7 Tips for Great Online Workshops

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Me and Jeff delivering an online class.

A big part of my work is teaching. I lead workshops, usually 1-day, 2-day or 1-week workshops for designers, product managers, and technologists. I’ve been doing this work for close to 10 years and over that time, I’ve refined my teaching techniques to create a good experience for my students, one that’s engaging, fun, high-energy, and most importantly, helps them learn important professional skills.

Last year Jeff Gothelf and I, we began teaching our flagship class online. We learned a lot in the process of translating the class to a live online experience. Now that COVID-19 has renewed interest in all things remote, I thought I’d share with you some of the things we learned in this process.

What works in person doesn’t always work remotely

At the risk of stating the obvious, teaching online isn’t as simple as delivering your in-person class over video. You can’t just fire up a video-conference with your students, point a webcam at an instructor, and drive on as if you are all together in the same room. Sure some of what works in an in-person setting will work over video, but much of it won’t.

Your objectives as an instructor are the same: you want to keep people engaged, keep the energy high, cover key material… you know, teach — but the tactics need to change.

Andy Polaine, a service designer and author who has thought a lot about the design of remote work told me, “Work to the affordances of remote and use its strengths, don’t try and do a live workshop in front of a camera.” In other words, embrace the things that remote is good at.

Here are some of the ways that Jeff and I did that in our live online courses.

TIP 1: Consider hiring a pro: Jeff and I started our process by consulting with an expert in online education, Noah Teitelbaum. Noah knows his way around the virtual classroom, and was able to review our in-person curriculum with us and help us think about the most effective way to structure the material. He also taught us some important best practices that anyone can use in the virtual classroom.

TIP 2: Cameras on: Most of us learn how to behave in an in-person classroom in elementary school. But few of us have ever been taught how to behave in an online classroom. Noah recommended that we start with these simple rules of order: everyone keeps cameras on all the time. Everyone keeps mics on mute unless they’re speaking. Don’t start with “can you hear me?” Assume people can hear you, and rely on your instructor to let you know if there’s a problem. Get everyone comfortable with the chat function that you’ll be using. (We used Zoom to host our meetings, and used Zoom chat during class, and Slack for between-class interactions.) Do something in the chat within the first 10 minutes of your first session. (We asked everyone to type in their location and time zone.)

TIP 3: Shorter is better: Teresa Torres, who offers remote learning through Product Talk Academy, says, “For me the one thing I would recommend is keep the course short and think through how you are going to keep students engaged with the content, with the instructor, and with each other…” during the course.

The in-person class I teach with Jeff takes place over two consecutive days. To keep people engaged in person, we use lots of different teaching modalities, and we intentionally get people up and out of their seats throughout the day in order to keep energy high. We knew we’d need to adjust the schedule — there’s no way people would want to sit in front of an online class all day long, much less two days running.

We experimented with a few different timings: our first attempt broke the class into four 3-hour sessions over the course of four weeks. That was OK, but it got much better when we shortened the sessions to 2-hours long. What did we do with the material we cut? We moved it to recorded video presentations.

Andy Polaine agrees. His solution? “Shorter and more often. A 1 day workshop is now four-five 2-hour sessions online.”

TIP 4: Don’t lecture: Jeff and I have built our live classes around a basic rhythm — lecture, exercise, discussion. Repeat. In person, this is a good sequence. Jeff and I take a lot of pride in putting together lectures that are both entertaining and that explain the material well. We follow the lectures with exercises — students try the material, they stand, move around, collaborate. The mode switching works well, the energy works. But these same lectures, presented online, fell flat. We gave the same lectures (and yes, told the same jokes) but we could feel the energy of the participants dropping, both during the lectures and afterwards.

We decided to refactor: we recorded all of our lectures, turning them into videos — simple picture-in-picture of our talking heads + our usual slides. They range from about 5 minutes long to about 25 minutes long. We now assign these as homework in-between class sessions. This let us do two things — first, we were able to shorten each session from 3 hours to two. Second we were able to use the time we had for interactive material — conversation, question & answer sessions, team and group exercise. This was probably the best single change we made to the class.

TIP 5: Big Group / Small Group: In our in-person class, we like to mix up individual, small group, and big group work. We host our online class on Zoom, which has a feature called “Breakout Rooms.” Breakout rooms allowed us to break the class into an arbitrary number of smaller groups, who could then work together on an exercise. This allowed us to manage our virtual teams in much the same way as our in-person room.

Daniel Stillman, who teaches both live and virtual classes on facilitation, told me, “Facilitating a discussion with a large group of people in person is challenging…doing it online is even more difficult. Have people note their ideas on paper first, then put them in small Zoom groups to share and choose one or two key ideas to bubble up to the whole group conversation. This can allow a larger group to address challenging issues in a short time span.”

TIP 6: Time Zones: At the start of the course, we create standing teams that will work together for the duration of class. One of the keys to making this work is managing time zones. Form teams with people in the same or adjacent time zones. This will allow them to more easily schedule homework collaboration time in between class sessions.

TIP 7: Tools We Like In addition to Zoom, we use Mural for our in-class workspaces. We’ve tried a few other virtual whiteboard tools, but in the end, Mural was the best fit for us. We set up a Mural board for each team, and have one that we use with the whole group. We are able to set up sections on each board for specific exercises, and we pre-load those sections with templates, examples, and other materials that people will need during class.

Doug Ferguson, who offers remote and in-person workshops on facilitation, Design Sprints, and more, told me that he takes time at the start of his sessions to introduce participants to the tools. “Mural can be overwhelming for new participants, so I always take the time to make sure they know how to move around, zoom in and out, and create stickies. Tackling this upfront avoids confusion later on that can tend to compound.”

We host our videos and course materials on Thinkific, which functions as our LMS. (We tried Teachable, and while I don’t love either tool, Thinkific had a better feature set for our needs, but it’s expensive, and they charge you for every. little. thing.) And of course we use Slack and Mailchimp for ongoing communication with and between our students.

If you’re interested in learning more about our online classes, check them out here. If you’ve taken a great online class, or on the other hand, taken a class that hasn’t been so great, reach out and let me know about it. What made it great / not great? Get in touch!

Product. Design. Strategy. Growth. Publisher at bit.ly/SRPress Co-author of sensingbook.com, leanuxbook.com and bit.ly/OutcomesBook.

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