It's a Matter of Time
Time and time again, the biggest limiting factor for learning seems to be....well...time. The time that learners entrust to you as a designer and facilitator is a precious, non-renewable resource. Here are some suggestions on how you can manage it well.
When Designing a Workshop
Consider the time of year and date when you are holding a learning event. How might the weather affect travel? Is there another event going on nearby that might affect the course logistics, traffic or accommodation? Double check a calendar of local civic and religious holidays to ensure that you’re not picking a date that conflicts with people’s holy-days.
State the date(s), start-time and finish-time in the Welcome Package/LNRA to that the participants know when to show up. Ask them to inform you if they have any scheduling challenges (e.g. I will arrive late due to a medical appointment, I need to leave early to pick up kids). Ask them to call your cellphone if they’ll be more than 30 minutes late.
Stretch the learning time by asking the participant to read a short (2-3 pages) reading assignment, complete an online module, or reflect on a few questions. But remember that not everyone will do this, so don’t make it a crucial part of your design.
In naming your design parameters, remember that you will often have less time than you think. I’ve yet to go to a workshop (including my own!) that started precisely at the appointed time. In fact, I’d suggest that you assume that you are going to start late, that breaks and lunches will go longer than planned, that at least a few people will check out early….With that in mind, a typical 8:30 to 4:30 workshop goes from 8 hours to something closer to 6 hours….design accordingly.
Find out if you need to allocate time for the host’s “official” business. I’ve seen my best laid-out learning designs thrown off completely by the unexpected (to me!) arrival of a Tanzanian bishop at a community development workshop or a 30-minute speech by a Canadian government official who had asked to say “just a few words” at the start of the session. But if this is important to them, better to know ahead of time.
Set a realistic schedule for the day. I’m not sure that there is any magic number of learning tasks that a group of learners should complete in a day, but its always 2-3 less than I plan for in my first draft. Active learning requires time and space for the participants to engage deeply with the content and in dialogue with one another. Don’t rush it.
Don't pack in too much "What for the When". Avoid the temptation to "data dump" by providing reams and reams of information on many dense PowerPoint slides. It just leaves the learners feeling overwhelmed. Better to create an active learning experience so that the learners can engage with the key elements of content that they need to know (based on your LNRA). Learning in dialogue will seem at first that it takes longer, but with practice I have found that you can "cover" the same amount of content at a much deeper level of engagement, learning and utilization.
Provide adequate time for breaks and lunches. These are an important part of learning as people need to time to process, build community, pee (!) and recharge”. Breaks and meals are also a valuable opportunity to build community, which will tend to make the learning program go more smoothly. If there are not convenient restaurants nearby your venue, consider providing onsite catering to save time.
When creating learning tasks for groups, "do the math": Often I see designs that have unrealistic expectations of how long participants will need to complete a group learning task. When you design, be sure to do a quick calculation that considers the:
time needed for you to set the task
time for the participants to move into groups
time for groups to settle in and clarify what they’re doing
(time / # of questions X # the number of participants / group)
time to summarize their responses
(number of groups x time required to report back / group)
time required for a follow-up debrief discussion
Of course, you won't nail it down to 30.583829391 minutes, but that's not the point; just be sure to a realistic amount of time for them to complete the task.
Avoid listing precise time allocations in the participant’s workbooks. It seems to be a North American practice to break down the workshop program to the minute....But in my experience, the program almost never stays on this schedule anyhow, and having the tasks so precisely defined just stresses the time-conscious people in the room. So, I generally do not to include time allocations in the learning design, BUT.....
Block out the time in your own workbook for each task. One of your jobs as a learning facilitator is to keep the process moving while responding to the emergent needs of your learners. You need to be always aware of where you are in the program and what is coming up.
Keep a watch, small clock or cellphone handy that you can discretely glance at -- but be careful not to succumb to the temptation to check your Twitter account.
Pack a clock in your kit bag. If there is a clock in the room, I find that participants will often self-regulate their small group work. But just in case you end up in a room without one, you might want to add a small clock to your facilitator's toolkit. (NB: There are apps available that will turn your iPhone into a large-number, digital clock that will do in a pinch).
Check-in frequently with your co-facilitator to review the schedule, assess your progress and adjust the schedule for the remainder of the learning tasks.
Set the time for each task before you send people off to work solo, in pairs or in small groups. Refer to the room clock to note the current time, tell them how much total time they will have, and what time they should come back at.
Use music to keep the time. For certain tasks, I play a quiet song that lasts the duration of the group work. When the music stops, time is up. When possible, you can pick a tune that works thematically, as long as it is not distracting.
Be aware that there are different “time styles” – both culturally and personal. Not everyone is so anal about time as us North Americans. In Tanzania where I worked for four years, arriving an hour after the appointed time was not being considered late. And in fact, it was considered rude to begin a meeting before the important people arrived.
Don’t cut a group off if they need more time. Instead, drop by each group and ask them how much more time they may require. Pick a reasonable average – there is often one group that needs way more time than the others – and announce the “extension” to everyone. But make sure that you honour this new agreement.
Be careful when dropping a learning task. There are times when you just can’t do everything that you’d planned to and you need to “drop” a learning task. Refer back to your own knowledge of the topic, the mandate of the sponsor, and the personal learning expectations that participants have provided in their LNRA survey and/or in an initial review of expectations. Use these to guide your decision about what to drop, summarize, assign for homework or weave into another task.
But whatever you do, don’t frog-march the group through the tasks just to “cover the content”. Better to do a good job of a little bit than a poor job of a lot.
Relax. Breathe. Remember that this workshop is only part of people’s longer journey of learning. What they don’t get today, they can pick up another time.
Well that’s all for tonight. I’m out of time. Gotta go watch “24”.