Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Designing an online and face-to-face learning trajectory

I co-facilitated an online trajectory about dairy development with dairy practitioners (for Heifer in collaboration with Agri-ProFocus) before a face-to-face learning event in the Netherlands. As the facilitator team of 3 we took an hour to look back at the process and formulate our lessons. I blogged it on the icollaborate blog, but thought I can cross-blog it here too. We used a Ning platform (private network with public face) to convene the participants. A huge advantage of the online process is that we have a secured continuous attention and more networking opportunities for the dairy specialists. We are now investigating options to continue as a network. In terms of impact on learning together I think this is huge compared to simply organising a face-to-face event. So here's the account of what we tried to achieve, what we achieved and what we'd do the same or differently next time.

What we tried to achieve:
The organizing team of three felt starting online could help with the following 4 things:
  1. Get to know each other so that a positive climate is created for learning together
  2. Better content-wise preparation for the learning event with the participants by sharing and discussing case studies online before the event
  3. Help to organize the logistics, in particular transport
  4. Disseminate and validate the draft toolbox developed by Heifer

A team of three facilitators was formed with a variety of skills; one was a dairy specialist from Heifer (not familiar with online exchange), one process facilitator from Agri-ProFocus and one consultant online facilitation (external). As always, time for preparation was short and the team met only once for about 2 hours to get to know each other, plan and divide tasks – and actually started the next day!

The design
There was one month left before the learning event, so that was the maximum time that could be used online. A dairy and development Ning platform was put together and a group of roughly 100 registered people from all over the globe were invited to the platform. The team chose to start parallel discussions: (a) the cases, (b) a thread of introductions, (c) an online game (two truths and a lie), (d) to ask for learning expectations and (e) logistics. The team agreed to communicate via mails and skype instant messaging and try to react within 24 hours to each others questions. Every week a message was sent out to all registered participants on the platform, tips from the facilitators were put on the homepage and updated when necessary and we made sure to welcome all participants with a personal note.

What happened?
Roughly half of the invited people responded (50) and signed up for the platform. Immediately, they started to invited others working in dairy development, so we reached a total of 94 participants on the Ning. The cases and introductions were very active threads and all cases received comments from people who had read them carefully. We noticed that we had to invest to get a first reaction to a question, after which more people followed. Almost half of the ‘Ningers’ could not participate in the event in the Netherlands. That brought us to the idea to make short videos to post back for the others who were not present. Unfortunately this person fell ill and nobody could take over. Therefore summaries were made and posted back to the Ning. The online facilitation took each of us 12-20 hours of online facilitation over the course of 4 weeks.

In the evaluation 62% of the participants in the learning event indicated they logged onto the online platform. The comments were appreciative: “It got me involved in the subject”, “I contributed and learned a lot”, “Everybody has a chance” and “Good preparation, great introduction, up-to-date information”

What did we achieve?
The online participation and discussions far exceeded the expectations of the organizing team, given the fact that most invitees are busy and not familiar with this type of online exchange. The case presenters on the learning event noted that people went deeply into the cases and they were able to go beyond trying to understand the case to a real analysis. There was a open, safe atmosphere which allowed people to be provocative and give constructive criticisms without others feeling attacked.

It is hard to measure the effect on the networking on the Ning. The online exchange allowed some acquaintance and dairy people are already well networked. Both factors helped to create a good atmosphere. Many people recognized faces from the ning and it probably helped to reduce anxiety levels because people had a clearer idea of whom to expect.

Most people carpooled- but it is hard to say whether that was a result of the ning. Only one person offered the carpool through the ning. We didn’t get a clear picture of the transport needs online. The draft toolbox was disseminated during the last week. Unfortunately we don’t have data how often it was downloaded (and less how often it was read).

What would we do the same and what to do differently if we’d had to organize it again?

We’re quite content and enthusiastic about the results, so we’d basically do the same thing we did. Investing in welcoming people, making sure a first person reacts online to questions, tips from the facilitator on the homepage and weekly summaries for all seemed to work well for this group of people with little online exchange experience. The focus on cases worked very well for the dairy professionals because it allowed them to go straight to the heart of their profession. The combination of skills within the team worked out well, as did the weekly or so skype teleconferences within the team. And of course part of the success can be contributed to the cases that appealed to the participants. Things to improve:

  • Plan enough time to make summaries of the ning discussions as an input for the face-to-face event. Since the reactions exceeded our expectations, making summaries was time consuming.
  • The icebreaker is good because it is low threshold activity for some participants. However, the ‘two truths and a lie’ was too complex. An easier icebreaker might get more reactions. One participant recognized the exercise from a face-to-face event, so you might go for a familiar icebreaker and translate it online.
  • Don’t combine two questions in one thread. One of the two questions might be ignored. Be very clear what your question is.
  • Navigation remained difficult. The lesson is to give priority to a very clear structure. However, for people who are new to ning or other online platforms the experience may remain chaotic, it is a learning curve for the participants. So it might also be good to allow more time for learning to navigate the online space, both for participants and facilitators!. An idea for participants may be to organize an online scavenger hunt on the forum or a teleconference for those who feel lost?
  • It might work better to focus attention of participant to plan case discussions one after the other rather than simultaneously. For instance, 2 cases per week. This helps to focus everybody’s attention. In our case, the period of 4 weeks was short for that because it takes more than a week to get a substantial amount of participants online.
  • Install analytics (eg. Google analytics) or ensure downloads via other sites that monitor the number of downloads so that you can monitor those data. For instance, you can upload a document on and link to it on the Ning.

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