Using Space in Online Trainings. Online Facilitation Reflections
Going online brings us back to re-think and re-invent what and how we are doing things as trainers and facilitators. Recently my thoughts are circling around the question on how we can use space in online (live) trainings. Experience on bringing training support for volunteers online as well as a conversation during an episode of “NFL goes Online” brought up a few ideas and inspired reflections about using space in online trainings. The second part of this article is focusing on informal learning spaces.Using space in “live” (synchronous) online meeting and online training sessions seems to be limited to the shared common space online: It’s the main meeting room on a web-conference or webinar platform and smaller rooms for group work, so called breakout rooms.
So, why reflecting about online learning spaces?
Apart from these common spaces that facilitators share with their participants, there is also the environment at home and outside home.
How can we take advantage of these spaces and turn it into a learning environment?
Preparing your remote (working) space
Let’s start with your own (working) space at home:
Where do you work in your flat? And where do you eat? Do you have a special place where do you relax from work? Sit down, put your feet up and enjoy a glass of wine? In which place do you read a book? Listen to music? Watch a movie? From where do you call your clients, talk to trainer colleagues? And from where friends and family? And finally, where do have your afternoon siesta? And where do you sleep?
If you go through these questions, do you have separate spaces reserved for certain activities? Or, are these spaces all mixed up? Are you satisfied how you use your space? Would you like to change something? Or have you accepted it as it is? And did you accept it, because this is how you want it, or because you have to?
I work from home between my training events (also before Covid-19). We have our “office space” under the roof, but I need some inspiration for a project idea, a training design or a blog post, I would go to a coffee place nearby. I need people around me, a cappuccino and the sun floating through the window to get my thoughts starting. At home I get easily distracted and stuck. I cannot get my thoughts together. During lock-down, we created a space in our flat that we called “coffee place”: an armchair with book shelves around that also is our room for guests. It now serves as a working place, but also as a space to enjoy a coffee, read a book and spend some time alone… “I am going to the coffee place”, became a new saying that anyone in our family uses to have some time off.
Working from home means often that the boundaries between different spaces get blurred. This effects also our mood and productivity. In order to get things done, we need to separate spaces from one another and re-create different spaces.
“Without an office, we must create our spaces for work,Julian Stodd, 2020, p.10
to avoid working in our spaces to play.”
If we want to work and play, we need to have separate spaces for working and playing, otherwise everything gets mixed up: we play, when we work and we work, when we play. Everything is the same, every day look like one another, if you don’t take care of variety and diversity.
Separation is key.
Wouldn’t it be great to have different spaces? You can create a space for working, spending time with your family, relaxing, reading a book, having a glass of beer at the end of the day, chatting with a friend, and so on. And some other special places for reflection, meditation, yoga, playing games, making music, watching movies.
If you have enough space in your house or flat to have separate rooms, you are privileged.
Julien Stodd (2020) lists various solutions for re-creating your remote working space. Separation can be accomplished by:
- separating rooms, e.g. having an office for work, a sofa to relax and a chair on the balcony, etc.
- naming spaces differently, e.g. like “office”, “coffee place”, “play room”, “yoga center”, etc.
- decorating even the same space differently, e.g. putting flowers and candles on the table for meals, remove them, when you are working there,
- setting certain time slots for certain activities, e.g. having a common second breakfast, walking the dog in the lunch break,
- using different artifacts in different spaces, e.g. using a coffee mug for work, but another one during breaks, pack your laptop away and put it out of sight.
But, what if you live in a tiny little flat? – Separation can be achieved even in small environments: If your life circles around the dining table in the kitchen, you may choose to sit on one chair working and on another one enjoying your meals, you could name each place around the table differently, or create a separation by a clear time schedule. Change the artefacts, no phone and laptop during meals, remove all work-related stuff, etc.
Turning remote spaces into learning spaces
Do you remember your last residential training? It’s been quite some time now… Sure, you do remember, how your participants invade and occupy every informal space in no time: the cosy sofa in the corridor, the sitting corners surrounded by plants, the benches in the garden behind the seminar venue, the green grass under the shadow of an old tree, …
I am sure, plenty of images pop up. And memories on how to use space in your programme! – How can we take advantage of the participants’ space at home and turn it into a learning environment?
There are two areas, the space at home and outside home that can be used in online trainings.
Learning spaces at home
First, there is the space, from where participants connect to the online meeting/training.
What space do learners use when they take part in the online event?
In online meetings and trainings, participants connect from various places: their home office, dining room, kitchen, outside from on the terrace, in their garden, even in their car. They are sitting in a chair/armchair, on the sofa, on their bed…
How does the space someone chooses effect his/her learning? Can we influence what space learners use? And, can we make suggestions to our participants to create a positive learning environment for themselves?
We all spend much time to prepare and arrange the learning space in a residential seminar room. In preparation for an online event, we often focus on technical issues, like taking care of a stable internet connection and good audio/video quality. But we should not forget to prepare our participants for the online event and shift their attention their learning space at home and invite them to create their own space for learning:
When you prepare for our online training, think about the following: How would like to attend this online event? Which place in your flat would you choose? Which part of your home would you like to share with the other participants? How would you like this place to look like? What do you need? Your coffee mug? Something else to drink? A notebook? Something to write, draw, sketch note at hand? Where would you like to look at, when you don’t look at the screen and want to relax your eyes for a moment? What are you going to wear? What else would you need?
