101 for hosting an online session: design with participation in mind

This is the third and final installment in our 2021 Call for Proposals blog series. You can find the earlier installments here and here, and read our Guide to a Successful Proposal for more information.

The deadline to participate in the RightsCon 2021 Call for Proposals has been extended until January 26, 2021, which means the clock’s ticking to devise and design a proposal that will stand out.

Participation is the foundation of an effective session. At RightsCon, we believe that understanding and leveraging the expertise in the room leads to deeper discussion, richer learning experiences, and outcomes that serve both you and our community. If you feel stuck on structure or uncertain about the best way to engage participants, this blog will share the basics of designing a session that gets everyone involved and invested in your goal.

Our goal, as conveners, is to offer support, training, and tools for our session organizers to succeed. Hosting a session at RightsCon does take some work, but it should also be a fun and positive experience. This blog is only a resource, not a requirement. If you want to try a different approach, or if you have other ideas for us about creating participatory and inclusive sessions, you can always reach our team at [email protected].

Part I: Back to basics

How do people learn in an online environment?

People learn best when a session is centered on addressing a problem, rather than simply delivering content. Make the case – early and often – why the problem matters and why participants should care, on a personal or professional level. Research on problem-based learning shows that we’re more likely to put in time and energy if a session promises to deliver applicable skills or information of direct relevance to our work or lives.

Facilitating online also requires inviting people in. Regardless of format, a session should treat participants as valued members of the discussion, with unique perspectives to offer and contributions to make. Ask questions or open with a written prompt, divide into breakout groups, take advantage of polls and chat box options, use collaborative tools like Miro – whatever you choose, remember that presenting content in different ways and through hands-on exercises is the key to experience-based learning.

Where do I start?

  • Think about your purpose. Why do you want to design and host a session at RightsCon? What goal do you want to achieve?
  • Think about participation. What will participants gain from your session? What do you want to learn from them?
  • Think about power. How will you structure the session to encourage diverse points of view and experiences? Which communities are most affected by the issue(s) at hand?

These aren’t always easy questions to answer. When we review a proposal, we look for thoughtfulness and intention. Your responses in the proposal form should demonstrate that you’ve taken the time to consider why and how our community will benefit from your session. We often describe RightsCon as “outcomes-oriented” because our mission is to build an actionable agenda for advancing human rights in the digital age. Even if you don’t know your precise structure yet or which tools you plan to use, we want to see a session design that furthers the RightsCon mission, and that sets a solid foundation around purpose, participation, and power.

Exercise: Write your goal statement in 50 words or less. You can use this fill-in-the-blank sentence to get started: “I want to host a session on [topic or issue] that will engage [this specific group or community] in order to [achieve this goal].”

Here’s an example of a strong goal statement: I want to host a session on basic digital security practices that will engage non-technical experts in order to provide feedback on my organization’s toolkit.

What’s the role of a RightsCon participant?

RightsCon supports a community of communities, which means your session will draw in people from around the world, across different industries and sectors. Participants are the engine that drives the session toward its goal. It’s your job, as the organizer, to fill up the tank, map out the directions, and press the gas pedal to get the conversation going.

Some formats will have caps on the number of people who can engage, while others are uncapped. As with an in-person summit, organizers can’t pre-select who will participate in their session – that element of unpredictability is part of the RightsCon magic. Rather than worrying about who shows up, focus your energies on getting to know who is in the room as quickly as possible once the session starts.

Part II: All about approach

That leads us into the next stage of session design: structure. Now that you have your goal and format, you’re ready to think specifically about the participant experience. How will your session flow?

No matter your format, structuring and pacing the delivery of information is key. There are dozens of examples of effective learning approaches floating around the internet that you can use and adapt. One approach we like is ADIDS, which LevelUp has pioneered for digital security training. We see it as a good starting place for our live session formats. ADIDS stands for:

  • Activity – Start the session with an interactive exercise, such as a poll, round-robin introduction, roll call (in a shared document), or quick small group breakouts.
  • Discussion – Ask the participants (or in the case of a panel, your speakers) to reflect on the activity, using guiding questions.
  • Input – Here’s the point when facilitators and speakers can share information, framing their knowledge around personal and specific experiences.
  • Deepening – Offer an opportunity for hands-on learning. Throw participants back into small group breakouts to discuss, pose audience questions to speakers, or include a poll that surveys people on what they learned.
  • Synthesis – Take a beat at the end of the session to bring it all together, resolve unanswered questions, and provide participants with avenues to stay invested in and informed about your work.

We like to add one last step: Evaluate. After the session ends, take time to reflect on what you did well and what you want to do differently next time. Collect input from speakers, facilitators, and participants, if you can, and check in with the progress made on your goal. There’s always room to grow and improve.

For pre-recorded session formats, which feature less face-to-face, live engagement, consider an approach that focuses on telling a story and delivering a strong call to action. Below are some other options for you to test out to find the right structure.


Community lab

Strategy session

Oxford-Style Debate

World Café

Futures Workshop

The Long Conversation

Open Space Technology

Strategic Questioning (ORID)

Exercise: Using ADIDS(E) or another approach linked above, outline your session structure, with time markers and a short description for each segment. If you need a template, you can download this handy Session Design Canvas from FabRiders to brainstorm!

Part III: Intentionality and inclusion

Once the structure is mapped out, you can turn your attention to the “invisible” barriers that can impede active participation.

Power – what it means, who wields it, and how it affects community spaces – is a focal point for our work in 2021. The dismantling of power and privilege is not an endpoint, but a constant and continual project. The dynamics of racism, colonialism, ableism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression are deeply embedded in global convening practices, and the shift to an online setting can exacerbate these inequities, if done without care and sensitivity.

At RightsCon, we ask session organizers to join us in this work, by thinking deeply about the speakers and facilitators whom you invite to contribute, and by designing with intention. Ask yourself:

  • How will your session address power, in content and structure?
  • How will you create an experience that welcomes and centers diverse perspectives?
  • How will you support people with poor internet connections or accessibility needs?

If you’re not sure where to start or which aspects to consider, take a look through Aspiration Tech’s blog on power dynamics and inclusion in virtual meetings. You can also review our Code of Conduct, and read our policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the RightsCon program.

Building a strong, participatory, and inclusive program is a journey that begins during the Call for Proposals and continues up until session delivery. Throughout this process, we’ll continue to provide the resources and support necessary to help you realize a successful and impactful session. If you have feedback or need additional support, don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at [email protected].

What other resources can I consult?

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