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Learning to go virtual: Our highlights from the WISH Learning Event

In early December 2020, Itad facilitated the annual Women’s Integrated Sexual Health (WISH) Programme Learning Event. In our role as Third Party Monitor (TPM) for the WISH Programme, FCDO’s largest single investment in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and family planning, holding the Learning Event is one of our key deliverables as a learning partner.

learning event online illustrated by people with laptops on a laptop screen
Image credit: istock/Tetiana5


In previous years, the event spanned five days with around 60-90 attendees from across the WISH consortium, bringing together to reflect on experiences and learning from the last year of programme delivery. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the Learning Event went virtual in 2020, drawing in more than 400 registered attendees and presenting a number of unique challenges and opportunities. In this blog, three members of the Itad WISH team share their reflections on the brave new world of online conferencing.

Sustaining engagement

Holding the Learning Event remotely provided the opportunity (or challenge) to think outside the box in terms of building engagement and participation. Sustaining people’s interest over a five-day event is tough in person,  let alone with the added distractions, lack of personal contact and the screen time fatigue that comes with a remote event. There was real potential for things to fall flat. Fortunately, we found innovative solutions to this problem and they provided some added energy to the event.

  • Breakout rooms – We held these both as formal parts of sessions, but also as a chance to catch up and socialise in place of a coffee break. They worked well for gathering ideas and learning points, and gave more people the opportunity to speak, particularly those who might not have felt comfortable doing so in a large group.
  • Polls – Holding polls during sessions was a fun way to get everyone involved and helped break up the flow of the session – especially when there were some controversial results! They didn’t all have to be topical either – asking where people were calling from or how the weather was helped break the ice and got people involved.
  • Competitions – We held a photo competition related to the key theme of the event. This was a great way to add an element of fun and offered attendees the chance to relax in between intense technical sessions.
  • Variety – Holding the event remotely didn’t reduce the variety or diversity of sessions we were able to facilitate. This helped keep things lively and engaged participants in a wide range of ways. In addition to standard presentations, we had debate panels, Q&A panels, chat shows, world cafes, poster sessions and lightning presentations.
  • Keeping the momentum going – Following the event, we attempted to make the most of the enthusiasm that we built up by continuing to engage participants with surveys, newsletters, summaries and other activities to keep the momentum going, and to capture and share learning.

The combination of these various techniques helped to ensure that the lack of personal contact didn’t affect the energy or atmosphere of the event and kept people engaged from start to finish. Feedback from participants echoed this and praised the ‘family’ feel of the event.

Callum Taylor

Learning across time zones

One of our major challenges was thinking about how we ensured attendees from all over the world made the most of the Learning Event. With participants from around 14 time zones, it was going to be almost impossible for everyone to participate in real-time. With this in mind, we took some steps to enable asynchronous learning, with as much real-time participation as possible.

  • No physical venue: Being entirely remote meant we didn’t have a ‘conference centre’ where everyone could be together. We looked at a number of online conference apps with stages, breakout rooms and networking options – and whilst they looked amazing, we felt they lacked the familiarity of something like Zoom or Teams. In the end, we decided to use Zoom to facilitate our sessions and created a virtual ‘conference centre’ on Miro, an online whiteboard app – it included our agenda, links to sessions and resources, and became the place where we held our competitions and tried to recreate ‘togetherness’ with videos and photos. This meant attendees wouldn’t have to get used to an unknown app in order to access the sessions – and could explore the Miro board as much or as little as they had time for.
  • Spanning time zones: Our agenda ran from 8 am to 3.30 pm GMT to enable colleagues in Asia to join the opening plenary and those in North America to join the closing plenary. The plenaries focussed on learning questions so that even if attendees weren’t able to join any other sessions, they were able to get something meaningful out of what they could join. We also kept our simultaneous focus sessions quite short so that colleagues could join without the sessions being too disruptive to the rest of their day!
  • Real-time learning: To support reflection and lesson-learning across the five days, my colleagues Callum and Pippa took notes in real-time on key insights. These notes were then uploaded to our Miro board and attendees were given space in the closing plenary to read them before closing discussions took place. This meant, regardless of whether you were able to join none, some or all of the sessions, you could join the closing plenary with an idea of what had been discussed throughout the day.

The event was a huge undertaking and we tried to ensure that our colleagues could get as much out of it as possible, regardless of where they were located. The level of engagement we had from our hundreds of attendees was really inspiring – and has certainly got us thinking about how we can hold ‘hybrid’ remote/in-person events in the future!

Emmeline Henderson

Widening participation

In going virtual, the Learning Event gave us a number of opportunities to widen participation and put together a genuinely co-created agenda. With so many experiences of implementing SRHR programmes across the WISH consortium, particularly in the challenging context of COVID-19, the way in which these two aspects built off of one another to promote really rich learning was fantastic to see.

  • Co-creation: At the outset, we co-created five ‘daily learning questions’ with WISH implementing partners and the FCDO, centring on poverty, youth, fragile and conflict-affected states, disability, and transformative, equitable change. Embedding the theme of co-creation from the planning stage helped set the scene for wider participation throughout the preparations and the event itself.
  • Greater flexibility: Under these five daily themes and questions, we put out a call for sessions, which was cascaded down to in-country teams. With the cost barriers of participation removed (flights, accommodation, etc.), and the remote model allowing for greater flexibilities in terms of people’s time (i.e. no obligation to attend all sessions), we received a very enthusiastic level of response from consortium staff across the globe to hold their own sessions – over 60 ideas were submitted, of which we selected 28.
  • Bottom-up approach: Our approach to creating the days’ agendas allowed a truly diverse range of WISH voices to emerge. From UK government, implementing partners’ global headquarters’ staff, to regional offices, in-country programme staff, local partners (including civil society organisations and disabled persons’ organisations) and Ministry of Health officials in WISH countries, participants, speakers and session hosts were brought together around the same virtual ‘table’.
  • Networking: This represented a rare and unique opportunity for networking for people who might not have had the time or the opportunity to do so at a physical event. WISH teams on the ground were able to share their experiences with people in the UK and at the headquarters level. Ongoing Zoom chats opened up space further for people to contribute, agree and reflect on their own experiences. Each day was a real immersion in the daily learning question.

Overall, these experiences really encouraged us and demonstrated the power of participatory and co-created agendas, made all the more effective by removing some of the barriers to attendance.

Pippa Page