Designing online events

How to navigate the choice and use of virtual collaboration tools when designing an online event?

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The challenge

When we were first forced to switch from face-to-face meetings to virtual interaction, everyone was happy if s/he was able to join the videoconference with a working microphone and maybe a working camera. A good meeting was one where the internet connection, hardware and software held up for the entire meeting. Gradually over the last months, we started using more features provided by the videoconferencing platforms as well as additional software applications to facilitate our virtual interactions. They range from using breakout groups, to virtual whiteboards, live polls, and Q&A tools. This new and more sophisticated mode of interaction, in turn, created its own challenges. Each of those applications requires some getting used to by the organizers, moderators and participants and some “serious thinking” beforehand on how to use these tools without testing the patience of everyone in the meeting itself. 


The solution

Area of application: All virtual events in which facilitation and online collaboration tools are used, such as workshops.


The first step is to define the goal of the event sequence. Only then the length, methods and tools necessary to reach this goal can be identified (see Moderation script). Form follows function.

The extent and success of including different applications depends, on the one hand, on the organizers and moderators: their level of preparation and comfort with the use of the tools in the meetings. On the other hand, the success depends on how much participants are expected to actively use the applications themselves and how well they are prepared to do so. Organizers need time to get acquainted with tools, but so do participants as well. Therefore, if possible, do not switch tools when you have multiple meetings with the same participants. Often, less is more.

Switching to breakout groups usually works well, if this is possible in the videoconferencing system itself, which is the case e.g. with Tixeo. If different virtual rooms have to be provided where it is not so easy to switch between the rooms in one system, some organization is required (chat room, clear and detailed moderation) to avoid losing the audience. In this case, it is recommended to reduce the frequency of changes and provide a technical helpdesk contact, who is easy to reach during the event.

Most applications for live polls and virtual whiteboards are not embedded in a videoconferencing system. If participants will be asked to use these applications themselves, the process of how to share the link should be considered in the moderation script and the link should be easy to find (e.g. chat of the videoconference). Navigating and switching between different applications and workspaces (videoconferencing, live poll, virtual whiteboard) also takes some time to get used to, especially considering some participants only have access from their mobile devices (see leave no one behind). The use of virtual whiteboards for group work, in particular, requires some practice with the respective application. If there is no preparation time for participants in or before the meeting, the moderator can share their screen in the videoconference and a person who is well versed with the application (moderator, co-moderator, note-taker) can document the discussion on the virtual board. This could be done in plenary or in the breakout sessions.
In the context of project work characterized by close and regular interaction with partners or in a long-term capacity-development process with a fixed group of participants (like in CABUREK or QuISP), the past months have given the opportunity to gradually increase the use and variety of applications. Short guidelines and video tutorials on how to use new tools might be helpful, but many people do not have the time to familiarize themselves with the application beforehand. One solution, especially for virtual whiteboards, is for the organizer to offer some short meetings in smaller groups beforehand, to explain and “play around” with the application. The organizer could prepare some exercises or create accessible spaces where partners could continue to work on their own schedule (see asynchronous work).

Sometimes a refresher is sufficient, if particiants have not used an application for some time. The moderator could organize a “checking in” exercise with a simple use of the application, for instance, assigning yourself an avatar and moving it to identify with a certain group of participants. A next step could be to give (enough!) time for group and/or individual exercises on the whiteboard. It helps to have at least one person (moderator, co-moderator, assistant, participant) in the group who is familiar with the application so that they can provide support or answer questions. The organizer or moderator could also prepare the structure for the exercise on the board in order not to overwhelm the participants.

In conclusion, limit the number of applications to maximum two or three (videoconference, live poll, virtual whiteboard), adapt their use to the meeting’s objective, content and circumstances, be patient and be well-prepared!


Corinna Weigelt

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