Informal Space in Online Trainings | Online Facilitation Reflections

Informal Space in Online Trainings [Lesly Juarez via unsplash]
Lesly Juarez via unsplash.com

Online Facilitation Reflections bring us back to re-think and re-invent what and how we are doing things as trainers and facilitators. In my previous blog post Using Space in Online Trainings we explored already how to use space in online trainings, and possibly turn those spaces into a online learning environment. Here we continue and have a look at informal space in online trainings.

Residential seminars and trainings rely on a very special mixture of non-formal and informal learning elements. Depending on how we design the space for learning, the borders between non-formal and informal learning are fluid and we know that both areas can stimulate one another in various productive ways. We count on the fact that learning and reflecting that is initiated might be followed up in discussions during breaks and we make space for topics in the programme that are inspired by late night conversations.

Informal Spaces for learning

“… spaces which are meaningful to individuals and to which they attach a sense of belonging”.

Gillian Judson (2006, p. 230)

A lot of research on Informal Learning Spaces (ILS) has been carried out in Universities. In a study carried out at Sheffield Hallam University, Deborah Harrop and Bea Turpin explored learners’ behaviors, attitudes, and preferences towards informal learning spaces in higher education. They identified 9 attributes for informal learning spaces:

  • Destination – where do learners go to study
  • Identity – the character of the space and how it is used
  • Conversations – interpersonal communication and collaboration
  • Community – social interactions, mutual support and a sense of common purpose
  • Retreat – privacy & quiet study
  • Timely – just in-time and on demand access to spaces and their resources
  • Human factors – ergonomics of work spaces & physical attributes
  • Resources – access to technology
  • Refreshment – access to food & drinks

Check out the key findings here: What makes a successful informal learning space? by Rachel Bergan [infographic]

Creating informal spaces online

Spaces 2 [EduardMilitaru PatrickPerkins FlorenciaViadana via unsplash]
Eduard Militaru, Patrick Perkins, Florencia Viadana via unsplash.com

Online Trainings lack of informal time. That’s why group integration and group building takes much more time online, because we miss out the coffee breaks, meal times, lunch breaks and evening gatherings. Three hours of online on group getting to know one another and group integration does not equal three hours in a residential training, because we don’t count in the informal time participants spend together.

How can we create and use informal learning spaces in online events?

Here are a few ideas to start and experiment with:

The time before online sessions

I always open the meeting room 10-15 minutes earlier and invite people to come. We start with those who are there and chat about anything. During the day, the online meeting room stays open the whole time.

Virtual coffee break

It is good to have a break from screen-time. However, it is also great to enjoy a coffee together. Invite your participants to come back to the online meeting room with their coffee and cookies and spend their break together.

At the beginning, you might just have a few people. If there are more, you can always open the breakout rooms and have some coffee tables. Remember to play some music in the background!

You may ask participants to use an image of their favorite cafe as virtual background and start a conversation around it. (see also Routines for the new normal: How to host virtual coffee breaks by Aytekin Tank)

A lunch/dinner together

If you have an online training over a couple of days, plan at least one lunch/evening together. You may use it a pure informal gathering or turn it into a “lunch & learn” occasion like so-called “brown bag meetings”.

Brown Bag Meetings

Brown Bag [Yu Hosoi via unsplash]

Brown Bag Meetings is an idea borrowed from the field of Agile Learning. Originally, “brown bags” refer to the lunch people bring wrapped in brown paper bags. The meetings have an informal character, take place at the workplace and circle around any inspiring topic around personal and professional development (Brown Bag Meeting by Will Kenton 2020). Short impulse-presentations held by participants or external experts help to get the informal conversations started. Brown Bag Meetings also work online.

An informal evening

A dinner together could be the starting point for an informal gathering in the evening, followed by playing board games online, hosting a karaoke party, listening to music, watching a movie together, conversations. etc. Michele Di Paola lists plenty of ideas for an informal evening together in his blog post Online Interaction. (including how to play Bingo, Werewolves and many more!).

Waiting time

Web-conference platforms have this nice option, that you can end breakout rooms for all groups. Truth is, that some groups are always faster while other groups need more time. This made me come back to closing groups manually. This causes waiting times for those, who come back earlier to the forum. However this waiting time can be used for informal conversations.

Learning / reflection groups

Generally, working in smaller groups (synchronous and asynchronous) is a good opportunity to connect with other participants. If you leave enough time, learners will naturally take care that informal conversations will have a place.

Learning Pods

Another idea, this time borrowed from home schooling during Covid-19. Challenges with home schooling especially for working parents made Learning Pods and Micro-schools popular.

Learning Pods are self-directed teams or communities of learners, grouped by geographic location, carrying out learning activities or working together on learning projects (see Learning Pods by IGI Global).

This idea could be easily transferred to online trainings, if you have the possibility to create local groups of learners: they can take part together in synchronous online life sessions and engage in asynchronous learning projects (offline). In-between there is plenty of informal space.   

Spaces 1 [Bantersnaps RizkySubagja ToaHeftiba via unsplash]
Bantersnaps, Rizky Subagja, Toa Heftiba via unsplash.com

Informal communication channel(s)

How much do you tolerate side conversations during a residential training?

The chat functionality is not only for the purpose of the online programme (for example to provide links, to collect questions, to give instructions, to brainstorm ideas), but serves also as a channel for informal communication among participants.

These side-conversations might be related to this topic or completely off-topic. However it is a space to joke, laugh, get in touch and connect with one another. They can take place simultaneously in the chat of the web-conference platform or another additional messaging platform (see also Using Space in Online Trainings.)

*******

In comparison to seminar house or training facility, setting up informal space in an online environment has its limitations. However, in order to establish a connection and sense of belonging among participants, informal spaces are incredible valuable. 

Informal space works even better, if they are a result of a co-created process. It often might be enough to drop the idea of a virtual coffee break or an informal evening, and your participants will take over. Make sure, you let them… 


Read more

BlogPost Using Space in Online Trainings. Online Facilitation Reflections

Additional resources

Bergan, Rachel (2018): What makes a successful informal learning space? A study carried out by Sheffield Hallam University

Di Paola, Michele (2020): Online interaction: online youth work tools and tips / 3; via dipaola.me

Judson, G. (2006). Curriculum Spaces: Situating Educational Research, Theory, and Practice; in: Morieson, L., Murray, G., Wilson, R., Clarke, B., Lukas, K. (2018): Belonging in Space: Informal Learning Spaces and the Student Experience; Journal of Learning Spaces, 7(2), 2018

Kenton, Will (2020): Brown Bag Meeting; via: investopedia.com

Moyer, Melinda Wenner (2020): Pods, Microschools and Tutors: Can Parents Solve the Education Crisis on Their Own?; in New York Times, July 22, 2020

Roessler, Pete (2014): How to Set Off a Brown Bag Session in Your Company – In 60 Minutes; via: roessler.blog

Tank, Aytekin (2020): Routines for the new normal: How to host virtual coffee breaks; via: jotform.com

Michael Kimmig

trainer | coach | life-long learner

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