Our best takeaways from training ambassadors online

Our ambassadors are amazing young LGBT+ adults, who deliver sessions in schools and colleges championing equality. This autumn Just Like Us has trained nearly 100 new ambassadors, ready to work in Bristol, Cardiff, Durham, London, Manchester and Oxford schools.

One brand new thing we trialled this year was training a small group of our ambassadors online rather than in-person. We used only Google Apps - specifically, the videocalling app and the word processor.

Here are my takeaways from designing and delivering our online ambassador training.

The key challenges

Maintaining the focus and motivation of new ambassadors

When ambassadors arrive at in-person training, we close the door and, for several hours, they shut the world out. They’re surrounded by other volunteers, and they’re absorbed in Just Like Us.

A challenge with online training was to rethink whether it’s possible to achieve that immersion when ambassadors are sat at their own laptops by themselves. There’s no action happening around you, and you’re staring at a screen. It’s difficult to make that not boring.

The first thing I did was to more than halve the training time - from 10 hours to 4.

And, because staring at a screen for 4 hours is still a recipe for glazed eyes, I planned for every hour of training to include a 15-minute break for getting up and wandering around.

Rethinking the outcomes of training

Through in-person training, our ambassadors learn a wealth of skills and knowledge that help them truly represent Just Like Us and confidently deliver sessions with kids.

With under 4 hours of learning time, all via Google Hangouts videocalling and Google Docs, I knew I had to rethink what ambassadors could realistically achieve.

I couldn’t do justice online to the truly practical skills - like public speaking practice. In-person training includes 2 hours of learning and practising public speaking techniques; the outcome is that ambassadors have improved techniques and confidence around public speaking. For online training, the learning objectives became:

  • Be aware of what will make you good public speakers in the Just Like Us context

  • Understand the importance of practising

  • Understand the opportunities you’ll get to practise and become better at public speaking

I felt many other training outcomes could still be achieved - if I could thoughtfully design learning activities for the web.

Creating learning activities for the web

So many routine training activities seem impossible online: engaging presentations, post-it notes, soliciting thoughts from around a room, sticking up hands, drawing or writing on paper, discussing in pairs, moving around a room, practising a physical skill.

Two specific challenges were to include varied activities to suit different learning styles; and to enable ambassadors to work together and bond.

Some of our designed-for-web activities included:

  • Talking through content briefly over the mic, and writing down key points in the Google Hangouts chat window straight afterwards, so that ambassadors could take it in auditorily and visually (similar to in-person training)

  • Using the Google Hangouts chat window to throw out questions and get ambassadors to respond in writing e.g. “Would you use the word ‘queer’ to describe LGBT+ people in schools?”

  • Inviting ambassadors to turn on their mics and read written pieces out loud or give their thoughts

  • Inviting ambassadors to follow along with a Google Slides presentation online

  • Giving ambassadors timed challenges to write or draw things in their own physical notebooks

  • Linking ambassadors to YouTube videos to watch altogether e.g. this CBBC video, to get ambassadors remembering what 11 year old kids are like

  • Collaborating on written activities in a Google Docs ‘group worksheet’

The group worksheet I designed on Google Docs allowed ambassadors the opportunity to work in teams. I pre-assigned each ambassador as either a giraffe, a panther or a t rex, and created activities in the worksheet to get ambassadors working together in their own animal ‘packs’.

Shared Google Doc worksheet, splitting ambassadors into animal 'teams'

Icebreakers were important for bonding, like in real life. I asked ambassadors to introduce themselves in the Google Hangouts chat window, recommend LGBT+ YouTubers to each other and suggest songs that we could listen to as energisers. Bon Jovi featured.

One thing that surprised me about online training

The format can encourage more, better and fairer participation

Online chat windows and documents:

  • Facilitate more good-quality contributions. They give people more time and space to put down thoughts or answers in writing. In in-person training, it’s usually the quickest thinker or the most outgoing person who ends up answering all the questions or making the most contributions. In writing, those who want to think about or craft their answers have time to do it.

  • Allow multiple people to contribute at the same time. Within 2 minutes of in-person training, maybe only one person gets to say their piece. Within 2 minutes of online training, 100 people can all write and submit something. That also gives us - the trainers - a better opportunity to test everyone’s understanding rather than the understanding of the one person who has time to answer.

  • Encourage a wider array of thoughts and answers. Online, ambassadors were partly freed from anxiety around looking silly or speaking up. I wonder if they succumbed less to group-think, and whether we got more interesting and varied contributions as a result.

I thought delivering training online could lead to less participation, not more. Thinking about it, any teenage gamer could have taught me otherwise.

Last thoughts on online training

Overall, I am really happy with our venture into online volunteer training. As Just Like Us’s head of volunteer programmes, it’s forced me to really frame training and development as a journey or an ecosystem: our ambassadors have learned the basics online, but they must utilise other opportunities to be the best they can be. Therefore, we’re putting more weight on our hub leaders building physical communities of ambassadors, as well as socials, talk practice opportunities and top-up training.

Throughout the year, I’ll certainly keep an eye on how our online-trained ambassadors fare in relation to their counterparts. How connected do they feel to Just Like Us? How motivated and confident are they to volunteer in schools? And I know training can still improve: for instance, some sections ran over time, and there were activities which could have been designed more engagingly for the web.

But if it works, there are huge implications for us as a small charity:

  • We could train new ambassadors many times across the year instead of just in autumn, as it takes less staff time. We could also train 1 new ambassador in Bristol, 2 new ambassadors in Cardiff and 2 new ambassadors in London all at once, when it wouldn’t be savvy for us to deliver three separate in-person trainings to low numbers of new volunteers per region. That means more volunteers overall.

  • We could extend our school services to regions where it may not otherwise be viable. If we can train ambassadors remotely, then theoretically anyone across the UK could become a great ambassador, and they could make our services available to more schools and colleges - particularly those in remote or rural locations with typically less LGBT+ provision.

I’m excited to watch as online learning and development empowers more volunteers to champion equality in UK schools and colleges.

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