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For fifteen years, UpRising has supported nearly 5,000 young people aged 18–25 from diverse backgrounds to develop leadership and employability skills through intensive six-to-nine-month programmes

Use this Guide if you want to make your online programmes more engaging and collaborative. You might be delivering live sessions via Zoom, or MS Teams, or some other platform. This Guide talks about other tools you can use to let participants engage meaningfully with the content, work together and build a sense of community.

Steps to using a mix of tools to build online community within a programme

Online sessions using a video calling platform can be a great way to give more people access to your programmes. But there are benefits to meeting up in person which can be difficult to create online, such as:

  • Building deeper friendships and connections

  • Supporting each other and working together

  • Feeling part of a community

  • Being more present - absorbed in the current moment, and not thinking about other things or ‘zoning out’ while listening

  • Talking informally with tutors and speakers.

Understanding what your participants want and need is the best way to start thinking about your programme. There are lots of ways to do this:

  • 1-1 Interviews

  • Onboarding calls

  • Focus groups

  • Surveys

  • Analytics data

  • Frequently asked questions and feedback

  • User journey mapping - outlining someone's typical experience of your programme, from beginning to end.

UpRising’s Environmental Leadership Programme 2 (ELP2) is delivered in partnership with Shropshire Wildlife Trust. It’s a hybrid programme, with most sessions accessed online, interspersed with a small number of in person events.

UpRising could see that bringing people together in person created more benefits. So they decided to try and recreate some of these online by improving participants' experience.

They undertook a discovery process with people on the programme and staff at both organisations. This helped them identify what people were missing out on compared to an in-person programme:

  • Peer support

  • Building relationships (with programme leaders and other participants)

  • A sense of community
  • Working together

  • Engaging with speakers.

UpRising were keen to keep the flexibility of an online programme, too. It was important that people could take part without having to travel, and watch recordings of sessions if they couldn’t attend.

When you have a clear idea of what people need from your online programme, and which needs aren’t being met, you can find the right tools to meet them.

Zoom, Teams, and other video call platforms have interactive features like chat, breakout rooms, and polls. You might be able to make more use of these.

You can also use different digital tools for different tasks alongside your main platform. Here are some examples:

  • Google Jamboard, Mural, or Miro - help people work together in one space using an online whiteboard

  • Mentimeter, Typeform, or Microsoft Forms - create polls, quizzes, and surveys

  • Padlet, Trello, or Pinterest - allow people to post text, links, and images on a digital wall

  • Slack or Discord - offer a private forum with different chat channels

  • Mighty Networks or Moodle - share materials and build an online community

To help you choose which ones are best for you, think about:

  • If they will be accessible for all of your participants

  • Whether they are easy to use

  • If they are secure and private

  • What analytics data you will need

  • How much they cost

  • How you will moderate any chats or forums.

Many digital tools offer free trials or free plans, so you can try them out first.

ELP2's homepage on Mighty Networks, where UpRising share course materials and participants can interact

When they first moved their programmes online in 2020, UpRising spent time mapping user journeys and choosing a suite of digital tools. You can read about this in a Guide to how they onboard users.

By 2022 they had a better understanding of what they needed, and more time to plan a new solution.

The team at UpRising mapped out all the different ‘layers’ of user experience and points of contact in ELP2. This exercise identified several user needs, to:

  • Access materials

  • Catch up with sessions they couldn’t attend live

  • Work together on a project

  • Get to know each other socially

  • Contribute in sessions

  • Engage with the content of the session.

For each of these user needs, UpRising looked at the different digital tools that were available and chose the ones that suited their needs:

  • Zoom - live video calls, breakout rooms, and chat during sessions

  • Slack - a place where participants could chat with each other and form a community in between sessions

  • Mighty Networks - allows people to access materials, session recordings, activities, and record their attendance

  • Padlet - lets participants share reflections and comments quickly and easily after sessions

  • Mentimeter - makes video call sessions more interactive through polls and surveys, and lets people share their views anonymously

  • Jamboard/Mural - enables participants to work together to create their own campaigns.

Using a diverse range of tools also met another need. Participants needed the opportunity to build skills in using a range of digital tools they were likely to encounter in the workplace.

The team has already been using some of these tools. Others were new to them but suited everyone's needs better. For example, they switched from Notion to Mighty Networks because it was easier to use and gave better analytics data.

UpRising also uses Form Assembly to collect information when people join the programme, and Salesforce to keep track of participant data.

When you’ve decided which tools you'll try out, you'll need to explore practical things like:

  • Which subscriptions you need

  • How many user logins or accounts you'll need

  • Any limits on usage

  • Where data will be stored

  • What permissions different users may have

  • Whether you want to set up any integrations or automations, for example, information submitted through a form automatically updates a database

It’s also a good idea to test everything to make sure it works the way you expect.

You should also consider how your safeguarding and privacy policies will be applied with the new tools, and whether you need to add to them.

Also consider if you'll need support from your IT department or any contractors with introducing new digital tools to your organisation. 

UpRising took time to plan how the different digital tools would work together, what subscriptions fitted their budget, and how many user accounts they would need.

They also identified where they needed tools to integrate or share data. For example, they set up a QR code for people to register their attendance at a session. This in turn records their attendance on Salesforce, and helps UpRising keep an accurate record of engagement.

Once you’re set up, take time to make sure your team understands what the new digital tools do and feel confident using them. This is especially important if they will be responsible for showing programme participants how to use them too.

It might be useful to create some basic, step-by-step instructions for your team and your participants to refer to.

Depending on the type of tool, you might need to draft a code of conduct or a list of expected behaviours with the people who will use it. For example, in a chat tool like Slack, what is and isn’t appropriate for people to share? Is it OK to send other participants private messages? Co-design these agreements.

When you introduce new digital tools to participants, make sure you explain what they need to do and give them a demonstration first. Let them know that they can ask questions any time, and ask for help if they get stuck.

Monthly course materials on ELP2's Mighty Networks site

It was important that UpRising's team felt confident at introducing tools to participants and using them together. So they spent time training staff first.

They already had a participant agreement for taking part in their programme that people signed up to. They added to this expected behaviours from participants and staff for each tool. 

Start using your new digital tools and have fun!

Remember that no solution will work perfectly for everyone, and people have different needs and different communication styles. Offer an alternative way for people to contribute if a tool is not accessible to them. For example, if someone is joining a session on their phone and struggling to type a comment, they could say what they want to add and someone else could type for them.

Invite feedback from your participants about what they like, what they’re less keen on, and what could work differently. And talk to your team about how they find using the different tools.

If you have analytics data you might be able to see what parts of the online programme get most engagement and attendance, and where people drop out and could feel disconnected or distracted.

Review the suite of tools you use regularly. Look out for new features, changes to subscription plans, and new digital tools and platforms that become available.

Insights into how ELP2 participants are engaging with Mighty Networks.

The UpRising team always explain how to use each new digital tool and demonstrate it to participants. They’ve also developed  alternative ‘workarounds’ to offer when someone struggles to use a tool.

UpRising use their improved analytics data to help identify where they can make ELP2 more engaging and effective for their community of future environmental leaders.

Further information