After a long and productive relationship with face-to-face BRIDGE, the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated the first virtual BRIDGE workshop for the Pacific Island, Australia and New Zealand Electoral Administrators’ (PIANZEA) network. From 8-12 March, 2021, a Voter and Civic Education Workshop was conducted for participants from Fiji, Nauru, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (unfortunately, connectivity issues meant that our colleague from the Marshalls was only able to join us for one day).
In fact, this workshop was a world first for a number of reasons. Using Zoom, we connected with nine countries and four separate cities in Australia simultaneously. It was also the first time that two TTF complete facilitators attained their Workshop accreditation in a virtual environment.
The group was small – only 8 – but the small size did not have a negative impact on the quality of the interactions. In fact, it was fortuitous in some respects as it made dealing with technical issues a little more manageable.
The facilitation team comprised of Vake Blake for the Tonga Electoral Commission, Ross Attrill for the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). The two facilitators completing their workshop accreditation were David Stuart and Julie Igglesden, both of the AEC. It was definitely a novel experience for both Julie and David but one they enjoyed.
Workshop organisers from the PIANZEA secretariat were present in each session to provide technical support. They played a valuable role as a second set of eyes for Facilitators to assist them with managing the virtual format as there are many different tools to control. This included taking note of hands raised, questions in the chat box and working with participants to address technical issues. This role also served as a back up to share tools such as Menti or presentations if the Facilitators’ systems froze. This role helped to ensure the smooth running of the workshop and freed up Facilitators so they could focus on their core role. The value of their administrative and organizational work prior to the workshop and their technical assistance during the workshop cannot be understated and I would recommend this type of support for any virtual BRIDGE workshop.
Julie and David performed brilliantly under, at times, very challenging circumstances. They were valuable members of the team, often helping out with PowerPoint and Mentimeter presentations. In fact, they both looked like they had been conducting BRIDGE for years. It was a very easy decision to recommend them both as Workshop facilitators. As expressed by one of them:
“I was most impressed by how we worked so well as team to jump in and assist when someone had trouble sharing a screen, or needed assistance with any of the software used in the workshop.”
The program itself was developed as 5 half days, each day with a particular theme. The themes were:
Day 1 – Definitions, First principles and the Eight Steps in Voter and Civic Education
Day 2 – Designing your Program
Day 3 – Implementing your Program
Day 4 – Monitoring Evaluating and Documenting your Program
Day 5 – Make it Happen: What Next in Your Work Place
Each day was based around a series of activities which helped introduce the daily theme to the participants. There was a short break mid-morning and the activities continued until about 1.00pm, at which time the participants were split into two groups and given an hour to develop a presentation based on a hypothetical challenge. They were then required to use what they had learnt on that day to develop solutions to that challenge.
The next day began with the group presentations. The high quality of the presentations indicated that the participants had gained a lot from the activity sessions and that they were motivated to look for solutions appropriate their particular context. This was supported by participant comments such as:
“The training is very informative for me as it is my first time to be involved with VCE, and I feel the need to educate our young citizens on voting and the electoral system. It will be more effective for a small country like ours to establish an independent office for the Electoral Commission.” And
“Thank you Once again facilitators. Very impressive how you’re getting on with the trial on delivering the topics in a much shorter time for each session as it was usually done in a normal BRIDGE face to face delivery mode.”
We were very lucky that some of the participants had extensive knowledge and experience in the subject matter. As always in PIANZEA, they generously shared their experience in the true Pacific way.
There were lots of facilitation lessons to be learned from the 5 days. Firstly, we had to deal with the vagaries of the connectivity of each country and to adjust to ensure everyone spent as much time as possible on line. This involved creative use of chat facilities and phone based platforms.
Prior to and during the program all facilitators discussed and reviewed the practicality and success of activities for the online format. This planning and real time evaluation allowed for a variety of successful adaptations to existing activities as well as testing different interactive methods of presentation including the more low-tech live brainstorm [facilitator types into document on a shared screen] to Menti [tech enabled live polls, quizzes and word clouds].
We also soon realized how draining the virtual environment was for all concerned. Although we only worked half days, it may be worth looking at shortening days further or perhaps running two days in one week and three in another.
What definitely worked was the thematic days and the group presentations. It gave the workshop the focus it needed and the participants the opportunity to express their ideas in a very BRIDGE like way.
All in all, it was very positive and constructive experience as evidenced by the amount of knowledge gained between the pre and post tests. It proved to me that BRIDGE works best in a face to face context but that it can still be a powerful tool when the only alternative is a virtual workshop.