We’re all (virtually) in it together – connecting online in an era of social distancing
With the corona/COVID-19 pandemic impacting the extent to which we can interact with each other in ways we are accustomed to, most of us are now resorting to alternative solutions for staying connected both professionally and socially. This often means having to move work meetings, family gatherings and professional development opportunities online. For some this is a completely new way of navigating social and professional engagements, and comes with its own host of challenges - in the middle of what is already an overwhelming and difficult time.
By Nina Vlemmings
Like everyone else, the Danida Alumni Network and its members around the world are experiencing cancellations and postponements of events and activities, as both alumni and organisations adjust to new government restrictions and do their bit to help contain the spread of COVID-19. At the global level, Danida Fellowship Centre’s alumni team has had to make the difficult decision to postpone the following activities:
- The 2020 DAN Workshop for representatives of local alumni network boards (originally scheduled for 30 March – 3 April)
- The start dates and disbursement of funds under the latest round of Danida Alumni Activity Grants
- A peer learning workshop for fellow coordinators of national alumni networks in Europe
We are of course acutely aware that the pandemic is also severely influencing most alumni activities locally.
The DAN team has every faith that the Danida and Denmark alumni communities around the world will find ways to stay connected and continue to seek support and inspiration from each other, as we all navigate our way through this surreal and unprecedented period. Local alumni networks already facilitate regular online interaction and sharing via platforms such as Whatsapp and Facebook, and many of you are no doubt already exploring ways to complement these online groups with other virtual initiatives.
To support these endeavours, here are some ideas that we have collected to help inspire the development of digital alumni initiatives until it becomes safe and responsible for us to gather in person again.
The basics: What platform is best suited to your alumni group?
Many of you will already be familiar with a range of group video conferencing platforms, such as Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and GoToMeeting that all offer free versions (or trial periods in the case of the last two). Facebook Messenger of course also has a video calling feature that may be convenient for groups that are already using Facebook as their primary communications platform.
The platform you go for will depend on your needs, your internet connection and, consequently, the features and participant capacity your group requires. Do you need to share screens (if you want to give a power point presentation or show a film)? Do you want access to a whiteboard or a live poll function to help make larger meetings more interactive? Do you want the option of hosting a large number of participants? In other words, do some research to make sure the basics are in place, but the most important consideration is to find a solution that is stable, accessible and user-friendly for all participants.
For those merely needing a straightforward group video calling and chat application, this simple overview by TechCrunch might be a helpful start. If your internet connection is unreliable then ensure your chosen platform allows participants to join calls with ‘audio only’, as this uses less bandwidth than video calls.
Tips for hosting an effective alumni meeting online
Keep the knowledge sharing, network planning and learning alive in your alumni community by taking your discussions and meetings online. You may want to invite an external specialist from your professional or personal network to give an online presentation or a simple webinar session on a topic of relevance to your local alumni network or a sub-group within it.
As a helpful summary of things to consider when planning your online event, the Danish organisation “Deltager Danmark” has created this list of ten key points:
- Have a clearly defined purpose and agenda. Outline these at the start and refer back to the agenda during the meeting, so the participants know where you are.
- Set out a shared code of conduct. This could include muting microphones when not speaking, when to use the platform’s chat function, how to pose a question to the speaker etc. Check that everyone has understood and is in agreement before moving on.
- Share roles and responsibilities. This could be delegating time-keeping, writing minutes, monitoring the chat function and similar tasks that may be required for your meeting to run smoothly. Delegating responsibility helps engage participants.
- Check-in and check-out. Once you’ve covered the above, ask the group a simple question to ensure that everyone is with you (to be answered either in the chat or verbally, depending on group size). The same should be done when wrapping up at the end.
- Speak for no more than 2 mins at a time. Try to break up your presentation and stories by introducing questions, images, film clips or other tools to keep the session energised and your participants alert.
- Use the chat function and polls to engage your group. Any interactive functionality that your chosen platform offers helps maintain focus and keep the audience engaged with the content.
- Use ‘break-out rooms’ to create intimacy and in-depth conversation. Some platforms offer the functionality of breaking participants into smaller groups. This is helpful for creating intimacy and when there is value in exploring multiple topics in-depth. If doing this, assign hosts for each group, who are responsible for reporting back.
- Gain commitment. Ask participants what they are committing to as a result of the meeting. This could be follow-up tasks, but also how people will build on any learnings they gained from the session.
- Create excitement by celebrating together. Any achievements, such as completing a task or arriving at a conclusion as a group, can be celebrated through applause (with microphones turned on). This lightens the mood and strengthens the feeling of togetherness.
- Be two co-hosts. Online meetings require multi-tasking, and it can be a great help to be two hosts, where you can share tasks related to managing the technology, monitoring the chat and sharing content on the screen, which will need to be done whilst presenting and facilitating discussions.
The above points are based on the original article (in Danish) by Deltager Danmark that can be found here.
Virtual social activities and learning about Denmark
Take your mind off the stresses of the current crisis and re-connect with Denmark and fellow alumni by setting up a social or ‘light learning’ initiative that you can participate in from home. Some ideas are sketched out below with links to sample resources.
Learn Danish together: Sign up to a free online language learning application together with a group of alumni in your local network, who are at a similar level as you. Create a group on WhatsApp, Facebook or another platform (see above) for those who are up for the challenge and start your learning experience on the same day. Keep each other motivated by taking turns to share your new ‘Danish word of the day’ or regularly testing other group members with grammar and vocabulary that you have recently learned.
Virtual reality tours (of Denmark): There are many cultural institutions in Denmark that offer virtual tours, and no doubt this is also the case in many other countries. Why not set up a ’museum visit’ with a couple of fellow Danida /Denmark alumni over a platform like Zoom or Skype that allows for screen-sharing, so you all can follow the virtual museum tour together, whilst also discussing the experience. Seeing an exhibition with others might ignite some interesting conversations and it also allows you to delve into each other’s knowledge about Denmark.
Lonely Planet provides this overview of some of the free virtual tours offered by Danish museums and historical sights. You can also get an online sneak peak of the National Aquarium of Denmark, Den Blå Planet here. In addition, some museums and cultural institutions produce interesting podcast series in English. One example is these podcast episodes produced by the Danish Architecture Centre.
Alumni book club: Being encouraged to read interesting and inspiring stories during these challenging times may help you keep your spirits up! If you have a smartphone, an e-reader or access to an online library collection then you can start a book club with a group of Danida or Denmark alumni at a very low cost. This is a great way to connect and have a stimulating and inspiring conversation with fellow network members, whilst getting to know them better. You may want to narrow the reading list down to works by Danish authors, and deepen your knowledge of Danish history and culture.
In this article on Bustle, you can find some tips for hosting an online book club. For a reading list, take a look at this one of modern Danish classics from the Danish Cultural Institute or these recommendations from students of Danish literature.