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Nicki Davey

Saltbox Training & Events


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How to make online learning holistic

Five key lessons about virtual facilitation.

This time two years ago, I firmly believed that online learning could never be as effective as face-to-face learning. Having spent several years developing a model of holistic learning that engages learners physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually in order to generate deep and meaningful learning, I had focused almost exclusively on how to do this in a face-to-face environment. I had written a series of articles for Training Zone on holistic learning, published a book, The Holistic Learning Handbook, and run courses for trainers on how to create holistic learning, but I hadn’t really considered how holistic learning principles might be applied in an online environment.

The pandemic has opened up so many opportunities and taken me on a journey of creativity and discovery. 

Then the pandemic hit, and I started to apply the holistic learning approach to online workshops and courses. What I happily discovered was that with enough creativity, positive energy and planning it is perfectly possible to create deep meaningful, holistic learning online. I even discovered some benefits to online learning that I hadn’t previously considered, so here are five key lessons that I’ve learnt, plus a few practical ideas based on my recent experience.

1. Learners are able to be their authentic selves

When learners join online training from home, they tend to be more authentic and relaxed. As they are in their own environment, wearing comfy clothes, with their pets and families around them, they are more able to be themselves. One learner on a workshop during lockdown was concerned that her daughters would distract her during the session, so I encouraged her to include them in the activities. Their contributions and insights opened the eyes of the group to a completely different way of seeing things that really enhanced the learning, but it also signalled to the group that they can just be themselves and don’t have to put on a ‘work persona’.

2. Learners have access to more materials and stimuli

Learners have access to the contents of their whole house or office, so activities that involve finding materials to use as metaphors or to create visual representations such as collages or sculptures work really well, engaging people on a holistic level and unlocking their creativity. In one workshop I had someone bring her two pet iguanas along to illustrate a point, and in another, someone decided to change the clothes she was wearing during a break from plain black to bright and colourful to reflect how her state of mind had changed as a result of the learning.

3. Learners do not have to be in front of their screens

Online training doesn’t mean that learners have to actually be sitting at their computers the whole time. We can create activities that are carried out away from the screen or require learners to move around or go outside, as well as encouraging them not to look at their screens with activities such as closing their eyes and visualising, looking around the room for metaphors, or gazing out of the window whilst reflecting.

4. Online workshops are just one part of the learning journey

We can create learning journeys that begin before any online workshops take place and continue the learning between workshops by setting up a variety of holistic, blended learning activities. The online sessions are then used to bring learners together to discuss, explore, question, and connect with each other. Our Leading for Good leadership programme includes online workshops, but most of the learning takes place outside of these, through nature-based activities, reading and research, journaling and reflection, one-to-one conversations, creative activities and discussions via WhatsApp.  

5. Forward planning is essential

Plan online workshops well in advance so that you know what materials people will need. You can then create and post packs of physical materials as well as giving learners plenty of time to complete any pre-workshop preparation. I love creating packs of materials – as well as helping learners to feel valued and invested in, they arouse curiosity as people open their packages and explore the materials. This triggers the release of dopamine, which enhances motivation to learn. As well as coloured paper and felt pens, I’ve included materials as diverse as willow hoops, mirrors, homemade scented playdough, herbal tea bags, lengths of rope, and wolf mask templates.

On a practical level, most of the ideas and suggestions in my previous articles can be adapted so that they work in the online environment. Here are a few additional thoughts based on my own experience of creating holistic online learning.

Engage the body

Use moving around activities such as scavenger hunts. Ask learners to bring sensory materials such as flowers, playdough, healthy nibbles etc. or to bring objects as metaphors that they can hold, touch, or fiddle with. Instead of using Zoom polls, ask people to stand up or sit down to signal a yes or no response to questions. Use breathing and stretching exercises to energise or relax people as required.

Engage the mind

Focus on asking rather than telling (ask learners to put their hand up when they want to speak to avoid people speaking over each other or holding back from contributing). Send learners key questions to consider or information to research/discover before the online workshop. Create experiments that illustrate a learning point by setting different conditions for groups in different breakout rooms and then compare their results.

Engage the heart

Build meaningful connections between learners. Use icebreakers and activities that enable them to share who they are rather than just what they do. Connect people across the Zoom screen by passing an object through the computer screen to someone else, throwing an imaginary ball to each other, or getting people to ‘hold hands’ visually on the screen. Ask learners to close their eyes and visualise breathing the same air or visualise a network of golden thread connecting them all together.

Engage the spirit

Help learners to develop self-awareness, connect their inner self with the external world, and find meaning or purpose. Playful and creative activities (from dressing-up to collage-making) help people to access and express their true inner self. Working in or learning from nature is provides a fast-track way to helping people connect with themselves, each other and the world around them (and gets them away from their screen). Use guided visualisations, meditations and mindfulness activities to enable people to be still and tune in to themselves.

The pandemic has opened up so many opportunities and taken me on a journey of creativity and discovery and I hope that some of these ideas have provided inspiration for you too.

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Nicki Davey


Read more from Nicki Davey

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