Most of us have now been to a “hybrid” event. Coming out of (this phase of) the pandemic, hybrid events are popular, as they seem to combine the benefits of online (geographically remote participants can join with ease) with the benefits of in-person workshops (a fuller relational, unmediated, spontaneous experience, with a greater affective dimension). Many, though not all people, enjoy learning in the company of others, feel energized by other people – and a skilled facilitator of an event will co-create that energy with the group, work on an affective as well as an intellectual level, and harness the “vibe” to drive creativity, motivation, commitment and the building of social ties.
However, many of us have been to hybrid events where the facilitator was torn between their remit to “fully” include the online participants, to maintain equity of voice for online and offline, and at the same time remain fully present in the room with the group in front of them. This is a real tension, and in some cases organisers have gone for a technological fix, of orientating the room towards a large screen which then makes the faces of those online able to turn on video at least as big as the faces of people in the room. Sometimes powerpoint slides are shown. The screen becomes central, not just to the experience of those online, but also to the people in the room.
In our participatory workshop in Jordan we took a radically different approach: we developed a people-centred approach to hybrid methodologies: we decentred the screen and centred the people – facilitators and participants.
For context, the GCRF Livelihoods for Refugees project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between engineers, natural scientists and social scientists from Sheffield University (including IGSD’s Melissa Gatter, Steve Connolly and Dorothea Kleine) and colleagues in Jordan at Petra University (Aya Musmar and Anwar Kwaylieh) and Al Al-Bayt University (AABU, including Mohanad Masad and Najah Al-Shanableh), located close to the Syrian border. Importantly, this is a participatory action research project which works with highly skilled collaborators from the Syrian refugee community in nearby Zaatari camp and Jordanians from the local town of Mafraq. At the end of the project, we ran a series of three workshops to gradually hand over the project to these local participatory action researchers (PARs).
The workshop in question was the second in the series. We knew that some PARs would not be able to come to the workshop at AABU university in person, since they had caring responsibilities in camp, were unable to get the permission papers to leave the camp, and some had Covid. We also knew that networking between the social, technical and digital PAR teams was a key aim of the workshop, that bonds of trust had formed between the PARs in each of their groups and with the Jordanian leads, including the facilitators, and that this affective dimension would be central in the forthcoming phase of the project. Further, there would be no powerpoint, but plenty of flipchart/post-it participatory exercises as well as group exercises.
When I proposed to do the workshop in hybrid format, the fellow facilitators were concerned that this would distract from the experience in the room. I promised we would try a different approach to hybrid, and that we would privilege the experience in the room. We would not distract the facilitators who already had a highly complex workshop to run (in both Arabic and occasionally in English) and importantly, since we had excellent rapport (trust, respect and warmth) between the facilitators and the group, we would not distract the group from the facilitators. We would prioritise the relationships in the room, while also reaching out online. The principle would be: The technology adjusts to the people, it folds into the background, NOT: the people adjust to the technology and thus the technology is centred.
In practice, this had some clear implications: We would not attempt to make the online experience in any way equivalent, we offered only a basic streaming experience combined with some opportunities to interact. From an inclusion perspective, this was the hardest thing to admit.
In terms of practical tools, we arranged for an almost screen-free set-up in the room: There were 34 PARs in the room on six group tables, and 7 joining online, 2 main facilitators, 2 online/digital facilitators, 1 cameraperson holding their phone up to whoever was speaking and 1 person on sound. There were six flipchart papers on walls, marker pens, and mountains of post-its. There was a Whatsapp group which became a live front/back channel for all participating PARs and facilitators, online and in the room. Unobtrusively, there was a laptop with camera pointing into the room to give PARs online a sense of the room – a camera angle which constituted the secondary videostream on a Google Meet video meeting. The primary streaming came from a mobile phone camera, also linked to the same Google Meet video call session – with the camera person moving about with the facilitator as they stood in the middle of the room, fully focused on the people in the room, and after a while oblivious of the camera. Our Syrian PAR colleague Jamal Al-Othman further innovated by attaching an in-ear headphone on the facilitator which worked as a low-cost lapel microphone and with an attached phone in the facilitator’s pocket created a very good audio channel – also feeding into the Google Meet video call.
Thus, for the participants in the room the facilitator “was theirs” – the facilitator and group engaged unmediated – eye contact, movement, arm gestures – the interaction was full, intellectually and affectively, energised and unhindered. As a result, the workshop was highly participatory, lively, and creative.
Meanwhile, the participants online had: the very good sound quality from the facilitator channel, a close-up video from the facilitator (and when somebody else spoke and the camera switched, of that speaker) – they were, by proxy, in the room, as invisible observers. On another tile of the Google Meet, the secondary camera from the laptop showed them the room and also the two digital facilitators working with them. The digital facilitators collected comments in the chat, and when asked, voiced them into the room. Meanwhile the Whatsapp group chat was a space for them and the in-person PARs to communicate. Further, when post-its went up, comments from online participants in the chat were written on post-its, put up, photographed and fed back into the Whatsapp group to show the post-it suggested by the online person had been created and put up.
A lack of quiet breakout spaces meant that the whole workshop remained in the same room and we were not able to include the online participants in the group work due to sound level/risk of distracting groups. This is an area where in future we would book additional quiet breakout spaces which are necessary for online participants to be heard.
At the close of the workshop the facilitators reported not to have been distracted, the in-person group provided very positive feedback, and the online PARs expressed excitement and appreciation for all the efforts made to offer them a good, albeit nowhere near equivalent experience. Thus the hybrid nature brought benefits without major drawbacks.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have come a long way in innovating with online methods. As we move to more offline and hybrid formats, it is a good time to reflect on not just what gets the job done but also what motivates us and gives us joy in our work. For many, this also includes, where possible, unmediated, spontaneous and holistic engagement with other people. In experimenting with a people-centred approach to hybrid meetings we re-encountered the magic of human connection, as well as the everyday resilience of people innovating with simple, appropriate technology solutions. We learned something quite profound about hybrid meetings generally: Centre the people, trust the people to make it work. Build the technology around the people, not the other way around. A people-centred approach to hybrid workshops certainly worked for us.
Prof Dorothea Kleine is Director of the IGSD and leads the Digital, Data and Innovation Theme at IGSD. Her research specialism is digital development/ ICT4D and she has argued for a people-centred approach to information and communication technologies in development.
She is a co-investigator on the GCRF Livelihoods for Refugees project.