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Large groups online: a short guide

A colleague asked: “How do you handle very large online workshops with hundreds of people?”

They then told me that they don’t just want to run a series of presentations with limited Q&A, but that they are interested in meaningful interactions during their workshop.

Start with why

A good place to start is by clarifying what the purpose of the workshop is:

  • Do you want to encourage learning?
  • Do you want to build connections?
  • Do you want to gather input on a particular question?

Encourage learning

If the main focus is to encourage individual learning, you can focus more on each person’s individual experience. Try the following:

  • Clarify learning objectives. Give people a moment at the beginning to reflect: Why am I here today? What would I like to take away from this workshop? You can include a similar moment at the end: What did I learn today?
  • Present information in interesting ways. Use storytelling, metaphors and clear structure to make it easier to follow. Intersperse short moments of input with more interactive elements.
  • Check in with participants. Use reactions, surveys or video feedback to get a sense: What’s the current energy level? How’s the pace? Are people with you, are they confused, are they distracted?
  • Include individual exercises. Learning sticks better if people have a chance to apply it, ideally in their own context. Many training exercises don’t require interactions between participants and will thus easily scale to any number of people. Think for example of journaling, creative exercises, reflection walks etc.

If you have time, you might also add some of the approaches below to deepen social learning and gather some feedback.

Building connections

If your focus is to encourage connections between participants, you need to add elements that allow people to share their own experience and perceive others. Try the following:

  • Encourage visibility. Remind people to set their display name for the conferencing platform you are using. In addition to names, you can ask people to include optional information on location, organisation, role, pronouns etc.
  • Build in smaller conversations. Small-ish breakouts (3-4 people) work well for people to share why they joined the call, what they found interesting about the input, what they are taking away from the event.
  • Allow for private chats. This can allow for a quick follow-up after a good breakout conversation or the exchange of contact details without interfering with everyone.

Note: In some groups, the options above can be abused. Sense into the group culture and workshop objectives before you use them, provide alternatives for participants and have a backup plan if things go awry.

Gathering input

If you want to use a large online workshop to gather input or explore a particular topic together, you’ll want to think through ways to structure, channel and filter participant’s contributions to keep them meaningful. Try the following:

  • Use surveys liberally. Surveys are a great way to gather structured information. You can use the built-in tool of your conferencing platform or a separate service.
  • Invite participants to sort questions. Use a separate platform to gather questions and invite participants to mark those that are most relevant. I’ve been happy with Sli.do in the past.
  • Keep the chat clean. Chat can be overwhelming with hundreds of participants. Clearly mark sections, instructions and facilitator questions. Consider providing a separate space where participants can share additional information and resources.
  • Harvest breakout groups in writing. Breakout groups are great to have more people contribute. Try to keep the number of participants at 10 max, and provide clear instructions about questions, process and documentation. A team of co-facilitators can cycle between groups to support them and help summarize results.

Especially in more complex processes with multiple presentations, programme steps and ways to provide input, try to have a single link available that provides all relevant information for the event. That way, it’s easier for participants to find their way around the process.

What would you add? How do you handle very large online workshops?

At ON:SUBJECT, we work with mission-based organizations that want to create momentum for sustainability. Large online workshops are sometimes part of that work.

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Wiebke Herding

Facilitation and process design for a changing world. Mission: momentum for sustainability. Managing Director @ONSUBJECT. she/they.

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