On running a hybrid learning program during the pandemic

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The last Facilitathon had happened in 2019 and like so many other things – and as the pandemic started dragging on in 2020 – we started gaining hope that a 2021 in-person edition could be possible… Maybe at least some people could do it in person? That’s when we started exploring what a hybrid set-up of the 5-days training could look like. 

We had a head start into making events work during the COVID-19 pandemic. In march 2020, we kicked-off our decentralized international program Rumo. The program brought together teams of young people in Brazil, Palestine, Spain and Switzerland to train competences linked to strengthening participant’s resilience, ability to connect with others and keep a balance. Little did we know that 1 week into the program the pandemic would roll out… and make those competences even more needed. 

Rumo taught us about coordinating facilitators in charge of decentralized teams and about adapting to fast-changing realities. Whereas Rumo was planned to have several in-person meetings for local teams, one after the other location had to adhere to lockdowns and bring these meetings to the online space. Imagine a clown workshop happening online…

A hybrid Facilitathon

Rumo made it clear for us that despite its challenges, coordinating different sub-groups of the same program enabled to adapt to different realities. We started believing that for a Facilitathon to happen – at least partially – in-person, we’d have to reduce border-crossing as much as possible. Without having full certainty, we started betting on some locations to have a more stable situation and more relaxed COVID-regulations by the time the program would run. This was us in late 2020 trying to have a glimpse into what would happen in 2021. 

Looking for funding

In conversations with Movetia foundation, the Swiss agency for Erasmus+ funding, it became clear quite quickly that they were trying to figure out what the pandemic would mean for the mobility programs they support. At the beginning, there was no funding mechanism for online events, although there was a lot of openness to adapt programs like Rumo that were affected by the pandemic. 

By the time we started taking up the idea of running a Facilitathon in times of uncertainty and without knowing how exactly the program would look like, Movetia agreed to fund it either way – being it fully in-person, hybrid (partially online and partially in-person) or fully online. We didn’t put much faith into Plan A, but started planning in parallel Plan B and C. 

Truth is, by early 2021, it didn’t look good and there was a time we somewhat started considering that we’d have to bring the program totally online. To not create any false hopes, we actually announced the program as a fully online edition and were surprised with 80 applications. Surprising because we had a lot of doubt if people weren’t fed up with online events already. 

The work it takes

We don’t believe in just doing whatever we had done offline before, online. And how could we? Nobody deserves being online for 5 full days in a row. We needed a new program design. We ended up splitting the Facilitathon into its two core elements: giving participants a shared understanding of key principles of facilitation and creating a space for practising and gathering feedback.

Giving everyone a shared understanding of core principles and co-creating experience and knowledge can be done quite well online.We agreed and designed the first half of the Facilitathon as an online program with short content videos and personalized options for digging deeper: a Diving Deeper webinar for those who were new to the content, a Experience Sharing session for experienced participants and a Reflection Exercise for those looking for an asynchronous activity. 

The second half of the program – we call them the Practise Sessions – was when bringing it online was more challenging and we started flirting again with the idea of also offering in-person Practise Sessions, just because the personal contact, being together and fully experiencing the sessions, that cannot happen the same way online.

The back and forth 

Fast forward some months, the online program is running and participants are engaged and excited by the opportunity to learn from and with each other. By now we were with a hybrid set-up of 3 possible locations where in-person could be possible (Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain) and we were discussing with selected participants in these countries and neighboring countries if they would even be interested. Some decided that doing it online would be safer or more aligned with their availability, others jumped on the opportunity happily. 

It was always a bet of hoping that the COVID-19 regulations in these countries would allow for gatherings and for people to come from across the border. We constantly checked regulations and soon realized: although – as we had anticipated – countries were starting to open up as summer approached, it might not be fast enough. 

We looked for housing for the groups, never knowing if anyone would last-minute drop out, have symptoms or other reasons that would keep them from participating. We finally had to make a decision to book or not book and that’s when we had to let go of the in-person gathering in the Netherlands. Sadly, these participants were transferred over to online groups – because of course we had their availability mapped out, always keeping all the options open (it was the Plan B of the Plan B).

The implementation

Getting everyone tested before attending the event, organizing self-tests for during the encounters, last-minute ordering food and booking accommodation once the number of participants is confirmed… There is definitely more work and stress around organizing during a pandemic. 

But besides these things, everything went super smoothly. The in-person events were powerful and worth it for sure. Everyone was super appreciative of the opportunity of safely meeting people after so long, and the joy was perfectly visible on the videos and photographs taken. And the online groups also had powerful Practise Sessions, where they were able – as we intended – to reframe online meetings and develop even more their abilities to facilitate in the challenging online world.