Online learning — what we’ve learnt so far

Nicole Barling-Luke
8 min readJan 28, 2021


TL:DR — online (1) has shifted where the ‘work’ happens and (2) highlights things we should have been attending to all along. I think these are all good and inevitable things.

Last year we, like everyone, moved our main activity online. For us at States of Change this meant our learning programs, our conferences and conversations needed new forms and containers. I’ve been reflecting on the changes in where and when the work of facilitation and session design happens. For me, this has been reoriented in a few different places;

  • Finding replacements for real-time feedback loops
  • Less session design, more choreographing scenarios
  • The digital production gap
  • The different roles we play and how not to perpetuate gender norms
  • Thinking about accessibility in a different way

Attuning to feedback loops

To avoid the whole piece being a rant about feedback loops, I’m getting this out of the way first. Feedback loops. Of all the adjustments I’m finding this one the most uncomfortable to work around. The reason is because without the additional visual, bodily and environmental cues I find it harder to pick up on what is unsaid and unasked. As Kelly Ann McKercher says in their book beyond sticky notes

“Having silence at the end of a meeting doesn’t equate to agreement or consent”

The tyranny of the red button on zoom is that you click it and I have no idea how anyone is doing. In sessions with half the camera’s off, or bad lighting I feel like I’m in the dark. I took for granted how much I watched for non-verbal feedback like body language and how common it was for chats at the back of the room where a quiet person comes up to say something after a session. All this has left a gap in real time feedback loops which I correlate to less, or at least slower, learning efficacy. I’d like to know more about this correlation. We’ve seen some research on the loss of knowledge transfer in the move to online and what this does to productivity, but what of learning?

Ensuring equitable access in spaces to voice concerns, questions, challenges is something that any facilitator (or really any organiser / person with perceived power) needs to be vigilant about, but with online it becomes extra important as much of the inbuilt functionality of conferencing systems prioritises turn-taking statement making, loudest and fastest to talk wins etc etc.

Now, more than ever, we need to be extra attuned to spaces for trust building and designing in feedback loops during sessions. Something we did attend to, but with much less rigour as it was easy to catch as you ate a salad with participants over lunch.

Less session design, more scenario planning

As a team we were a well oiled machine when it came to operationalising in-person workshops. Online the infrastructure, assets and design are different and new to us. There are people that do this for a job and there’s a reason for that.

A person with math equations floating around their head

I have found that the ‘scenario planning’ — designing for multiple different routes the session might take — has taken on more significance and time. In the past, we’d use real-time feedback loops for in the moment responsiveness and decision points of direction. Whereas now, I’m aware of more attention going into thinking, beforehand, about the shifts between breakout room to main group, shifts between ‘lecture mode’ to activity mode etc.

This type of attention should always be part and parcel of session design. It feels to me though, the weight of the work happens earlier, because it is harder to do things like watch for a lull in breakout conversations and say “alright, let’s take 10mins now and we’ll come back and finish the rest”.

Similarly, designing scenarios for different learning styles can’t be ignored, and again, never should have been. Creating spaces for quiet people, for talk to thinkers, for think to talkers, for visual learners, for auditory learners takes extra precedence when you can’t remedy with individuals as easily while others are off doing group work. One of the many ripple effects of covid-19 is I finally learnt how to spell asynchronous, through repetition alone. It’s been vital to think about what learning happens when we’re together and what happens when we’re apart. Our awareness of formats for different learning styles increased when the default of face to face was taken away.

James found this online collaboration maturity example last year, I think we’re between 2–3 at the moment. Is the extra scenario planning a result of us adjusting to the mode of digital or trying to recreate what we already know?

It’s exciting to see some new conferencing platforms like rally and gather emerging to solve the problem of ‘eavesdropping on a table conversation’ which might enable easier responsiveness. Equally exciting, there are some far more creative people than us adopting video games and theatre craft when online to change up the form entirely, and respond better to different embodied learning styles, which I think (I hope!) we’ll start seeing more and more of.

The digital production heft

On the digital infrastructure and assets side we use the basics — zoom, miro, slack. Everyone thus far has been very generous with the adaptation to online, but I’m aware that some of the design/digital skillsets we’re going to need, we don’t have inside our teeny tiny team.

