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UCL Public Engagement Blog



8 recommendations for running online training – revisited!

By Jordan Abankwah, on 1 May 2022

This blog has been written by Ben Littlefield (Public Engagement Manager – BEAMS UCL) it reflects on public engagement training delivered for the UCL internal community: undergraduates, postgraduates, academic and professional services staff over the past two years.

Two years ago, we published a blog entitled ‘8 Simple (recommended) Rules for running online training’ this was written two months after the UK was put into lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We reflected on the rapid adjustments we had to make as, like everyone else, we grappled with the shift to supporting our communities online.

Two years later and most of our training is still delivered online, although there have been a few face-to-face sessions mixed in where possible. During this time, we’ve run over 100 training sessions, with over 1000 participants and learnt so much. We have also realised just how much there is to still learn and entered some fantastic collaborations with colleagues … So, I thought it would be a helpful exercise to revisit those first, hurried reflections shared back in April 2020.

These are my personal reflections on what has worked for me, I completely recognise that there are many ways and preferences for how to do training – so would love to hear your responses, top tips and what works for you in the comments below.

The methods we use:

Back in 2020 we were still unsure on platforms for training and defaulted to MS Teams and shared online documents (such as Sharepoint or google docs) to help collaboration. Winding the clock forward we’ve experimented with collaboration platforms such as Jamboard, Padlet, Miro and Mural and polling/ Question and Answer (Q&A) platforms such as Mentimeter and Slido.

Now most sessions I deliver are over Zoom (generally more accessible/powerful than Teams, although be aware some organisations do not allow their members to use it professionally) use Mural for collaboration (I found it to be just the right level of function vs ease of use) and only use Slido for Q&A when there are many participants (30+).

Screenshot from the Mural platform after a training session, coloured squares are digital post-it notes where participants respond to provocations or activities.

Image 1: Screenshot from the Mural platform after a training session, coloured squares are digital post-it notes where participants respond to provocations or activities.

So on to reflecting on those reflections!

Rule one: Things will go wrong

This is still very much true and will happen for both you and your participants. I’ve met everything from internet connections dropping off, 10 second lags between you clicking ‘next slide’ and your PowerPoint moving on, my screen going completely black (but participants could still hear/see me) and the collaboration platforms just not working for anyone. Not to mention the spaces we are in are often dynamic and personal and people need to leave at short notice for everything from looking after loved ones, cats knocking over plants to washing machines catching fire mid-session.

On the things you can control, make sure everything is updated (check your Zoom is the latest version!), send your slides, video links, activity instructions to people in advance and have back-up activities for anything that relies on another platform. On the things you cannot control, be kind. This goes for being kind to yourself and everyone in your session. I start every session with a reminder to everyone that things go wrong and to be kind to one another and understanding if anyone has to leave. One of the core values of our Public Engagement: Skills and Practice training is ‘Be Human’ and I think this is essential.

Rule two: Don’t do it alone

Now for the actual delivery of sessions I generally no longer follow this rule. With practice and preparation, you can manage a two hour Zoom training session for 30 people with a collaboration platform built in and breakouts by yourself. However, everything is made better through partnership.

On the delivery-side it can really benefit to have someone supporting the technical side of things (managing breakouts, technical issues that pop up in the Zoom chat, remembering to record the session/ turn on captions). If you do deliver with someone else, it can be helpful to create a session plan with written responsibilities or even a slide by slide running order with who handles what and when. Always have a technical run through before the training session, even if it is 30 minutes before you are due to start!

However, the most successful training we do is in collaboration with others – ranging from community partners through to storytelling experts. A couple of key things we’ve learnt are:

  • Provide guidance: Your collaborators may not be familiar with the platforms you are using, your organisation’s accessibility advice or the overall learning outcomes for your sessions. Take the time to support your collaborators and develop a relationship with them.
  • Explain who your participants will be, where they might be on their learner journey and what is next for them. A challenge we face in our training at UCL is the broad backgrounds of our participants and where they might be on their engagement journey, which means content needs to be often focused on transferrable skills or frameworks rather than discipline specific case studies
Image of speakers with individual descriptions of their roles

Image 2: Speakers from one of UCL Engagement’s Public Engagement Skills and Practice sessions

Rule three: Keep it simple

On reflection, this rule is still true. Good sessions seem to minimise the movement of people between breakouts, have a clear structure with strong take-home messages, limit the use of other platforms and value the chance to connect with people. Give over the first 15 – 20 minutes of your session to welcome and get to know people (and let late comers join!).

A couple of activities I like to do in sessions is to get people to use what is physically around them for an introduction I.e., ask them to draw what their research is and then hold it up to the camera. Or show an object they are curious about. These activities work best if they are linked and reused later in the same session, for example, I ask participants to re-use their drawings when practising their research storytelling skills in a practical activity.

When you do use a collaboration platform like Mural, make sure you give the choice to contribute without using the platform. Some people may be joining via a phone, or poor internet connection or may just not like using it, so make sure your activity can work by just using the chat function or people verbally contributing – it is important to let your participants know they can engage in this way if they prefer.

