Socially Distanced Learning

Seven Lessons from Organising a Virtual Workshop

Following two successful GDAR Investigator Workshops – in Cambridge in 2017 and Johannesburg in 2018 – we were excited to be planning to hold our third workshop in Kisumu, Kenya in July 2020.

But with countries around the world going into lockdown, it became clear by April 2020 that a face-to-face meeting of partners would be impossible. Rather than abandon it, we decided to organise a virtual workshop.

We ran the workshop over four half days in the last week of July, with around 60 participants joining each day from South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, Jamaica, Haiti and the UK.

Here we share some of the lessons we learned.

  1. Make time to plan
  2. Excellent administrative support is key
  3. Avoid presentation fatigue
  4. Find different ways to keep it interactive – but beware software overload
  5. Run training and practice sessions before the workshop
  6. Use the opportunity for greater inclusivity
  7. Post-pandemic? Consider hybrid meeting arrangements

1. Make time to plan

Ideally, we would have had longer than three months to plan. We soon learned that the planning of a virtual workshop involving seven research groups in six countries and three continents is as complex as planning a face-to-face meeting, sometimes more-so

During the workshop, we wanted to exchange information, undertake reflective and creative group work, and set a research agenda for the next phase of the Network. We also wanted participants to have fun, and to come away feeling even more part of the GDAR team.

All of this is possible, at least to some extent, with a virtual meeting. However, achieving it requires very careful planning and preparation, including on the software interfaces and how they will be managed.


2. Excellent administrative support is key

In planning the meeting, we were lucky to link up early with the Conference Management Centre (CMC) from the University of Cape Town. They joined our organising committee, and their guidance on such things as registering and securely admitting participants, integrating different types of software, and managing break out groups was invaluable.

In addition, there was a Cambridge administrative support team of three, who worked closely with CMC. The Cambridge team produced a ‘backstage plan’, including tasks and checks that needed to be completed for the smooth running of the workshop. Their role included admitting delegates to the meeting, necessary for online security, which could take 10 to 15 minutes, thus requiring delegates to join well before the start of the meeting. The administrative team also intervened as needed in sessions to keep them to time, wrote the workshop report, and managed the shared workshop drive (we used Google Team Drive) to which all registered participants were given access.

In terms of running the plenary sessions and break out groups, we found that having two people chair jointly was essential. One chair would guide the speakers and manage the discussion. The second chair would monitor the chat room, and as needed relay questions and summarise points raised.


3. Avoid presentation fatigue

We found that much of the information exchange that might be ordinarily part of a face-to-face workshop, such as updates on research work packages, was better covered in advance. For example, work package leads prepared updates as PowerPoint presentations which we put on the team drive at least a week before the workshop.

We would have liked to have included video updates, and with more planning time this would have been possible. Clearly, participants need to review the updates prior to the workshop, and assuming they have done this, the meeting itself can then focus on key points for discussion, problem solving and decision making.

This approach could work equally well for face-to-face workshops which can often get bogged down in presentations to the detriment of productive discussion.

Also, in planning the workshop we tried to keep the overall length of each workshop day to no more than four hours, with 5 to 15 minute breaks every 45 to 60 minutes. Taking account of the different time zones, we met during the morning in the Caribbean, and afternoon to early evening in the UK and Africa. Staying focussed and engaged online requires a lot of concentration, and we might have been better aiming for no more than 3 hours per day, with perhaps three 50 minute sessions and two 15 minute breaks. It could then have been an option to informally ‘meet for a drink’ at the end of the day.


4. Find different ways to keep it interactive – but beware software overload

Zoom was the automatic first choice as our main platform because all participants were already familiar with it. (In GDAR we can make the claim to have been using Zoom long before it really took off during the pandemic!)

We had a mixture of plenary sessions and break-out groups. We considered using webinar software for the former but decided against that in favour of standard Zoom meetings. The latter (as well as being cheaper!) has a more personal feel: it is easier to see who else is online, and for people to be seen and heard when contributing to the discussion. Anyone who forgets to mute their microphone when not speaking can quickly be muted by a meeting administrator.