The next space that comes to my mind is the space for coffee breaks. Coffee break spaces come alive in two ways: one way is, that learners log off, get up, go to the kitchen, make a coffee and have it alone or together with a flatmate. Another way is, inviting learners back to the common meeting room and have an informal gathering with a coffee mug in your hand and a chat. If the group is getting to big, you can always open breakout rooms and have some smaller coffee tables. (Don’t forget to play some music in the background!)
Another space could be reserved for reflection. If you plan to have regular reflection activities throughout your online training, you might want to consider a special space for reflection:
Choose a place in your flat, where you would like to reflect during out online training.
Create this place, decorate it, make it yours!
You are going to visit this space throughout the online training for special occasions.
Design your space for reflection
Step 1: Draw the plan of your place where you live including the entrance, rooms, doors, windows, furniture, etc.
Step 2: Mark with one colour the space you can freely move and re-organise. Mark with another colour space where you spend time to reflect. Sketch the details of your reflection space: the chair, objects, plant, lights, etc. Try to draw as many details as possible.
Step 3: Finally, design your ideal remote working space: reorganise the space that you have and find the best environment for reflection.
Source: Design your space of reflection by Dagna Gmitrowicz
The more time your participants spend in their reflection space, the stronger the association will become. Switching from the screen to the reflection space, participants find themselves more focused when they enter the space.
In a similar way, another space could be reserved for activities in smaller groups. Wouldn’t it actually make a difference, if people would not only technically switch to breakout rooms, but actually go to a designated place? – Try it out!
The last idea is not a specific space, but potential spaces in the flat that can be used. It is more like seeing the flat as a resource: You might want to think of tasks, where learners have to use objects from their flat: everyone could bring an object, that tells us something about them (as an ice-breaking activity) or everyone has to bring quickly certain objects and show them (as an energiser). In another activity we asked volunteers to re-create their volunteering journey using objects from their kitchen or to re-create paintings from Polish artists.
Learning spaces outside home
When the restrictions during Covid-19 kicked in, taking your dog for a walk was one of the few things allowed to do outside. We took it as a pretext for a daily family walk. Everyday after the school online classes we went out. We usually walked in pairs, in changing constellations every day. After some time, our walks became very valuable moments of reflection and sharing about anything that came to our mind. – I’ve probably done walk & talk sessions training sessions a hundred times, but Covid-19 made me re-discover it for myself.
Now, after the lockdown restrictions of Covid-19 are lifted, it it possible to go out again. This gives us more possibilities to use this space. We can reach out and use the nearer neighborhood of our participants as a learning environment. There might be park benches, forest trails, lakes, rolling hills, mountain tops, streets, coffee places, museums, libraries, co- working spaces, busses, trams, trains, ships,… – and all of it we can use!
Walk & talk activities in pairs also work with a virtual connection. Participants can connect via phone or whatsapp and talk to one another during a reflective walk. And having two realities instead of one can have its own charm: When participants came back, one told us excited, that her conversation partner showed her around the neighboorhood.
The space outside is similar to the learning environment at residential training events. It can be used for individual, field explorations: participants can observe, explore, interact, take pictures, create videos, make a research, conduct interviews, and many more things.
However, there is one difference. They are making it individually, not in a group. In order to make a group project out of it, you need to think of ways, how learners can bring their individual explorations together and create a common product, for example a collage, a short video clip or an audio recording.
Virtual, imaginary spaces
Coming back to the shared space online, we could also think of imaginary spaces. As you (and your participants) can change the virtual background, you can meet anywhere you want. It may be connected to the topic of your online session or choose a special place in the world to “meet” for an activity (see also Taking It To the Screen by Tina Selig).
Informal communication spaces
Web-conference or platforms for online trainings usually offer two channels: one verbal communication channel and another one through chat. The chat functionality can be used in various ways: to provide links for digital tools, to collect questions during a discussion, to give instructions for activities, to brainstorm ideas, etc. one space to another Eventually, you will find yourself feeling more focused as soon as you enter the space.
Informal chat communication happens simultaneously with what is happening or discussed verbally in the forum. Some of this side-conversations might be related to this topic, other chat conversations might be completely off-topic. What is important, that this space is also an opportunity to communicate and relate with other participants: to share, to comment, to joke, to laugh, to support one another, etc.
In this respect, you should allow, maybe even encourage side-conversations in the chat space. It is probably a good idea to work together in a team of online facilitators: while one trainer is facilitating the programme, the other can follow the chat conversations and feed back to the process those comments and questions that are relevant for the process.
In some cases, your participants might prefer their own, additional communication channel – and you might be not invited. They set up a group on whats app or discord to stay in touch. So far, I’ve seen this more often in the context of formal education, when a class wants to discuss issues without their teacher.
If you encourage informal conversations in the chat, you might not experience this. However, like all group dynamics, you might want to have an eye on it, reflect what it means and how to react to it, if the chatter disappears from the platform.
What are your experience with online learning spaces? How do you use space in your online trainings? How do these things make a difference?
More about informal spaces in my next blog post on online facilitation reflections.
BlogPost Informal Space in Online Trainings | Online Facilitation Reflections
Gmitrowicz, Dagna (2020): Design your space of reflection; via trainerslibrary.com (soon available on trainerslibrary.com)
Selig, Tina (2020): Taking It To the Screen. Lessons Learned from Teaching Online; via medium.com
Stodd, Julian (2020), in: Finding your Campfire. Survival Guide for Remote Workers; via seasaltlearning.com