Rule four: Prepare as much as you can

I think delivering online will always take more technical preparation (I.e., setting up collaboration platforms, pre-session guidance, post session follow-up material and of course ensuring your content is accessible – the UCL Connected Learning Baseline is a great resource to reflect on the accessibility of your sessions) but you can speed things up by using templates, some things I do now that help are:

  • Have a template joining instruction e-mail pre-prepared that has links to videos used, session expectations and links to practice versions of any collaboration platforms (like Mural) you want participants to use. You can then tweak this as needed and do the same for the follow up with your evaluation/resource links
  • Have templates you can copy and paste within your collaboration platform to save re-creating activities every time
  • Still make sure you practice the technical aspects (breakout rooms, screen sharing etc.) at least a day before your session – this can help mitigate Rule one (Things will go wrong!)

Rule five: Get everyone to check access before the session

When we first started by training with MS Teams and SharePoint documents there were real challenges around access to the documents, coupled with everyone learning how to navigate this new, online only mode of working together.

Generally, people are more familiar with the types of platforms and video conferencing we do now, however, I would still recommend in your joining instructions reminding people to update their Zoom or check they can access the practice version of your collaboration platform (if you are using one).

Check people do not need to sign up to your platform before use as this may present a barrier in the session, and some people will not want to do this step. It is also essential to let people know that there will be alternative ways to contribute that don’t use those platforms.

Rule six: Not everyone will turn up

Life is still complicated, and I regularly see a 25 – 50 % drop off rate from training sign-ups to people attending online. You can do what you can to help avoid this (such as sending ‘keeping in touch/reminder’ messages, sending the session as a meeting invite in their calendar, making sure it is explicit what participants will get out of the session), but the truth is people will drop out for various reasons – that earlier message of kindness and understanding really is essential and you can plan for this dropout.

Something you might have more control over is people dropping out during your session, this can be demoralising as a trainer, and anecdotally often happens just before breakout rooms are going to open. We learned through Public Engagement Skills and Practice that managing expectations and being explicit about who your training is for and what they will get out of it is even more important online.

Another thing which helps when you have a broad range of participants is being clear that not all the content will be relevant at times and may be familiar – encourage your experienced participants to share reflections and show the benefits of them doing so.

With breakouts, it is important to only use them when there is a clear purpose for them, ask people to assign themselves roles in the breakout (I.e., scribe, reporter etc.) and give time for introductions and make sure that there is a clear, step by step guide for what to do in the breakout which is accessible when people are in their smaller groups.

A facilitator per breakout is best, but not always possible. It is also helpful to tell people what they will gain from the breakouts early in the session and why it essential for them to take part – this helps with retention. A simple is to also not have breakouts immediately after a break!

Finally, two golden rules from science communication help here: 1) Know your audience (what do they want, need and what approaches work for them) and 2) Use the first section of your session to warm up your group and ‘train them’ on what is expected in the session – a good icebreaker can work wonders!

Rule seven: Don’t talk too much and Rule eight: Facilitating, enabling and ‘chipping in’

I’ve combined these two rules from two years ago, they described that we shouldn’t be tempted to speak at our trainees all session (or worse just read off the slides!) and encouraged trainers to spend more time helping discussion or activities that develop the skills/knowledge we are hoping for.

I came up with a rough ‘rule of thumb’ of trying to spend a maximum of 20 minutes per hour talking/sharing content, with the remaining 40 minutes on group work or other activities.

As time has progressed, I’ve come across the fantastic UCL ABC Learning design resource – which I think can supply a lot of inspiration for our public engagement training – particularly ensuring that courses/sessions bring together elements of the various learning styles discussed: Acquisition, Collaboration, Discussion, Investigation, Practice and Production.

Final word:

Most importantly, none of the above are ‘Rules’ you must follow – despite being titled like that! They are recommendations and reflections on what is working and what I have learnt from delivering online Public Engagement training for researchers and students at UCL over the past two years. See the above as suggestions and I would love to hear from you about your reflections on what has worked for you in your training.

One final thing I’d like to share, for our large, programme-based training (I.e., many sessions with clear learner journeys connecting them) I’ve found defining together clear principles that underpin the training helpful. For example, Public Engagement Skills and Practice 2021 has the following principles:

  • Be practical:
    These sessions aim to offer a skills development opportunity (for a list of relevant skills, see Public engagement lens on the Vitae Researcher Development Framework)
  • Provide examples:
    Contain relevant case-studies and examples of the skills in practice
  • Follow pedagogical best practice:
    Provide opportunities for each of the six ‘learning types’ (acquisition (or read/watch/listen), inquiry, practice, production, discussion and collaboration) to be fulfilled during the session or via post session resources (Watch video of ‘Introduction to the six learning types’)
  • Be accessible:
    Follow UCL accessibility and teaching best practice (See UCL Connected Learning Baseline)
  • Not be one-off:
    Signpost to next steps, opportunities to try out these skills or to people that participants can contact.
  • Be human-focused:
    Sessions should be delivered in a spirit of kindness, to both presenters and participants – welcome people with your video on when they join, avoid screensharing all the time, let participants know it’s ok if they have to drop-out, and be understanding when technical issues arise.


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