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Remote Engagement

On the challenges of turning offline into online workshops

When I first ran my Science-Fiction prototyping workshop as a remote format, I understood something new about the challenges of turning offline into online workshops. Hopefully, this will be of interest to you too.

For this workshop, two things are key: The participants need to adhere to a strict way of storytelling and the more they play instead of just work through the main task, the better the result*.

Surprisingly, this is not a contradiction. It can be mediated easily by a facilitator leading the group as a “game master”, who enforces the rules and sets and guides the energy of the group. But even when we ran three sub-groups in autonomously using a card game setup, it was possible to set the stage accordingly.

Today, Lisa Kurz and I facilitated the workshop remotely, for 2×3 groups, using zoom and a template on a virtual whiteboard. And as it turned out, we needed to change some things.

The first three sub-groups neither followed the instructions correctly, nor seemed to be truly playing. They had the very same instructions that were printed on the card game we had tested previously. And our verbal interventions did not seem to make a big difference. They still generated results, but the engagement seemed low and the key interactions that collaboratively enrich the ideas were not as frequent as ususal.

In the lunch break, we then changed two aspects about the workshop, and the next three sub-groups worked wonderfully. What had we overlooked?

(1)  The most probable explanation for why they were not following the instructions for storytelling was that they did not understand them: It is very easy to answer questions by going around in a circle, if you are actually sitting in a circle. When the participants are in a zoom meeting, there is no circle. I had thought that it would be easy to just define an order, but when I joined the breakout rooms, I understood that that was not the case.

So, we kicked out one of the exercises practicing going around in a circle -as it had proven to not work in the digital setting. Instead we added a shared visit to a new virtual whiteboard to our introduction to the whole group. On this whiteboard, each student as well as the facilitators picked an Avatar for themselves and then we practiced the principle of collaborative storytelling together.

I also added a visual representation of going around a circle, on which the Avatars of those involved in the practice round were placed. The same visual was also inserted into the appropriate sections of the whiteboard templates, the sub-groups would work on later.

(2)  In person, an important part of our facilitating is to set the right tone. In this case, a tone that tells our participants that it is safe and desired to explore a Science-Fiction future and come up with wild ideas. That that’s exactly what this space is for. And we communicate this more non-verbally than through the instructions themselves.

In digital spaces, some of these intangible signals get lost, but we can find ways to amplify them. Going into that new virtual whiteboard together and also picking Avatars gave us more opportunity to connect to the groups and build trust.

To send a clear signal that this was a game- and playful workshop, we used astronauts from the trending computer game Among Us as the Avatars to choose from. They fit the Science-Fiction theme perfectly and added a humorous touch, which the target group of young engineers would recognize. This framing worked perfectly. Several of the participants used inside jokes connected to Among Us throughout the workshop.

One of the sub-groups dragged their avatars from task to task, without any instruction to do so. During the storytelling part, they drew aspects of their story onto their astronauts, and erased them again in time with the events in their story. In the end they posed them in a group picture. All the while they were fulfilling the objectives they were tasked with earnestly, but also dared to jump further with their ideas.

Therefore, it seems important to give more thought about how to transfer the spatial aspects of a workshop’s design into the digital realm. Furthermore, it may not be enough to solely rely on audio, voice and visuals alone to frame a workshop’s atmosphere. Instead it may be helpful to use symbols and cultural elements too.


* Lisa Kurz’ and my research on this will be published as “Exploring new Technology’s Meaning for a Sustainable Future via Collaborative Science-Fiction Prototyping: A Novel Method for the Engineering Curriculum” in Springer’s “Universities, Sustainability and Society: Supporting the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals” in January 2021

If you liked this, you might be interested in reading about a tool for creating interactive online formats