If you work, you probably have to take computer-based training. That’s fine to acquire some job skills. But what if the topic is something that you need to learn by doing? Have you taken a “workshop” online?
Last week I assisted in delivering a workshop for State Department employees via distance learning. For ten years I have helped to train public diplomacy staffers in strategic planning methods. This time, for the first time, our workshop was all online.
Fourteen employees participated from locations from California to Baghdad, spanning 11 time zones. Some called in from hot spots like Beirut and Kiev. The variety of locations was not unusual for our class, but the venue was: Zoom.
Most of us are experiencing Zoom fatigue. In this workshop the Zoom calls lasted less than two hours, releasing participants to apply their skills on their own and send in homework for instructors’ review. The instructors kept the twice-daily Zoom sessions interactive through the chat function and pop-up polls. They also used “break-out rooms” where small groups compared their work informally, free of the “raised hands” button.
Of course, sputtering internet access caused minor problems but I was surprised at how much of our workshop content conveyed. We learned a few lessons in the process.
- Less is more. My two colleagues who designed and presented the online workshop reduced it by a day and streamlined the content.
- Limit the tech tools. They have proliferated with the advent of the pandemic. State has tried several other platforms, which are all viable. But use the fewest possible platforms for any single offering and check carefully that all participants have access.
- Don’t skimp on instructional staff. The in-person workshop requires two instructors and an admin assistant. Online, we needed three instructors for a small-ish class. Our admin assistant worked the hardest, I think. As our “show-runner,” she had to control the Zoom sessions, send follow-up messages, and post to chat lines as well as manage registration details.
- There are limits. Not every one of the Department’s 190-odd locations around the world can join one workshop online because of limited bandwidth and access and extreme time-zone differences. Our participants in the Balkans and the Middle East were in class until 11 p.m.
Our training team at the Foreign Service Institute has been offering other remote classes for at least three months along with nearly all the FSI schools. Language training went remote overnight. The experience we are acquiring in this process will help us decide later which training experiences absolutely require boarding an international flight to Washington or a hub location, which can happen virtually, and which would benefit from a hybrid approach.
We won’t give up on the in-person experience; there’s no substitute for the uninhibited dialogue that comes from being in the same room or on the margins of an in-person class. However, I’m betting that State Department training will move toward a blended approach that features much more distance learning while saving airline miles and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
To learn about today’s approach to PD training, and the shift of U.S. public diplomacy tradecraft away from discrete cultural and information programs toward a focus on policy and audiences, I recommend a recent article by FSI’s director of public diplomacy training, Jeff Anderson, in “Teaching Public Diplomacy,” a special report by the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service and seven years in the private sector. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More