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Innovating Online Learning Pathways

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Have a read of this blog by associate Darren C. Brown and his colleague Daniel Toro. So relevant for our current times!

Virtual Networking and Dialogue for Learning and Change: ten inspirations for designing and facilitating virtual and on-line learning pathways for results.


Organizational colleagues and development practitioners convening in the Zoom Room and MSTeams during the 2020 phase of the COVID19 global pandemic was initially met with skepticism. Counter-intuitively it bloomed with successful enthusiasm; and, as 2020 fatigued, so too did the “zoomish-energy”. Without doubt, the online and virtual platforms experimented with demonstrated both significant successes as well as tiresome failures. Migrating previous ways of working or workshop-styled trainings proved ‘doable’, but certainly not a life-giving nor an inspirational undertaking. However, with thoughtful dialogue design and the appropriate use of technology, a portal for strengthening global learning networks magically opened.

The insights and “tips” for innovating with virtual networking and dialogue to strengthen learning and change shared in this short article are based on three 2020 UN FAO FIRST learning and change initiatives to strengthen teams and global networks; an iNGO learning inquiry styled evaluation conducted with young women leaders and mentors in East Africa and South Asia; and, migrating previously developed training sessions to the virtual space on behalf of various government agencies. The “tips” are entirely functional in nature ~ meaning they refer to the how of designing and facilitating virtual and on-line learning

1. Partner with a leader or champion who values learning and risk-taking as essential elements of developmental change. Designing for and facilitating dialogue and learning in the virtual space demands an appetite for risk. Practice has shown that involving a diversity of team members and participants in the design thinking phase of the initiative is a wise risk mitigation response.

Verbal and non-verbal communication work differently in the virtual space than in face-to-face meeting or workshop encounters. Based on the visual real time component, the mind can be tricked into thinking “we are together”, but in fact we are not. There are multiple distractions that can easily get in the way of clear communication. Mistakes and misunderstandings will occur. Playfulness is key. The success of the initiative is highly dependent on how the leadership “shows up”. Commitment to learning is the essential ingredient to success.

2. Design a “learning pathway” with an eye to timing rather than time. Imagine designing a one, two or even three-day workshop, but spreading it over two, four or six weeks. There is the powerful potential inherent in focusing on timing a series of focused learning interventions as compared to designing for one singularly extended time. Conventional workshops demand that participants show up together in one geographical place at one time. To keep things cost and resource efficient, agendas are tightly scripted leaving little time for quiet reflection and individual sense-making. In the virtual space, participants can convene anytime, from anywhere with adequate internet access. This allows for 90-120 minute cascading or sequential sessions scheduled over a period of time, thus enabling meaningful reflection for the participants and thoughtful iterative design by facilitators. This design approach, quite different than the “workshop”, has been called a learning pathway. In this approach, the luxury of thoughtful pacing and timing is leveraged rather than being stressed-out over the time crunch. See an illustrative example of learning pathway design thinking below ‘Micro-Biome: The Missing Link?’ The outside circle in the graphic represents six sequential sessions over many weeks.

3. Design for synchronous, asynchronous and “back-channel” modalities. The synchronous space ~ real time and “face-to-face” ~ is demanding and taxing on the eyes and body. Use the synchronous time wisely and engage participants in meaningful dialogue. No more than two or three open-ended questions of inquiry are required. Play between sufficient small groups discussions (small groups of three have proven optimal) and plenary sense-making to build shared vision. The asynchronous space can be used to archive relevant learning material ~ articles, PPT presentations, videos, etc. which participants can view at their convenience. Create a forum or a discussion thread in the asynchronous platform to maintain and enhance the collaborative learning spirit. The “back-channel” is a modality for quick announcements to the participant group or messaging between facilitators when the learning initiative is “live”. In our experience, Whatsapp was the back-channel of choice. Finally, calling upon the strengths of e-agility, use the asynchronous platform and back-channel functions during the synchronous session to build up the comfort and attention of participants.

4. Set specific, outcome-based learning objectives and complement with a detailed and written dialogue design. Know where you want to arrive and map-up a dialogue-based learning design to get there. What is the learning result or concrete change anticipated? Draw upon Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle to inform the design flow and methods of the learning pathway. As dialogue is key and meaningful reflection time honoured, be open to the emergence of unanticipated outcomes.

