Planning for the conversations we want at our online workshops

As part of our original proposal, we'd committed to holding a workshop to interrogate, refine and advance questions from our book sprint, agree on high priority issues for future work, lay the foundations for future collaboration and provide input for a white paper.

Inspired by Priya Parker's work on purposeful gatherings, we planned two linked workshops themed around sets of key questions, working towards one overall question: now that our work can draw on models from 'online volunteering' to 'human computation', how do we find the sweet spot between the two, and productively address the tension between 'crowdsourcing as engagement' and 'crowdsourcing as data source'? In other words, how do we ensure that appropriate values, expertise and contexts are represented in decisions made across the field and at all stages of a project?

Moving our workshops online

Covid meant that we held the workshops on Zoom, rather than as a hybrid in-person/online event. We planned two half-day workshops to fit into UK afternoons / US mornings. We reduced participant numbers to help make the online event easier to manage (which unfortunately meant we didn't have the planned open call for participation). Invited participants included representatives from: Aotearoa New Zealand Wikimedia, Art UK, Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), AVP, BBC R&D, British Library, Black Cultural Archives, DigVentures/University of Leicester, Flickr Commons, Florida State University, FromThePage, Library of Congress, Library of Virginia, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), National Science and Media Museum, Newberry Library, Smithsonian Transcription Center, UCL, University of Michigan Library, University of Oxford, University of Portsmouth, UK ('Railway Work, Life & Death' project), University of Texas at Austin, University of Washington, Virginia Tech, Wikimedia UK and Zooniverse.

Heading: Collective Wisdom Workshop guidelines

Slide text: There'll be lots of breakout rooms for smaller group work
Help document discussions by adding notes to shared docs
Rule of two feet: come back to the main Zoom room if you get stuck
Lean towards generosity in interpreting our prompts, the process and each other
It's ok if: you have to pop out, pets or children appear
Message one of the project team if you have other questions

The slide included photos of Mia, Sam, Meghan, Eileen and Abbey.
One of our welcome slides

Day 1, Wednesday October 20, 2021, was focused on 'community organising, communication and participant experience'. Day 2, Thursday October, was focused on 'data and technologies'. Cross-cutting questions for both days included: would better links between different fields of practice (volunteering, community archives, etc) and academic research (crowd science, CSCW, etc) provide mutual benefit for all – and what would this look like in practical terms? 

Logistical considerations: planning for the conversations we wanted to have

The shorter, online timetable meant we put a lot of work into planning the event. We designed all our activities with our goals of nurturing a community of practice, informing future funding and policy work and generating a shared research agenda in mind. The Library of Congress's Eileen Jakeway Manchester and Abbey Potter made vital contributions to both our planning and on-the-day work.

We matched Liberating Structures such as '1-2-4-All', 'Making Space with TRIZ' and '15% Solutions' with specific topics to scaffold the types of conversations we wanted to have about each. (As these structures might be new to some, we provided a 'Liberating Structures cheat sheet for Collective Wisdom' in advance for any participants who liked to know what an event has in store.) Our introductions to the workshops included notes like 'Practice proper spelling and grammar amnesty' and 'It's ok if: you have to pop out, pets or children appear' that acknowledged the challenges of attending a workshop in the middle of the working week from home.

Each day had a combination of breakout rooms with small groups and plenary discussion sessions. Some breakout sessions began with written reflections, designed to give people a chance to form their own ideas before group discussion. Small groups often reported back to the main session. We also asked participants to help capture the discussion in breakout rooms in shared Google Docs, drawing on self-documenting 'unconferences', or leave comments on shared Google Slides. This also helped people who had to pop out for the school run or other commitments.

Eileen also introduced us to the idea of 'chatterfall', which took advantage of Zoom chat – people are asked to prepare a typed response to a question but not send it until prompted. In each case the screen was flooded with a range of thoughtful responses, giving a powerful sense of the richness of the conversations across the various activities.

Slide with prompt 'What questions did you come here with today?' and answers on 'post-it note' style backgrounds
Participants respond to a 'coffee' prompt 'What questions did you come here with today?'

At the start of each half-day workshop, we provided opportunities for informal socialising in the hope of recreating the serendipity of conversations over coffee and in registration queues at in-person events. We sent people off into random small breakout rooms with prompts for discussion (a version of 'two truths and a lie'). We also included a short informal debriefing / continuing discussion slot at the end of each day. Our discussion at the end of the first day led to some reconfiguration of activities for the next day.

'Future directions' ideas from the end of Day 2

Overall, feedback from the event was incredibly positive and several people mentioned that they would try some of the techniques we used. We had one important note from a participant who noted that managing conversations 'in the room' and on chat could be exhausting. Working remotely also made it hard to check in with participants who were less engaged.

A future post will share some of the lessons we gathered through a workshop retrospective, and we'll also share a white paper summarising the discussion.

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