How do you make a two-day on-site workshop happen online?

Takeaways from an international online workshop on education policy from Lukas Graf and the Educational Governance Team.

Everything was booked and ready to go for a two-day academic workshop on European education policies when the coronavirus brought on-site operations at the Hertie School in Berlin to a halt. Twenty-five participants from 10 countries had been invited to the school on 23-24 April 2020 to take stock of policy developments at the conclusion of the European Union’s decade-long education and training strategy (ET 2020), a framework for cooperation at the European, national and subnational levels.

Now the organisers had to quickly rethink their plans – just like other institutions around the world. Assistant Professor of Educational Governance Lukas Graf and PhD researchers scrambled to put the workshop online, but soon realised they needed a whole new concept. 

Asking people to sit in front of a home-office screen for two days, potentially distracted by private intrusions, was not an option, Lukas Graf and researchers from the Educational Governance Team Elisabeth Epping (guest PhD researcher from the University of Luxembourg), Anna Prisca Lohse (Hertie School PhD researcher) and Fiorentina García Miramón (MPP student and research assistant) write in a blog piece outlining takeaways they hope will be useful for others planning remote events in the future.

A number of questions arose: How should the participants introduce themselves and their research? How could they make room for valuable feedback on paper presentations? How much time would people need for meaningful interaction and how long could they be expected to sit in front of a screen? How to allow for informal exchange and networking, which would have normally happened during coffee breaks or other in-person settings?

The organisers opted for a two-hour virtual workshop, including plenary sessions and breakout groups, followed by 30 minutes of optional, informal online exchange to foster discussion and exchange.

“We received much positive feedback on our online workshop,“ the authors write. “There are several valid arguments that point to the stronger inclusion of online formats as channels of exchange in our research community. One could either think about moving entire workshops online, or merely parts of larger conferences. The latter could be done, for instance, by offering streaming opportunities of keynotes or enabling online participation and presentations in panel sessions. Doing so would also signal responsiveness to changing (working) conditions and private needs.”

The Educational Governance Team sees a new era of online events with many advantages. Such events are climate friendly; participants incur no travel or accommodation costs; they are inclusive, as people with families and those who are ill or lack financing can attend. And remote events are also a good way for researchers to establish initial contact. Such “research speed dating” facilitates follow-ups that can lead to future collaborations, the authors write.

In setting up their event, the team did worry the limited time frame might not produce the deeper exchanges of in-person, multi-day events. But they hoped the 30-minute optional sessions might be a place for kindling collaboration afterwards.

Practice makes perfect

The organisers saw technical problems as the biggest potential issue, so they did test runs setting up breakout rooms and also practiced screen-sharing. They assigned multiple moderators for sessions in case one host lost their connection.

They stress the importance of trying out different software and spending time researching, comparing and testing the available options – as well as training people in how to use them. The Hertie School organisers provided participants with instructions on how to set up the videoconferencing software a few days in advance and allowed them to enter the meeting room 20 minutes early so they could try out different functions.

They also focused on participant contributions. Should there be slides or just unmoderated speech? A preparatory email specifying logistics and session formats ensured everyone was on the same page. During the conference, they stuck to strict time limits, and provided good moderation to give each person time to present their work.

And of course, they had to make sure everyone could attend. With participants from around the world, there wouldn’t be a conference at all if the timing wasn’t perfect.

Read a more in-depth piece on the CHER blog here by the Educational Governance Team.

More about Lukas Graf

  • Lukas Graf , Assistant Professor of Educational Governance