All I want for Christmas…are better ways to run inclusive workshops online

Online tools can make significant assumptions about peoples’ skills, knowledge, devices, and environment

One of the things I love about my work is planning and running workshops. Especially for people who don’t usually do that kind of thing. Figuring out how to make a workshop enjoyable, accessible, and effective is such a good challenge. And someone who “usually hates meetings” telling you how much they enjoyed an activity is so rewarding.

In this year of pandemic, we’ve had to adapt many of our workshops. Moving them all online. With people joining from whichever place they could be at the time.

This has uncovered significant problems in the formats and tools we’ve used to run workshops online. Particularly in how we include colleagues, clients, and members of the public with less experience of workshops generally, and with working online specifically.

The flexibility of materials and spaces

My favourite tactic for good workshops is making cards, worksheets, posters, and other materials that give structure to an activity. Done well, these materials can really help people contribute in the best way for them.

Workshop materials can include built-in instructions. You can provide worked examples. Or make one together.

Some people doodle, some scribble bullet points, some draw diagrams or storyboards. While others write perfectly thought out sentences in copperplate handwriting.

People can work quietly, alone. Or in small groups. Standing or sitting. At a table or a wall.

If we have a printer, some people can type or dictate their contribution. And if someone needs support to take part we can have scribes, translators, and illustrators join the workshop.

The material created in one activity can be quickly rearranged on tables and walls to become the input to the next. And the final materials can contain the final outputs of the whole workshop, with no need for separate note taking or recording.

Together this helps to make the process and outcomes of the workshop more transparent to everyone involved.

Current video calls and online whiteboards are expert tools

Many of us have been doing video calls and using online whiteboard tools for some time. And we’ve learned more about how to use them well while we’ve been working remotely.

But our experience this year has shown us that these are still expert tools that make significant assumptions about peoples’ skills, knowledge, devices, and environment.

Video call tools have made good progress this year in simplifying the experience for people joining and taking part in calls. Many now have good support for the different roles people play on calls, and come with safer and more resilient default settings.

Online whiteboards have made less progress. In some cases rushing to add more features that have created even steeper on ramps for new users. We know of no tools with good support for all the different roles people play in workshops – facilitators, co-facilitators, scribes, illustrators, participants, observers, and so on.

Video call and online whiteboard tools can also be difficult to use together. With overlapping collaboration features and the need to manage and switch between several apps, windows, panels, and toolbars.

Participants often struggle to download and set up apps, connect to calls, and access boards. And we struggle to understand and resolve whatever problem they may be having.

How can we make workshops welcoming and inclusive now we’re doing them remotely and online?

At dxw we want to run online workshops that support all kinds of participants, who are using a range of devices, and joining from a variety of places.

We’ll be trying out some different tools and approaches next year. And we’ll share how that’s going.

But we’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. What challenges have you seen? What’s been working for you?