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We log in early to settle in and to make sure all of the technology is working, but it’s not the same arriving early to Zoom as it is to arrive in a physical room, of course. Instead of arranging chairs, making sure the projector is working and greeting people as they walk in, we start with music. We have the music playing and cameras off until the start time—a kind of a virtual waiting room to greet people without the awkward video call chit chat or dreadful silence. Then we launch right in. Teaching online can feel unforgiving as we battle for attention.

Like many of you, we were reluctant to move to a fully online world. We hold the transformational experience of our in-person Search Inside Yourself program as a gold standard. We weren’t sure that we could replicate the magic that happens in the classroom, where the program, the teachers and the participants seem to come together to be more than the sum of their parts. We didn’t want to sacrifice this intimate and deep experience. But of course, COVID forced our hand.

I was incredibly nervous the first time I taught online. We received this comment from a participant: “For an online session, it is the best I have ever attended. I am genuinely really impressed and hold this as the Gold standard. As an Irishman, I don’t use Awesome, but it was.” I felt a sense of relief and a true faith that this works.

Now, having run several online programs, I’ve been shocked to see what’s possible in this virtual format as both an SIY teacher and SIYLI staff. It’s a different experience, of course. For me and for most of us, it takes more energy and effort to be fully present in Zoom. As a teacher, I miss the extra chit-chat with participants during breaks. I miss hearing the buzz of everyone talking in pairs or small groups. I miss physically standing next to my co-teacher and feeling in sync together. And yet, especially as an introvert, I love being in my own home during breaks with my own snacks. One of our SIY teachers who was participating in the program said he preferred online because he had more energy not needing to interact with people during breaks.

The biggest benefit of online programs is the ability of participants to meet people from very different backgrounds and geographies. We are used to running in-person programs in many cities around the world, but online the programs become truly global gatherings. One person who recently attended an SIY public program said: “Thank you so much to the entire team for making this online teaching format as interactive, engaging, and focused that it almost felt as if the global community is closer to you than you believe.”

High-quality online programs don’t happen automatically though. The SIYLI team has gathered best practices and iterated with our participants and clients. Here are a few of our hard-won tips:

1. Create an online learning container.

With each participant joining from their own space and sitting in front of a computer the whole time, the container of the program becomes all the more important. Facilitators can normalize distraction, while also setting ground rules to support attention and connection. At SIYLI, we always start with an arrival practice, to support people to be present and let go of other things pulling for their attention. We also like to take short stretch breaks—they are great for resetting and for bringing attention and awareness into the body. We close by encouraging participants to use the gallery view to take in the faces of the group.

2. Provide technical support and encourage technological equanimity.

Though it’s been months of life with the pandemic, participants may be used to different systems and may not be familiar with the exact technology or features that you’re using. Small technical disruptions can have a sizable impact on a participant’s experience. Having a point person for tech support and questions is essential, as is having very clear instructions for how to best use the technology platform. For example, we take a minute in the beginning of our programs to encourage people to use Zoom’s “side-by-side” mode to best see the speaker and the slides.

At the same time, though we try to make sure the technology is seamless, there are always challenges that pop-up. We encourage technological equanimity; it’s normal to be frustrated when things aren’t working, and it can also be a chance to pause, take a few breaths and reset. This is vital to do as a facilitator too! When a facilitator gets frazzled by the technology, it becomes a contagion to the group and distracts from the purpose of the program.

3. Increase interaction (then increase it more).

We know what it’s like to sit through hours of online calls and meetings, so we’ve thoughtfully designed and updated our programs for a highly interactive and optimal learning experience that maintains the magic of being together. I heard Alex Bloomberg, CEO of Gimlet Media, say about podcasting that you have to do something different every 30 seconds to maintain the listener’s attention. Teaching online requires a similar level of interaction and engagement.

Online programs allow for a different type of interaction than in-person programs. For example, asking everyone to use the chat feature to answer a question allows the group to hear from everyone quickly. We use features like chat, word clouds, breakout rooms, and annotation to engage people. This holds their attention, and is also a way to help the content land in their personal experience. Even little moments when you ask people to check in with themselves—even just asking “Can you relate to what I’m describing?”—supports engagement and reflection.

At the same time, not everyone will want to engage at all times. It’s ideal to give people a choice, especially if your program requires active participation in breakouts. We like to let participants know that a breakout is coming, and ask them to message our technical support person if they do not want to participate. That way, people don’t end up dropping from breakouts and leaving someone without a partner, and it leaves your participants able to choose their level of engagement.

4. As a facilitator, your energy is even more important.

Teaching or facilitating online feels a bit like feeling your way in the dark. There is much less feedback and interaction. I literally can’t see everyone at once and only really get to meaningfully interact with the people that speak during the full group Q&A. Instead, I have to bring more of my own energy and rely on my co-teacher and our program manager to make sure that everything is going well. To help up my energy, I take a minute to imagine being in a physical room with all of the participants before I start teaching. This helps me hold them all in mind with enough positive energy to hold the space. It’s also vital to give yourself enough prep time, including time to test all the videos, slides, transitions, and anything else before you start a program.

For my own feedback, the program evaluations become all the more meaningful to read. Normally, I read evals paying attention more to areas for my improvement. For online programs, however, since there is little other feedback, I try to really take in statements like, “I think it was the best presentation I’ve seen yet. I picked up some great tips for online teaching from watching you, and I loved connecting with everyone across the globe.” Reading the full impact of the evaluations helps me overcome my own negativity bias as a facilitator!

5. Precision matters more.

I’m sure you’ve logged onto a webinar where there is silence when you first join. Eventually, someone says, “we’ll get started in a minute,” and then silence again. When this happens to me, I’m immediately into my email or reading the news, and it becomes hard for me to really focus when the session actually starts.

We take care to start on time and play music until we get going. There is no silence or idle time anywhere in our programs, so no one is left confused about what’s happening or if their internet froze. Along the same lines, instructions for any actions for participants to take must be precise and repeated twice. In-person, a confused participant might just turn to the person next to them to catch up. Online, that’s not an option and they will either disengage or need to chat with you or your tech person. Clarity about instructions becomes all the more vital.

Finally, know that even with the best online facilitation and program design, other things will come up for participants. They will be distracted for reasons that have nothing to do with you. Remember that everyone is doing their best, including you.

Steph Stern, SIYLI’s Director of Global Expansion

Check out our online programs on emotional intelligence, leadership and resilience.