Flocks, Pods, and Gaggles: Bringing people together in-person and online

MIT Media Lab
MIT MEDIA LAB
Published in
11 min readApr 24, 2023

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A flock of LEGO ducks sit on a table with a sign that says “PLIX”
Credit: PLIX

By Ada Ren-Mitchell and J. Philipp Schmidt

We love well-designed in-person workshops — they are undeniably magical. Conversations that happen spontaneously between sessions, or bonding over a shared meal, can build trust and create a sense of community. This in turn makes it easier to try out new things or share novel ideas, creating the space for creativity.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we shifted to online workshops and while we did our best to support our community virtually, some of the in-person interactions simply couldn’t be replaced. At the same time, the experience also made us realize that there are some advantages to trying to bring people together online, in particular related to equity:

  • Not everyone can travel to an in-person meeting. Some people may have family or other obligations. And for international participants, getting VISAs can be a real headache.
  • In-person meetings are expensive (travel, lodging, time away from work) which means not everyone can afford to join.
  • Additionally, travel-related emissions, especially from air travel, contribute to climate change.

So we set out to develop a hybrid approach, which would retain some of the magic of in-person workshops, but also take advantage of technology to connect more people. Once pandemic guidelines allowed for small in-person gatherings again, we started experimenting with a hub-and-spoke model where participants come together in small groups in “satellite” sites, supported and coordinated from a central hub. We believe this model holds a lot of potential for community engagement and building connections across digital borders. In this post, we are sharing some of our experiences, and hope to inspire others to try out similar approaches.

Hybrid Workshops for Facilitation of Creative Learning

Over the last three years, with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), our team at the Public Library Innovation Exchange (PLIX) at the MIT Media Lab has experimented with different workshop formats for supporting library staff interested in offering creative STEM learning experiences, including live online courses, fully-online workshops, and email-based courses with online support. You can learn more about what PLIX does here.

A videoconference in progress.
Facilitating Creative Learning March 2023 participants. Credit:
PLIX

In May 2022, PLIX collaborated with the Middle Georgia Regional Library System for a two-day workshop. This was the first time we tried out a hybrid approach. Over 60 participants joined us in small groups of 5–10, spread out over nine sites in the area. In March 2023, we iterated and ran a second version of the workshop, this time with over 80 participants across thirteen sites from Massachusetts to Kansas.

One Hub and Multiple Satellites

Having multiple sites allowed people to come together in person, reduced the need to travel long-distance (and emissions), and allowed us to provide workshop facilitation to a large number of library professionals.

The 2022 workshop was spread across nine sites — eight satellite sites, and one hub site where one group met in-person, and from where the two PLIX organizers streamed the online portion of the sessions. Our impression was that the hub group did not get a chance to interact with each other as much as the satellite groups, because the workshop organizers were in the same room. So we decided to try something different for the 2023 workshop, where the PLIX organizers ran the workshop fully remotely, without interacting with an in-person group at a hub location.

In both implementations, each satellite site had an in-person co-facilitator who managed the local logistics of running the workshop, including the audio-visual technology setup. The co-facilitators also arranged the meeting space and food, which we covered with our workshop funds.

A diagram showing the connections between the workshop participants and facilitators.
PLIX hybrid workshop format: multiple satellite sites, each with a local facilitator, connecting together online. Credit: PLIX

Agenda

Here’s an overview of the agenda we used in our March 2023 implementation, to provide an idea of the scope and style of the workshop. The hybrid approach would work for a wide range of styles, but we wanted to highlight that it works particularly well for events that have relatively few lectures, where a small group of people “talks at” the rest of the group, and works well for events that have hands-on components.

Each of the Let’s Play sessions offered an opportunity for trying out one of our PLIX activities and for hands-on tinkering at each satellite. The Let’s Practice sessions encouraged participants in each local group to engage more deeply with the role of the facilitator. Throughout the two days we created moments for reflection, sometimes in the local satellites, sometimes connecting two of the satellites with each other, and sometimes in the whole group.

