How to do online training effectively in the age of COVID-19

Training is often an integral part of a peacebuilding strategy, as it can help with finding new and creative solutions to problems and improving relationships between people. But what happens when this predominantly face-to-face practice moves online?

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, meetings, communication, socialising, teaching and learning – all shifted online. As the world went into lockdown, a whole new virtual world opened. 
Streaming a live music performance or watching recorded theatre at home became normal, but it couldn’t replace the experience of a live concert or performance, the audience interaction, the feeling of being in a real space, and the stimulation of our senses.

Similarly, after the initial enthusiasm of the new modality of online training, I faced the same challenges as with ‘social life on screen’.

Same but different

At first, I thought I could apply the same principles as face-to-face training; ensuring an interactive, participatory space; developing a positive learning atmosphere that is safe for challenging and open for questions, is practical and useful, and using a variety of methods to accommodate different learning styles.

I soon realised that I needed to adapt my training approach: Learning objectives, goals and topics remained the same, but the presentation of the content, the process, methodologies and case studies, all needed to be developed anew. How?

1. Context and contact

With online training, each participant has their own physical context. We can see and relate to people on the screen, we can focus on slides and understand them, but we don’t have the full context, we don’t know how they relate to each other. The gestalt is missing; we lose human contact. Our ability to sense intuitively is reduced. There is less informal communication among participants (no coffee breaks or informal chats). This diminishes the opportunity to build rapport and develop relationships.

One of the often-forgotten elements of learning and motivation for learning is creating a space for ‘playfulness’, spontaneity, creativity, humour and fun. These elements are further neglected during online training.

For example, through movement and playful activities, people lose their usual ‘rational’ persona and react in a more natural way, thus enabling them to learn something about themselves, other people and the topic at hand; it moves people out of their comfort zone.

We need to allow more time for introductions and for interactions among participants. For example: arranging for ‘homework’ to be done in pairs or in threes; including less formal and more fun exercises, quizzes, short breaks in small groups; encouraging using video for interactions and small group work or giving reflection tasks to be prepared by two or three people.

2. Learning from each other

In face-to-face training, interaction takes place among a whole group of learners. Participants interact with each other in small groups or in pairs, or with the trainer.  In online training, such horizontal interaction is lost, and communication is channelled through the trainer to each individual participant. It is not easy, or even possible, to recreate the interactive, more mutual learning atmosphere of face-to-face training.

Instead of long presentations focused on information sharing, we can encourage learning from each other by sending presentations and reading material in advance; sending advance questions to encourage reflection, and asking for participants to share their own experience in advance of the online session. This can then be used for discussion and group work. In such a way, the time together online can be focused on interaction and exchange among participants. This also taps into the advantages of online training, whereby participants have the time between sessions to process new knowledge, to test new models, or to practice new skills.

3. Learning styles

In trainings, different issues arise depending on the content of the training and the learning styles they rely on. They can be clustered into two broad categories:

•    Abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation (thinking and doing).

The content of courses using these styles tend to be conceptual and model based, such as conflict analysis, conflict sensitivity and the application of tools and methods for peacebuilding. These demand a lot of analytical thinking, understanding and working with theories, applying models and tools to case studies and working with examples. We can say it is quite ‘brainy’ and ‘handy’ oriented.

•    Concrete experience and reflective observation (feeling and watching)

The content of these courses relies on experience, personal reflection and observation. For example, for conflict resolution, this includes dialogue, negotiation, facilitation skills, listening and communication. These require skill development and practice, re-examining our own attitudes, observing others in action, modelling, introspection and reflection.

These two groups differ in terms of suitability and challenges for online training. They require different methodologies for effective learning. Skills-based training, such as dialogue, exposes personal characteristics, values and attitudes, which can challenge personal views, opinions, cultural norms, prejudices and stereotypes, and initiate a different level (and quality) of learning.

Online training cannot ensure that level of depth and personal involvement or allow challenging people’s views and opinions in the same way as face-to face. A ‘safe space’ in face-to-face training is different than a safe space online, which can also be ’safe from challenge’.

Similarly, in online training there are difficulties in reading non-verbal communication, which is an integral part of dialogue , negotiation and mediation skills trainings.

We need to be aware of what is possible to learn in an online environment, and what presents challenges. Online learning can be a starting point to introduce topics and skills, but then a tailor-made programme for learning based on individual needs and practice is needed, for example recording practice, debriefing and then providing feedback. Individual coaching and mentoring might help in learning.

We don’t know how long the pandemic will last.  The online world of work (and life) has almost become the norm.  As long as this remains, we need to step up as trainers to offer a package of combined methodologies and blended learning that embraces the advantages of online training and learning, whilst maintaining the integrity of putting the learner and the learner experience at the centre.