The Rules of (Online) Engagement

A long, long time ago (March 2020) in a faraway land (Cork, Ireland) during our last CCAT partners meeting, we ran an hour-long climate change focussed discussion in small groups which was split into four parts:

  1. Identifying extreme weather effects that they had already seen where they live;
  2. The local impacts of this weather;
  3. Adaptation and mitigation actions that people could take in response; and
  4. Deciding who was responsible for taking those actions.

The groups were given four brand new decks of cards that we had designed under the categories above, with an icon on one side and explanatory text or data on the other, which were taken from the most recent IPCC and Met Office reports, and climate change adaptation plans from Fingal County Council and the Welsh Government. The groups found they had lots to talk about – it was tough to wrap up in the middle of some heated debates!

Some of the CCAT team working with the card decks in Cork

With the start of coronavirus lockdown we had to quickly adapt to a new way of working, with all of the CCAT team pledging to develop digital engagement tools and only meeting up with each other online… but speaking to small faces in rectangles on a screen is very different to having people in the room with you. Despite this, we felt that our climate change cards workshop could potentially translate to an online environment. We had to find a format that was fun as well as educational and spent a while testing different websites and applications, uploading cards, re-testing, designing gameboards, watching tutorials and taking facilitation courses. It was a whole new world – but in the end we felt confident that the workshop could operate virtually.

We decided to use Mural: a user-friendly workspace for online collaboration. Basically a large whiteboard, in Mural you can add in post-it notes, images, icons, text and all sorts of shapes. We overlaid a grid template on the board to help participants organise the card decks, and merged the two sides of the cards into an image that was then pre-uploaded onto the board. Locking the grid, CCAT project logo and titles on the Mural ensured people could only move the cards around.

Mural template
Our online Mural board

People access the Mural using a unique link, and once they’ve joined you can see their mouse cursor appear. For real-time collaboration we also need to have a simultaneous call happening with the participants so we can explain what to do and when to do it – this worked best on Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Unsurprisingly, managing this becomes a lot more complex with larger groups, so we decided to limit the group size to six per workshop. We also decided it was a good idea to have a second facilitator responsible for sorting any technical issues and managing the chat – saving time and minimising awkward silences!

After setting everything up, we began reaching out to local contacts to ask if they were keen to take part in the first round of pilot workshops. Throughout September and October, we ran five sessions, and have two more in the pipeline. The participants’ feedback has been overwhelmingly positive: people have found Mural easy to use, they liked the cards, and discussions have been informative and fruitful. In some cases, the groups have wanted to use their “actions” to inform their ongoing community work.

cartoon of people on computer screen
Online engagement tools have their own challenges and benefits

The weigh-in: online engagement platforms

Pros:

  • Facilitators can give their full attention to a small group, which keeps the discussions targeted towards the session objectives
  • Useful links and contacts can be shared by participants straight away
  • Online environments are easier to set up as there’s no need to find a space to meet, allowing more flexibility for scheduling groups from the same community
  • Results can be shared with participants after the workshop and they can easily add any additional comments

Cons:

  • People can find video conferencing a bit awkward
  • Certain groups may prefer getting together in person
  • Some people lack access to technology – and internet connections aren’t always reliable!

Online sessions may decrease accessibility for some but increase it for others, like those aged 16-25, people with mobility issues, and parents with young children. Interestingly, these people are often absent at physical community engagement events. In the context of Covid-19 restrictions offering a mix of engagement types may be best practice, for example online sessions running alongside discussions between people at a social distance.

There will still be challenges as we move forward with the second phase of our pilot workshops, followed by outreach to community groups and schools in 2021. We will keep re-designing the cards to make them more useful and easier to use, and we will work on how to capture and present participants’ chosen adaptation and mitigation “actions”. As public concern about the climate change emergency grows, we hope our engagement tool will help amplify more voices and generate a sense of optimism about the future.

If you want to find out more about the workshops or our education programmes, please contact Alex Cameron-Smith
alex.cameron-smith@pembrokeshirecoastalforum.org.uk
at Pembrokeshire Coastal Forum

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