Image credit: Debbie Toksvig

One thing has become clear over the Covid-19 lockdown: learning and teaching online isn’t just about moving a face-to-face workshop to Zoom. With many students sharing space and bandwidth with others, I condense my one-day workshop into a much shorter timeframe.

But there’s another reason for condensing: online energy is different from face-to-face energy. When we share a physical space, body language keeps us alert and flexible. Online energy is flatter and stiffer. So how best to harness it?

Online energy is boosted by clarity over timing. Knowing what’s happening in each ten-minute chunk of a two-hour workshop drives momentum for both participant and facilitator. Providing a detailed timetable to participants in advance was crucial to the success of my first online academic writing workshop for PhD students because it injected the idea of movement into a static physical environment. Clear timings also reduce anxiety over unanticipated breaks in Wifi. If you’ve shared the timetable, when participants reconnect there’s no need to break the momentum to explain what you’ve been doing.

I mentioned a two-hour workshop. Two hours isn’t arbitrary. My own experience, plus speaking to participants, has taught me that two hours is optimum for online energy. Two hours, with a ten-minute break in the middle, hits participants’ adrenaline button perfectly. From the start they can see the end, so concentration is high.

On the other hand, for facilitators tasked with condensing longer workshops, two hours can seem too short. What to leave out? But that’s to misunderstand the nature of the online beast. A high-energy online workshop isn’t only about condensing, it’s also about re-imagining.

In face-to-face editing workshops for arts and humanities doctoral students, I offer a collaborative editing task, with participants often sharing their own work. The success of this task relies on the atmosphere of trust generated when we’re all in the same room. Online, without the nuances of facial expression, tiny shifts in physical position and subliminal sounds of assent or dissent, it’s likely to sap energy and even generate despondency. Instead, I provide a text, asking participants to edit for specific features, taking the text apart and putting together again; as a subsequent task, they look at their own writing in the same way. Feedback indicates that this has worked well, and energy remains high for the rest of the workshop.

It amuses me that one of the most popular workshop delivery platforms is Zoom, a name designed, I imagine, to conjure up a high-energy experience. Online workshops certainly can be high-energy, but to Zoom without crashing needs thoughtful preparation.

18 June 2020