10 Tips for Leading Engaging Programs Online

As the world slowly reopens, the need for online classes and trainings isn’t going away. At a PYE series called Digital Inclusion and the Creative Spark, PYE facilitator Devon Little shared 10 ways to keep your online programs engaging.
A dance party at PYE's Power of Dialogue Program, 2021

When Covid 19 began, we started  experimenting with translating our interactive trainings to the online space through a weekly series of 90-minute workshops called Creative Catalyst. These workshops, led by facilitators from around the world, demonstrate ways to use specific arts activities to build personal resiliency and lead engaging online programs. The positive feedback kept rolling in. “This is the best online workshop I’ve ever attended,” said one participant. “Wow… I’ve realized that Zoom programs CAN be fun, engaging, connecting and creative!” said another. 

Here is a synopsis of 10 ways to make online learning programs lively and engaging offered by Devon Little, the original curator of the Creative Catalyst series. Many of these practices are central to the Creative Empowerment Model, but Devon has provided ideas for how to translate them to the online format. Devon’s  key message is this: “When facilitating online, you need to be much more intentional to achieve the same outcomes, but those outcomes are totally possible!”

Provide a warm welcome

This helps people relax, settle in, and get a sense of who else is in the learning space with them. One way we do this is by playing inviting music and having a slide that asks participants to answer a question or two in the chat, such as, “Where are you located, and what’s one thing you are grateful for today?” We also say hello to people by name as they come online. When the program begins, consider having folks go to gallery view, wave to each other, or even come off mute to greet each other at the same time.

Provide opportunities to be seen and heard

There’s nothing more deadening than getting online and finding yourself being talked to for an extended period of time. No matter how large your group, online technologies provide a myriad of easy ways to “hear” from and energize all participants. Some examples: Invite participants to come up with a metaphor for how they are feeling today, then write it in the chat and say why. Use shared documents or an “annotation” feature to invite participants to express themselves through written language, imagery, or both. Ask people to introduce themselves or reflect on an activity in small groups in breakout rooms. Welcome participants to raise their hand to speak aloud in the main session. Finally, at appropriate times, invite everyone to unmute: encourage the sharing of affirmation, applause, or sound effects during activities that would benefit from it.

Engage the body

In online workshops, we have fewer natural opportunities to move around – but engaging the body remains essential to learning! Make sure to incorporate movement into your activities, and generally keep participants’ minds refreshed by periodically leading short movement activities such as dancing or guided stretches. You can share the leadership with participants by asking for volunteer leaders and spotlighting them when it’s their turn to lead. You can make movement activities more accessible by modeling doing activities from both standing and sitting and reminding folks to do what’s right for their body.

Tend to the Learning Container

When facilitating online, it can be more difficult to read body language or feel the energy of the group, so it’s important to find ways to see how things are going. One way to do this is to ask participants to show their level of engagement by raising from one to ten fingers (or writing the number in the chat). Ten means “I’m very engaged”; one means “I’m tired and sleepy”. You can use polling to gain anonymous input, such as about how people feel the group is doing with shared agreements, and you can also let people know that they can send you direct messages if they prefer if they have concerns or requests. When appropriate, create a breakout room to meet with a participant undisturbed during a break or even while another facilitator is working with the rest of the group.

Connect the home environment with the online world

You can help people from falling into the Zoom tunnel by engaging them with their tangible world. Encourage folks to write or draw using real paper, markers, and other home supplies. Invite participants to move around their room and focus on something other than their screen for the purposes of an activity. For example, you might have them look out their window, and share what they see or even show their small group members their view. Or, they might find an object that represents a theme from the workshop, share the object, and why they chose it. Sometimes, found objects can serve as the launch pad for a free writing exercise, an imagination game, or a group performance! The opportunity to access and share our home environments is actually a unique and wonderful feature of the online setting.

Create a sense of shared digital “space”

When we work in person, we have a room, colorful signs, a circle of chairs, a refreshment table – all physical indicators of our immersion in the program. Online, we need to create that sense of shared space digitally. One way is to play music in your workshop to accompany introspective or energetic activities, and to welcome people to the workshop or back from breakout rooms. You might make engaging slides that convey the tone of the workshop, give people helpful information, and signal transitions. People can interact physically online – try having them “mirror” another person’s movement or “throw” an imaginary ball to the person they choose to share next. Always let participants know when it’s a good time to be in gallery view, and always put instructions for breakout rooms in the chat. These and other techniques help establish a sense of shared space.

Offer choice and activity adaptations

As in any program, participants in online programs need some choice about how they participate. We can encourage the use of video on or off as appropriate for different activities, but the reality is that not everyone always can or wants to use their video, and sometimes there are folks who have mic challenges. As in any program, it is best to ask participants what their accessibility needs are. One option is to reach out to participants ahead of your program to explain the technical requirements, to get a sense for accessibility needs, and to inquire as to what device they will be using and their capacity for video and audio. Regardless, you can also make a habit of offering activity adaptations for any who need to leave their video off, or for those on devices that make shared documents or annotation difficult. As always, use language that is inclusive of many kinds of bodies and comfortability levels, and tend to different learning styles.

Keep calm, and carry on

Like all facilitation, online facilitation goes best when you go with the flow! If your music doesn’t play, or your slide won’t show, or the chat isn’t enabled, take a deep breath and embrace change. It will be okay! Sometimes, taking a breath will help you think of something else you can try: perhaps a co-facilitator could open the slide, or you could share a link with participants in chat. Other times, you discover something you can do instead that is equally great, or even better. Remember, the most important part of your workshop is what participants get to do and share. We had a workshop of hundreds of people where our breakout rooms refused to open. Rather than get hung up on the challenge, the facilitator found other ways for participants to share their art; participants from that workshop later commented on how special it was to remain together and to witness those who shared personal stories that accompanied their artwork with the whole group.

Develop a culture of appreciation

People are more inclined to participate when they are appreciated. Online, we unfortunately cannot generally hear murmurs of agreement or affirmation, or other natural indications of support. So we model shared ways for participants to express their appreciation for one another. We encourage the use of Zoom “reactions”, giving kudos in chat, showing gestures of enthusiasm or appreciation, unmuting to applaud or even say all together, “We support you!”. You can remind people to show appreciation by doing it yourself.

Close with intention

Online, we need to be even more intentional about how we help people feel complete and ready to move on. Both reflective and physical activities are great ways to help folks transition from the program to their individual lives. You might try some of these activities when you complete a program: Invite everyone to write or draw something they learned on a piece of paper, as a memento of the workshop. Then ask everyone to share one thing they learned in the chat. Or establish an order, and then have each person say two words for how they are feeling at the end of this program. Consider doing a physical movement together that has meaning for the group, anything from asking everyone to make a gesture of appreciation for one another or to extend their hands outwards to “touch” those of the participants whose video box is on either side of them. You might also turn on some background music, and encourage people to unmute to say goodbye to one another.

Devon Little is a PYE facilitator, the primary designer of PYE’s Creative Catalyst Workshop Series, and  the program manager for the 2021 Power of Dialogue youth program. She works as a facilitator, trainer and mediator guided by the values of community, social justice and dignity.

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