For the working groups we used Zoom breakout rooms, which worked very well. We had up to a maximum of ten people per room. We used Google Jamboard in much the same way that a flip chart and post-it notes would be used. Jamboard can be set up so that only one person adds to it, or you can allow all members of the group to contribute to it – making it nicely interactive. The working group Jamboards were used for feedback in the plenary sessions, and over the four days of the workshop we had some colourful and entertaining working group presentations.

Some of the most entertaining events in the workshop were organised in the breaks between the formal sessions. These included quizzes, such as on recognising national dishes or geographical landmarks from partners countries, and different types of relaxation and exercise sessions. Screen-sharing via Zoom was used for the content of these sessions, with the interactive presentation software Mentimeter used for responses to the quizzes.

There were some challenges using Mentimeter – effectively it was one interactive software alongside another, with participants needing to join on their phones using a code. It is possible to use the polling function in Zoom to integrate quizzes directly, which may be an alternative approach.

One type of social interaction we didn’t try, but would consider for future meeting, was to replicate informal social interaction and conversations, such as might occur during refreshment breaks. It would be easy enough to set up a coffee or drinks ‘room’ in which people could meet if they wished.

In all, we used three different software platforms throughout the workshop. Zoom (meetings and breakout rooms), Google apps (Team drive and Jamboard) and Mentimeter. Zoom on its own would not have served all our needs. The administrative team also communicated through WhatsApp, providing an alternative channel in case of problems with Zoom.  

There are clearly many other software platforms available that we might have used. For example, we have a GDAR SLACK workspace and there would have been the potentially to integrate some aspects of this into our workshop. Again, greater planning time would have enabled us to explore such options.


5. Run training and practice sessions before the workshop

Even though Zoom was familiar to all workshop participants, we still found it invaluable to run brief training and practice sessions before the workshop for the chairs of the plenary and group sessions, and with presenters, including guest speakers. This undoubtedly led to smoother running of the meeting.

It was also essential to run a training session on the use of Google Jamboard for rapporteurs from the group sessions. Even though this software is relatively easy to use, lack of familiarity with it would have eaten up precious time during the workshop.


6. Use the opportunity for greater inclusivity

The virtual format enabled more people to participate in the meeting than would have been possible had it been held face to face. Clearly, there is no budget required for travel and accommodation, so that the cost of adding participants is minimal. In addition, individuals whose personal or work circumstances would limit their ability to be away from home for several days were able to attend. This meant that more junior members of the GDAR research teams in particular were able to attend than would have been the case face to face. 

Furthermore, the virtual format enabled our capacity building session on research methods to be opened up beyond the GDAR research teams, thus including other junior researchers from the partners’ institutions. One service that we did not formally include was simultaneous language translation, as GDAR’s participants come from both French and English speaking countries. Our imperfect solution was to always to have bilingual participants in each group, but ideally, with more planning time, we would have found a better, more inclusive, solution.


7. Post-pandemic? Consider hybrid meeting arrangements

The virtual format for this workshop was forced on us by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, thinking beyond Covid-19 there are excellent reasons to consider running future workshops as online meetings, which include reduced air miles and greater ease of access for many participants.

The success of our workshop is evidence that it is possible to have an enjoyable and productive online experience. However, there is no denying that meeting face to face tends to provide a richer and more enduring experience in terms of building personal working relationships, and we should acknowledge that the majority of co-investigators and some of the junior researchers had met face to face at earlier workshops.

A combination of virtually linking up groups of people (hubs) and individuals (nodes) is worth considering (Fraser et al provide a great overview of hub and node meeting arrangements). For example, in an international project a hub could be located in each country or region, making use of local meeting facilities. Individuals unable to attend a hub would attend from their own facilities. There could be some limited travel between hubs, enabling some face-to-face mixing between teams while still having a meeting that has a much lower carbon cost than one that is fully face-to-face.

This year has shown us that we can still connect across the world despite being confined to our homes, and that time spent together – whether in person or on screen – is an invaluable part of research collaboration.


Written by Nigel Unwin, with input from Oliver Francis, Clare Hodkinson, Tolu Oni, Pam Wadende, Lisa Micklesfield, Felix Assah, Nadia Bennett, Natalie Gutherie Dixon, Karen Hofman, Annie Schiff, and Rebecca Stratford. Any queries or comments to GDARCoordinator@mrc-epid.cam.ac.uk