Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Scaling up: working with large groups online

Can we scale up online to reach a large numbers of participants in an learning experience? When and when not? That's the topic of this blogpost and I hope to convince you into scaling up :). 

Sibrenne and I work with many organizations that have started training online via Teams or Zoom because of COVID. When I ask what the training looks like, I often get the answer: “I organize online training with a maximum of 12 participants”. When I ask for the reason, the answer is often: "with more participants I can't give a good session because I can't give everyone attention". The assumption is that nobody learns without the teacher being present and without a synchronous session. 

Unfortunately! Because there is so much possible online, with large numbers of participants. You have to be bold and creative with your design. Even with large groups, participants can still learn deeply. 

So where does the idea of working with 12 originate? The assumption is that real learning cannot be achieved online with large groups, over 12- 15 participants. The idea has its basis in our class- and trainingsrooms, often fit for 12-20 people. But not only that: the trainer has the idea that all 12 need attention and feedback and everyone needs to practice under the trainers eye. We also want to provide a safe environment. Incidentally, this principle is not applied at all at the university: we always have lectures there with 200-250 students. And certainly not at conferences....

We sometimes have certain assumptions in our head that have worked fine for a long time, but we need to revisit them regularly. I myself thought for a long time that I was not a podcast listener, because I am easily distracted when I have to listen alone and ears tickle in my ear. Until I once went for a walk with a podcast.. Now I regularly listen to podcasts and collect entire lists. Let's take a closer look at some examples of larger scale online learning. 

Some examples

The Food systems e-course

A 4-week online course with one week to catch up for 500 participants from many different countries. The platform (headstream LXP) is attractive and uses gamification. There are weekly themes, attractive short resources and there is an expert meeting every week. The course has a focus on collaborative learning. People sign up for group challenges. This results in 20 groups of 10 people working towards the ultimate assignment to write a blog. The best blogs are judged by an expert jury and published. This collaborative assignment was an important factor in keeping people active and has been highly valued.  Some 60-70% of participants remained involved throughout. because it is a social course, with a focus on a lot of exchange of experiences. Want to read more about this online course? click here.

MOOC on social learning

About 500 Dutch learning professionals took part in a social MOOC on Social Learning. I chose this MOOC because it is described so well in this article by Petra Peeters and Marlo Kengen.
A number of important principles they mention are care for clear goals and structure. But it is also very important to welcome people and appreciates contributions. This online MOOC was concluded with a live meetup.

The science of beer

There are large-scale MOOCs with up to 150,000 participants. People often think that large-scale MOOCs are superficial. Take a look at the science of beer on Edx. Ulrike Wild "Massive means scaling up. You minimize the dependence on a teacher. It is important that there is interaction, it is not e-learning that you walk through alone. also include collaborative learning. Think the line carefully because every mistake is avenged." This MOOC the science of beer was developed by the students themselves!

The writeshop by Perspectivity

The 'writeshop' is a two-day writing workshop. Because of corona is taking place online. There was a lot of variation between working in plenary, individually and in pairs. Few lectures, but a lot of writing, reading to each other and giving feedback. The online return session, in which the participants read their stories by the crackling fire, was magical. This set-up created an intimacy online in no time between people who had never met each other before, from the Netherlands, the Middle East and Asia. There is more information here. 

Design exercise: think big
A fun exercise: imagine what your design for 12 would look like with 50/500 participants. Is there a session you can do with a larger group? In our own course we have a maximum of 16 participants. But we do organize a webinar series in which other participants can also participate. There are 10 in the course, but 30 in the webinar. This way you can think of small steps in open up to a larger group.

Tips for scaling up

A few tips if you want to work with large numbers of participants and with a focus on deep learning, learning which is meaningful and applied in practice. What is needed for this is space for feedback and practice.

Work in smaller groups

Split the large group into smaller learning groups and name someone in the lead (or let them choose someone themselves). You can keep in touch with the lead persons yourself. Make sure that the groups can run freely independently, through clear assignments, and perhaps also online tools that are already ready.

Make use of mentors

If you work with large groups and you still want to provide sufficient feedback, you can make use of learning coaches or mentors. Be clear about their role, is their support logistical or mainly substantive? How much time does it take? I myself have experienced that the role was conceived in terms of content, but the coaches still received many practical questions. You can prevent this by having a helpdesk that is visible.

Use peer review

In addition to using mentors, you can also use peer review for feedback. Well-known tools for this are Feedbackfruits or Eduflow. What works well with peer review is sharing assessment questions, by means of a checklist or rubric.

Pay attention to self-direction

A danger of large groups is that you do not see who is falling and you do not reach your potential dropouts. To prevent dropping out, you can support self-management, think of a clear program, tips to monitor your time such as discussing it with your manager, etc. Incidentally, many platforms also have ways to send specific groups a message, for example the group who hasn't logged in after a week.

Reduce the transactional distance

Transactional distance is the distance that an online participant feels because he/she participates from his own environment. A great distance makes a person feel less involved. Online can feel aloof but that depends on your design. You can use social learning and collaborative learning, or make it personal. 

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