5. Co-Create “Principles for Collaborative Learning in the Virtual Space during a Global Pandemic”. The virtual learning pathway approach enables meaningful learning, but even more importantly, if done well, lends itself to building a learning network or community of practice. Key to this is keeping in mind that many are living with the stress of COVID19 lock-down, quarantine, illness or stress. The gendered and inter-cultural influences and dynamics of working from home will also influence participation. Launch the learning pathway with co-creating a set of principles for collaborative learning in the virtual space during COVID19. This might be as simple as asking the question “For this space and time to be an accessible, meaningful, and inclusive learning environment and experience for you, what qualities or ways of being would you hope to experience?” Name and explore complementary and mutually shared learning curiosities amongst participants to build shared commitment to co-journeying along the learning pathway.

6. Walk the talk of social inclusion and accessibility. Prior to launching the learning pathway, platform and introduce the virtual learning technology to ensure accessibility and tech-check the virtual and on-line tools with participants. Offer mini-tutorials and encouragingly coach participants. Start on time ~ and stick to time agreed upon limit of synchronous time. Open the synchronous space 15-30 minutes early and invite participants to enter the “space” for testing their audio and informal social exchanges. End on the agreed upon time with offering each participant a chance to close with a word or sentence of appreciation or learning.

7. Inter-Generational Co-Facilitation as Co-Learning and Co-Mentoring ~ Seize the opportunity! An unanticipated inter-generational learning opportunity opened whilst shifting collaborative convenings to the virtual space. Getting network strengthening learning pathways “right”, requires a balance between the agility required to effectively navigate the virtual technology and experience in designing and facilitating dialogue for learning and change. Recognize and value that Millennials have the lifetime experience and “muscle memory” to swiftly set-up and facilitate in the virtual space. This is balanced with the technical expertise of a senior facilitator skilled in designing participatory dialogues for learning and change. No amount of structured coaching or courses could equate with the mutually valuable learning and relationship building inherent in this co-learning and co-facilitating opportunity. Furthermore, the inter-generational insights shared (hope-based foresight and experience-based hindsight concerning “change”) are co-supportive to navigating the unknown territory of a global pandemic-induced online learning space.

8. Incorporate visual learning pathway “maps” and graphic trajectories. The learning pathway is designed to be implemented and “mapped’ over a specific period of time. Illustrating the pathway graphically; introducing it at the launch of the learning pathway initiative; and, opening each successive session thereafter strengthens a shared understanding of the co-learning journey. A singular graphic holds the “holism” of the learning pathway. See below the graphic Young Women Leadership and Mentoring Initiative: A Learning Inquiry. This singular graphic captured and held the intention and focus of an eight month co-learning process.

9. On-going monitoring of participation and learning through regular feedback is critical to maintaining the iterative richness of the learning pathway. There are numerous techniques for assessing participation and learning during the pathway initiative. It can happen in informally structured and “live” in the synchronous space; or more deliberately structured, and offered in the asynchronous space where participants can response in anonymity.

Given the learning pathway’s approach of the stretching and sequencing a series of appropriately designed short learning interventions over an extended period of time; facilitators might also consider opening and sharing the process of monitoring learning, collecting evaluative feedback even co-facilitation with participants. Equally important is that co-facilitators and the initiative lead or champion check-in on a regular basis to assess their own observations, insights and suggested adaptations.

10. Laugh … laugh allot at yourself and with others! We are living amidst a global pandemic, an unprecedented time for almost all of us, and trying to learn to work in for social transformation and equitable change in the virtual space. Really, it is all a bit surreal. Like the session with 45 participants recently where after dividing into six breakout rooms for a 30 minute activity, BOOM, we were all back in the main zoom room! A technical glitch, we all laughed about how quickly 30 minutes went by, how we didn’t have anything to report! And just as quickly we were back into our break-out rooms. Along the co-learning journey, laughter will serve us all well. Take the time to laugh. Loudly!

Darren C. Brown is a People Development Associate, strategic facilitator and learning and change "co-inspirator"! (

Daniel Toro is a knowledge management consultant at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN with a background in international development. Daniel’s work focusses on designing and facilitating virtual learning events and managing network exchanges among policy practitioners.

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