Running remote seminars in a time of COVID-19

On 7 April 2020 the HSRC convened a webinar around remote learning in the time of COVID-19. The event attracted a large and diverse participant-base, with educators and researchers from six countries and a panel of four academics sharing lessons from remote-learning experiences in the education systems of China and Italy. Conveners Prof Sharlene Swartz and Krish Chetty detail how the webinar demonstrated the ways in which virtual learning represents a fundamental shift from the traditional educational model, and offered insights into how to convene a webinar.

Two weeks prior to its webinar entitled “Coronavirus - Lessons in remote learning from China and Europe”, the HSRC invited collaborators from Italy and China to describe their experiences of e-learning as their countries went into lockdown and universities and schools were shut down. The intention was to learn together across global boundaries and to offer South African academics and educators “lessons from the future” (see article here), since Italy and China, in particular, were a few months ahead of us in terms of their response to the crisis.

The online location allowed for global participation that far exceeded what seminars are typically able to accommodate: we received 171 responses and 143 people attended. Participants joined the webinar from Germany, Nigeria, Namibia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and South Africa. South African participants were from universities (just over half), technical colleges, schools, NGOs and government departments. This is a large audience for an academic seminar, notwithstanding its topicality. In order to accommodate such a large audience using video conferencing technology that participants were all accessing on their personal devices without technical support, we had to have a clear plan to ensure it proceeded smoothly and that it was as interactive and as contextual as possible. In the text box below, we summarise the steps we took before, during and after the webinar to achieve these aims.

We invited participants to submit questions to help guide the conversation. Fifteen of them did so, and asked about the ‘digital divide’ and access to learning materials as well as practical questions regarding assessments and how to cater for vocational education that required practical demonstrations. More philosophically, participants were concerned with how remote learning changes the fundamental nature of education: its pedagogy, principles of learning, and the relationship between teacher and learner. Others raised questions about dealing with anxieties amongst older educators, and were interested to hear about student responses to online learning.

We resolved frequently encountered problems of remote communication such as noise, connection problems, and orderly participation by beginning the webinar with a 60 second tutorial on etiquette and how the platform worked. Participants were quick learners, energy was high and the webinar proceeded smoothly. In addition, as we gained confidence in the technology, it became effortless to switch things up: for example, bringing in comments from the chat room, asking organisers offline questions, and steering panellists (through the chatroom) to delve deeper into issues that participants were flagging as important.

Ensuring participation and contextual knowledge
We used a panel format and asked each of our presenters to answer questions. It was easier than in real life to keep them to time because it felt less obtrusive to interrupt, nod, agree and move them on. This made the conversation feel agile, responsive and interactive.

A key facilitator to ensuring the webinar was interactive was the use of the chat function. People made comments during the presentations: agreeing, disagreeing, asking questions to clarify, and asking for more information. Speakers responded almost immediately, for example, offering examples of the apps used in China (TenCent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s DingTalk) and offering the name of the software used at the University of Bologna (Microsoft Teams). There was even a side conversation about whether 5G technology was harmful, which was repudiated by a flurry of discussion replete with reference to evidence and resources. Such a red herring question has frequently derailed seminars in real time, but here the chat function sorted it out without a blip in the progression of the webinar, with all participants able to multitask and see the argument in a side bar. Other special-interest groups also found each other in the chat room and people offered encouragement, reference articles, and after a request to do so near the end, a critical reflection or takeaway. The two-minute reflection pause allowed participants to share their energies and deep insights gained during the course of the webinar.

Overall we had 191 chat comments during the webinar (excluding private chats between people – which is also a feature of the Zoom platform), roughly divided into greetings and thank yous (35), questions asking for more information from a speaker (13), speakers responding to questions (15), side-bar discussions (23), general questions (25), general comments (29), technical issues (7) and final reflections (44).

We concluded the webinar formally after 1 hour and 45 minutes by asking everyone to turn on their microphones and cameras and applaud the speakers. This was accompanied by whoops and cheers and comments around how well the interaction had worked, some surprise at the stability of the platform, the large number of participants, the feeling of community despite the physical distance, and the robustness of the discussion. Also notable was that after we had formally ended, a number of people hung around “chatting” to each other and to presenters, just as they might have done in real life.

WEBINAR TIPS

Before
1.    Find a stable platform – Zoom worked superbly;
2.    Send out invites, asking for RSVPs and inviting participants to submit questions for panellists to engage them and ensure a contextual seminar;
3.    Use these questions to frame the input and thoroughly brief panellists beforehand (and include a test of the platform);
4.    Ensure that speakers are prepared to use Zoom, are familiar with the webinar format and are briefed about the local context;
5.    Invite participants to test their Zoom connections prior to joining the live event;
6.    Manage numbers carefully, and ensure you don’t exceed the Zoom limits - time or number of participants (our licence allowed 300 participants for unlimited time);
7.    Allow 15 minutes beforehand to allow participants to greet each other and settle in;

During
1.    Offer a brief etiquette briefing at the outset – with visuals to show how the platform works and to point out controls, e.g. how to put up your hand using the button provided, how to use the chat room, operate your microphone and camera;
2.    Ensure a conducive environment for speakers by muting microphones and switching off cameras to save bandwidth while panellists are speaking;
3.    Use a panel format so there are no attention sapping extended talks but rather a few rounds of input from panellists;
4.    Enable and encourage the chat room and refer to these inputs in-between questions to panellists to keep the webinar “live”;
5.    Ask speakers to respond to comments and questions as they come up in the chat room;
6.    Take a few rounds of questions from participants (using the virtual “putting up your hand” icon) or by verbally or visually jumping in;
7.    Towards the end, allow for a two-minute reflection pause, and invite participants to offer key learnings or takeaways by writing them up in the chat room;
8.    End with all microphones and cameras on for applause and vocal responses to build community and share energy;

After
1.    Hang around afterwards online for further conversation;
2.    Analyse chat room comments to set future direction of conversations; and
3.    Put an edited version of the webinar on YouTube.

The webinar recording is now available on the HSRC YouTube page, and can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUer5RTCoFY

Authors: Prof Sharlene Swartz, division executive of the HSRC’s Inclusive Economic Development research division, and Krish Chetty, chief researcher in the same division
sswartz@hsrc.ac.za
kchetty@hsrc.ac.za