This blog is written by Lewis Winks, who collaborated with the Education Incubator to facilitate our eDartington Writing Retreats in summer 2021. In this blog, Lewis reflects on his experiences of moving an ‘in person’ event online, and the lessons learned.
I have been lucky enough to facilitate three online writing retreats (each lasting two days) for the Incubator this summer. Once a month, beginning in May we gathered on Zoom on a Thursday lunch time – continuing through to Friday lunchtime. The retreats were structured in such a way that across the two days, five hours of writing (split into 1.5 hour and 1-hour blocks) were protected for focused writing; yet the ethos of the retreat also emphasised social interaction and time out in order to echo the feeling of in-person retreats (formally held at Dartington Hall). Achieving this balance required some careful tweaking of the timetable with writing time placed alongside ‘buddy group’ time and breaks; as well as whole-group reflection sessions. Overall, I feel that we did a good job of achieving this balance – buddy groups, normally of 3-4, spent fifteen minutes in conversation before each session to plan and reflect on progress, while the writing time placed a greater degree of emphasis on individual’s work. The breaks and the evening were encouraged to be time-out spaces where participants could delve into the welcome packs they had received in the post in the preceding days or enjoy some of the ‘gifts’ left on the retreat Padlet by other participants (see picture). Crucially the invitation was for participants to see the time as their time and to enjoy it.
Each of the three retreats had their own tone, with the ebbs and flows of the academic year undoubtedly impacting on the degree to which participants could give themselves over to the time allowed for the retreat. Early concerns I had about the online nature of the writing retreat – especially after facilitating in-person retreats and witnessing the power of social interaction – quickly subsided. Indeed I noticed how aspects of online organisation and interaction lent themselves well to such an event. Breaking out into buddy groups was easy – and sharing of writing goals and progress was enabled without disturbance to others allowing each to work at their own pace. Even the whole group sessions worked well with some participating using voice, while others posted comments in the chat. However aspects of in-person culture were missing (and missed) by those of us fortunate enough to have experienced the retreats at Dartington all in previous years. In particular, social time in the evening and walks during the long lunch break stand out as highlights and important aspects of developing connections between participants.
Despite this, it has been notable that many of the participants took breaks away from their workstations, went for walks (and often shared on Padlet), and made use of their ID guides from the welcome packs (again, sharing what they had found). An informal culture of checking-in after breaks permeated the buddy groups, encouraging me that time was being taken ‘out’.
It may not be possible to replicate the in-person experience online, yet there are clearly benefits of the approach we took this year. Attendance across the three months was excellent with between 15 and 22 participants at each retreat, with a few returning for multiple events. The online structure made it possible for some to attend who wouldn’t otherwise be able to due to caring responsibilities or work obligations.
We’ve learned a lot this year running these events, and have come away from them with a strong feeling (supported by feedback from participants) that they have been worthwhile. Going forward, I think it would be exciting to consider how these events might be woven into the academic year, and how online retreats could work productively alongside their in-person counterparts to support the wonderful work of our Exeter colleagues.