Day 1:

  • 12:30pm Final Tech Check
  • 1:00pm Kickoff + Day 1 Overview + Groups decide on their collective noun
  • 1:30pm Intro to PLIX, Creative Learning, an the role of the Facilitator + Lunch
  • 2:00pm Break
  • 2:10pm Let’s Play: Tinkering with Paper Circuits
  • 3:20pm Break
  • 3:30pm Let’s Practice: Facilitating Paper Circuits / Personas Exercise
  • 4:30pm Break
  • 4:40pm Running your First PLIX Workshop + Q&A
  • 5:00pm Day 1 Whole Group Reflections
  • 5:40pm Wrap-up + Media Release Form + Day 2 Overview

Day 2

  • 9:30am Optional Breakfast
  • 10:00am Kick-off + Warm-up + Day 2 Overview
  • 10:20am Let’s Play: Tinkering with Spatial Poetry
  • 11:20am Break
  • 11:30am Let’s Practice: Remixing PLIX
  • 12:20pm Lunch + Local Group Reflections
  • 12:50pm Day 2 Whole Group Reflections
  • 1:20pm Special Guest Presentation
  • 1:40pm Final Survey + See you laters

Onboarding

To kick off the workshop, at the start of day one, we invited each site to choose a collective noun to identify themselves. Groups chose names like a Conspiracy of Lemurs, a Thunder of Dragons, and Curds of Cheese, and these collective nouns were (drumroll) a hoot to refer to throughout the workshop.

Activity Sessions (Let’s Play)

The Activity Sessions were designed to let participants gain hands-on experience with some of the creative learning activities that are part of PLIX. We wanted to make sure that participants have a chance to try them out, before they think about strategies to facilitate these (and other similar) activities with their library patrons.

A typical structure for each activity included five parts as follows:

  1. Introduction: The facilitators streamed the activity introduction over Zoom, from the hub site. This took about 15 minutes.
  2. Hands-on: We then gave everyone 30 minutes to do the activity,
  3. Reflection: 10 minutes to reflect within their local site,
  4. Sharing: 20 minutes in a paired Zoom breakout room to share their reflections.
  5. Break: 15-minute break.
Paired Zoom breakout rooms allow for groups to share ideas, reflections, and resources across sites. Credit: PLIX

Notably, frequent breaks were helpful for the PLIX organizers, but we heard from some participants that they felt a little too long.

During the activity introduction, each site muted themselves, and while the hands-on work took place in each site, we saw participants chat, craft, and bond with their in-person group. One site even had a collection of squid hats that all their participants ended up wearing by the end of day one. We were really happy to see that participants were able to make these deeper playful connections.

Lucky Logistics: Tech, Materials, Food, and and Team

Supportive Tech

Weeks before the workshop, we prepared a materials kit to ship to each site. This included activity materials, printouts, and a Meeting OWL, which is a simple device that includes a 360º video camera, microphone, and speaker, and can be placed on the middle of a meeting table. But more important than choosing a specific technology is setting it up and testing it as a group before the workshop.

In order to prepare, we scheduled a series of planning meetings for the co-facilitators in each satellite. The first meeting focused on providing a general overview and setting up a backchannel so facilitators had a way to communicate with the workshop organizers during the event (we used the app WhatsApp for group messages). The second planning meeting focused more on the technical aspects to ensure we were all connected.

Playful Materials

The materials we sent to each site were for more than just the workshop sessions; they helped establish a playful vibe for participant engagement. We also provided tips to the co-facilitators for ways to prepare their sites, for example wrapping their tabletops with large sheets of paper, and spreading out the workshop materials on top. This invited participants to doodle, tinker, and engage in any way that they felt comfortable.

Nourishing Food

Food is an important part of any workshop, and shared meals are critical to bonding. Day one started with lunch, and ended with a group dinner at a local restaurant. Day two started with breakfast and ended with lunch. Shared meals help the participants to build trust. This is especially important to our workshop on facilitating creative learning which involves taking risks and ownership of their own learning, which can feel unfamiliar and different from a traditional expert-led instruction format.

We provided funds for each satellite to cover the things we would have paid for at an in-person workshop as well. Such funding can make it easier to organize aspects of the workshop like meals, which have a big impact on the quality of the event, but can be hard to raise money for.

Terrific Team

Remarkably, we ran the live part of the workshop with just two PLIX organizers, Philipp Schmidt and Ada Ren-Mitchell, switching off between managing the tech, presenting materials, and facilitating the interactive workshop session. While both of us have significant experience running online workshops and are comfortable with technology in general, including the methodology of Zoom-based workshops, these skills are not that hard to learn. With just a few laptops, we were surprised how easy it was to manage the video-conference without getting too distracted from the actual content.

