience was when we all, including the facilitators, had to take a vote on the two most important goals from a list of sticky notes complied from the first session. We were asked to do this early on during the session, almost like an introduction: just our name and the numbers of the two statements that speak to us the most. Niccola asked us to write down the numbers first and then show it to the camera or type it in the chat – I thought that was very quick, straightforward, wholesome, and democratic. These are not the words I would use to describe strategic meetings I have been involved in previously.
Through this creative process and with your help, we now have a draft strategy piece that is now open for for input from anyone who would like to co-produce with us – have a read of the Co-creating our Strategy blog (once it is live) to find out how you can get involved.
There will also be other co-creation opportunities coming up soon – watch this space! In the meantime, if you fancy it please join us for a Co-pro Cuppa session (info on how to join is enclosed) to mark #CoProductionWeekEngland2020 – we look forward to a natter with you!
If you also attended 3 and or 8 June, please be sure to comment below and share your thoughts.
Scott & Rory