By Dr. Mzime Ndebele-Murisa, Program Specialist, START International
This year I had the opportunity to represent START by being a part of two ICLEI Africa’s virtual events in October. START is an organization with a remote staff spread out across Zimbabwe, Senegal and the United States. START adopted the remote model in 2018, finding unique solutions for in-person meetings when needed, but largely relying on typical virtual meeting solutions. My time working under START’s remote structure proved to be a welcome experience this year as the coronavirus pandemic forced most of the world into this virtual space and I found myself uniquely prepared and excited to be able to represent START in these events.
The first event, part of ICLEI Africa’s Tuesday Webinar series, was a webinar entitled ‘Advancing Education and Education Partnerships for Innovation in Communities – Africa.’ The second event was a seminar at their Daring Cities Conference (which was completely virtual for the first time this year), titled ‘Continuing the Learning: Leaving a Legacy of Partnerships at Local Level.’ As I was not new to the concepts of hosting and presenting online, I was quite comfortable speaking, presenting and facilitating virtual events – this comfort was not only due to START’s virtual model, but also to experiences working remotely with alumni, project partners and grantees based across the world and, quite frequently, in large research consortia and programs such as ASSAR, FRACTAL and EPIC Africa. In these programs I used and became familiar with a variety of standard virtual communication platforms and methods including email, Skype, Slack, Asana, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, and more.
Despite this experience working in the virtual space, however, my participation in these two events brought on new challenges. The preparation for these two events was meticulous. First, we were allocated an organizer for both events who worked as a bridge between ICLEI and the panelists and facilitators. Because ICLEI Africa had been hosting virtual events throughout the year, they were well versed in this process and were able to guide accordingly. One of the first things that impressed me was that (in ‘true FRACTAL style’ as we say in the FRACTAL project) the facilitators and panelists worked with the organizer to co-design and co-produce the concept of the events. This process allowed us to make inputs, conceptualize, understand, and appreciate what the events were all about. So even though ICLEI Africa provided plenty of guidance around the idea of their Tuesday webinar series and the Daring Cities Conference, we (the panelists and facilitators) had a sense of ownership of our sessions right from the start. In working on the concepts of the events in this participatory manner, we were able to examine its objectives and co-produce and refine questions and the program structure. I found this upfront engagement to be crucial to both the success and smooth flow of the events.
Additionally, I found the practice sessions, which allowed a chance to run through the program and test audio and video before the actual event, to be very helpful. Specifically, for the Daring Cities Conference, we used a platform that was entirely new to me (GoToWebinar) for which ICLEI outsourced technical assistance and having the change to run through the session in a ‘practice run’ was very useful. These practice sessions ensure that we were all clear and on the same page regarding the facilitation process, time allocations, when to switch on and off our videos and microphones and when each of us would speak. Anyone who has ever participated in a virtual event knows that virtual conferencing etiquette can be quite technical and background noises, feedback and echos can not only appear unprofessional, but can also take away valuable time from the event and discussions.
My experience with these events, however, were slightly different from each other, as I took on different roles in each: facilitator in one and panelist in the other. I found that, for each of these roles, there were different expectations regarding preparation, presentation, and etiquette. As a facilitator, you must be on your toes, keeping the conversation flowing while constantly watching the clock. For me, this experience was more in line with what I had expected, although I found I had to work on ensuring my sound quality was good. I ended up using a noise cancellation app and made sure I was in the quietest part of my home, away from the kids.
The role of panelist, on the other hand, was a bit more relaxed, especially since, in this particular case, the questions were shared beforehand. This allowed us the chance to research, formulate, and – in my case – even rehearse our answers which lead to more coherent responses and contributions to the event.
All in all, my experience with the two virtual events was very enriching and I look forward to participating in similar events in the future. Who knows – virtual events may be the norm for the foreseeable future.
Recordings of the two events can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXGktjZCPaI and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hsq9Ic_48k&feature=youtu.be