That’s not to say that we did it all by ourselves. Our team also included a graphic designer, Helen Gao, who helped prepare the slides and printed materials, and an administrative assistant, Anthony Dodd, who was essential during the planning and who made sure there were no logistical loose ends.

Reflections

We felt that overall the workshops went really well, and the participants from both workshops agreed.

  • When asked whether they would recommend this workshop to a colleague, on a scale of 1–10, 84% responded with an 8 or above.
  • When asked whether they are more likely to offer creative learning programs, on a Likert scale, 91% responded with agreement and strong agreement.
  • When asked whether they feel more connected to other library professionals working on creative STEM programs on a Likert scale, 84% responded with agreement and strong agreement.

At the same time, there is always room for improvement. Below are some reflections that draw from the experience of both workshops, a few things we didn’t expect, and some ideas for future workshops.

The Serious and Quiet Hub

During the first workshop, participants at the hub site seemed more serious than those at the satellite sites, who were able to chat and laugh together while on mute. We realized that having us, the facilitators, in the same room, meant that the participants had to be more quiet. In our 2023 workshop, our facilitators were completely remote, which resolved this concern, but created a new concern — it was harder to recognize moments of confusion in the satellite sites when we didn’t actively participate in one.

Last Minute Changes are Harder Online

At the end of day one, we usually ask for feedback on how the workshop flow and structure worked for everyone. Participants sometimes share suggestions on how we might improve things for the second day, which feels natural and easy to accommodate in an in-person setting. However, we realized that it is much harder to communicate such changes across the network of satellites. At our first workshop, we made some changes and it led to unnecessary confusion. One of our take-aways is that while it is possible to make these kinds of on-the-fly adjustments when everyone is together in the same location, it is much more confusing to participants when doing it in a hybrid setting.

Too Much Reflection Time

In our 2023 workshop, we built in more within-site reflection time, and more time for paired sites to reflect with each other. Participants found it to be too much, noting that they naturally conversed and reflected during the hands-on activities, and ran out of steam a bit when reflecting with their paired site. Oftentimes, they would start sharing tangential resources and ideas, which they felt was going “off topic”. We actually thought that was a positive development as the sites were building new relationships with each other, but it’s something to keep an eye on. Besides tweaking the timing, we could provide more guidance to our local site facilitators to support a better reflection experience in-person and in paired breakouts.

Staying Connected During Meals

We encouraged people to be on mute, but since we had several meals together, people felt uncomfortable leaving the video on while they were eating. So during meals every site would mute and keep their video off, but stay in the Zoom meeting for announcements. One of the participants came up with a neat “hack” and created a paper “hat” that they placed over the camera of the OWL. In our 2023 workshop, we encouraged local groups to create a similar cover so they could easily “mute” the camera.

Making Time for Surveys

Since participants did not have computers but did have their smartphones for the workshop, we used QR codes on our slides for the media release form and final survey. We also set aside the time at the end of each day in the agenda for them to fill out each form. This meant we had a response rate close to 100%. We expect that a survey emailed out after the workshop would garner fewer responses.

AV Equipment Options

While debating over what set of audio-visual equipment to send out, we chose to send each site a Meeting OWL, which included everything except for a large screen. The OWL centers the video on the person who is talking and sharing their creations. This allowed everyone to better connect since we’re not trying to squint and see who’s speaking and what they’ve made in a video of the whole room. Having the same equipment at each site made it easier to help with troubleshooting, but it adds cost and more planning.

In our 2023 workshop, a late-comer site joined the workshop with a basic video-conferencing set-up. They had a conferencing microphone that made it very easy to hear different people speaking. But participants at other sites couldn’t see their faces and creations, and it required prompting from the workshop organizers to invite them closer to the camera.

Up Next

We enjoyed the experience, and are excited about the potential for this style of workshop to reach many more people by combining the strengths of in-person meetings with the affordances of online events. We are planning to continue to iterate and run other workshops in this style in the future.

If you or your colleagues have used similar formats, or are interested in running a workshop like this, we would love to hear from you! Feel free to reach out to us here.

This project was supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (RE-246380-OLS-20). PLIX (Public Library Innovation Exchange) is an education outreach project at the MIT Media Lab. Our workshop design is composed of activities and experiences training public library staff to facilitate creative learning activities in STEAM.

Originally published at https://www.media.mit.edu.

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MIT Media Lab
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