"You can't replace an in-person workshop with one that's online. They're just not the same." - me, February 2020.
And now what do I think?
Since then, I have adapted and run a half-day Maths Teacher Circle session to be online (thank you COVID-19). Maths Teacher Circles are about bringing people together to do and discuss maths and so, to stay true to this, the online session was run live with opportunities for interaction with presenters and collaboration amongst attendees.
I still see that in-person and online workshops aren't the same, but now I know that an online space brings unique benefits. Here's what I found.
1. More anonymity in online workshops means less pressure to compare.
In every workshop I run, there are people in the room who are uncertain about their abilities. Some are worried about not knowing as much maths as the person next to them, for others it's to do with solving problems in a messier and less formal way and then others hold concerns about thinking and working slowly. This especially holds true when there is a mix of trained maths teachers and 'out-of-field' teachers or primary and secondary teachers in the room.
As I prepared for the online workshop, what wasn't obvious to me is that when you're online, this information is hidden. Sure, you and your tropical island Zoom background might be visible, but you're more anonymous. No one else can see how you're working, what tools you're using or the solutions you find.
Afterwards, several attendees shared their experience with me. They mentioned how much more relaxed they felt about participating in this way. Not only were they doing maths from the comfort of their own home, but it was easier to ignore and not compare themselves to the faces on the screen, in a way that is much harder to do when you're in the same room.
Just as every student is different, so are teachers. So the more we can create professional learning environments where the pressure to compare is removed, the better.
2. Break-out rooms make visibly random groups simple.
About mid-way through an in-person workshop, I often get teachers to change tables and sit with people they have not met before. I mention to them,
"We all want our students to be able to work with their peers. So by working with others now, this is a chance to better understand the experience your students have. Plus, you'll get to meet some new people."
Peter Liljedahl's research on groups that have been formed via a visibly random process relates to students, but provides insights that are relevant to consider in an adult context. He has found that visibly random groups can lead to a number of benefits, including:
the elimination of social barriers within groups and the broader cohort,
increased sharing of knowledge, and
increased enthusiasm for and engagement in learning mathematics.
In person, however, facilitating visibly random groups can be clumsy and confusing to set up. Because of this, I tend to get workshop attendees to change tables only once and the groups they form aren't truly randomised.
Using Zoom for the Maths Teacher Circle workshop, made this process simple. After being presented with a new problem to solve, attendees were then assigned to break-out rooms, each time with different people. By the end of the workshop, everyone had worked with at least half of those in attendance. No one had needed to pick up their gear and get out of their seat, they didn't even need to remember which group they had been assigned to. All of this was automatically managed and made the sharing of ideas far easier.
These two findings - reducing the likelihood that self-comparison will happen and easily forming groups - were two unexpected benefits of moving workshops online and I'm curious to explore them some more. I wonder if group size matters, how best to provide information to break-out groups, what form that information should take and what strategies to use to help make it even easier to share and challenge ideas.
I'm also curious about other benefits of moving workshops online. What have you found?
There's one other benefit - a really big one - that I haven't gone into detail about here, because it's not unexpected. It's that online workshops are far more accessible and are open to people regardless of location. For the Maths Teacher Circle workshop, we had presenters and attendees joining in from across the globe - something that wouldn't have been possible in a purely face-to-face environment.