Like the early days of Youtube, people would film any old thing with little filter or expertise. Now you have to conform to a certain style and quality, it’s highly professionalised. We’re wondering if, and when, and how, the same type of trend will occur with online sessions too. Already, before covid, the MOOCS industry was getting a head start in the professionalisation and high production value of learning content. We’ve been thinking about what different types of roles we’ll need if this is to continue. Expertise in digital production is a gap.

Similarly, there’s monolith Learning Management Systems (LMS) like the ones that universities use — in my experience of recently starting a Masters they’re used as knowledge management only and the ‘in-between’ spaces and conversations are moved onto Slack or Whatsapp. I’ve been learning a lot from finding other well designed online curriculums like Anthropology & Design program and coloniality and decoloniality.

It seems there’s a lot of professionalisation and different skills showing up at the moment. For us, it has also meant the work happens in a different place with more attention being paid to the collection, collation, organising of assets to show the relationships of knowledges instead of letting that build overtime in a physically shared space.

The roles we play

We found very early on that you can’t have one person managing the tech, checking in on people and facilitating. Generally we aim to have at least two roles.

  • A host. The convener of the space, they’re the person that has thought of everything so everyone feels safe and secure to participate, and generally tries to set the tone of the meeting with a check-in etc.
  • A facilitator. More of the ‘content host’, they are the more experienced other and are there to explain the concepts, theory, applicability and exercises.

If we’re lucky, there’s a third — a tech support doing the breakout room choreography and whatever else required.

In the recent programs we’ve run, we had Rose and Brenton as co-facilitators with Brenton carrying the majority of the content delivery and Rose topping and tailing the day with reflective exercises in a more host-like role. Then for the 12 week bootcamp I generally played the host role with Brenton the facilitator role.

I’m naming the roles because I am uneasy about what we’re perpetuating by having the younger women in the team doing the host role and more experienced male do the content role. The reality is this division plays to our strengths and we’re a small team, so it’s not necessarily who is doing what, but I’m wary that unless we find different ways to split, value and make visible the various roles at play we’ll end up modelling unhelpful gender norms.

Thinking differently about accessibility

The work we do is with people with an assumed high-tech literacy, but the principles of ensuring the space is welcoming and accessible to everyone doesn’t stop because people know how to navigate breakout rooms. Moving to online environments has been recognised as more accessible for people because they can join from anywhere in a way that suits them. This is true.

It is also true that there are still barriers to entry and participation.

Two big programs we ran late last year were in English which wasn’t the native language of the participants. Having closed captions, having more text heavy slides (even if it’s only for sharing later), translating and pasting the questions or exercises into the chat box so people can read the instructions is good practice.

Then there’s the basics like allowing more time than you think to learn new platforms. (Hot tip: go back to whatever runsheet or meeting agenda you’re planning, and add more time to learn a new tool. And then add a bit more.)

I was recently at my mum’s place while she was teaching an English as a Second Language class. They were on week 9 and were learning about breakout rooms in zoom. I was so jolted out of my comfort zone and humbled by the patience and care that went into explaining the mechanisms of zoom. I shuddered to think how carelessly I had introduced new platforms like Miro to groups, assuming that eventually everyone will figure it out. Inviting in tactile and no-tech ways to discuss ideas can be just as effective as using a new platform.

A screenshot from a zoom session showing colourful drawings, poems and creations participants had made.

And summary….

I still think a lot about the article Hanna Thomas Uose wrote on the trauma of zoom on our bodies, about how online conferencing is all about dysregulating the nervous system. Bodies can’t co-regulate (attune their nervous systems to each other so you feel safe, with things like regular eye contact, affirmations (vocal and nonvocal)) online, the nervous system is in a constant low-level state of anxiety.

What type of spaces have we created in the past that caused low-level anxiety? Learning new things is already uncomfortable! And we bandy about ‘safe spaces’ without realllyyy attending to what that means for different people and different bodies.

At the Beginning Times of covid, Abe Greenspoon prompted us to think about whether online meetings are that much worse than in-person ones. It’s a good question. Nothing that has come up for us in the last year deviates from the principles of care and hospitality that should go into any form of hosting or convening. I’m hopeful that by learning how they apply in a new format, it makes us attend to them all the more carefully.