Lessons Learned in Online Training and Facilitation for Human Rights

For the last two decades New Tactics for Human Rights has been facilitating in-person workshops with human rights activists in the US and across the globe. We had honed our skills as trainers to quickly build community within a group, foster conversation, and deliver content—all with the goal of assisting human rights activists to advance their advocacy using our 5 Step-Strategic Effectiveness Method. Human rights activists across the globe have engaged similar techniques when mobilizing and convening strategic actions in-person.

Like activists around the globe, we at New Tactics experienced a Pandemic-driven crash course in facilitation and convening online. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic we leaned heavily on skills from our in-person training like our ability as facilitators to ‘read the room’ during a training; we could look around the room and see when people needed a break or an energizer, when we needed to challenge participants with further questioning. We would even let a room fill with silence, a luxury of in-person training that can feel nearly impossible in online trainings, where a few seconds of silence can seem like an eternal void that must be immediately filled. 

New Tactics had started online training before the pandemic and we had had some successes. Still, nothing prepared us for taking all of our training and convening online. We’ve had some challenges along the way, especially with internet connectivity in rural communities, conducting training across multiple time zones, countries, and really connecting in a virtual sphere. 

As we navigated these stumbling blocks we turned to the internet, to each other, other human rights activists and workshop participants for tips and tricks along the way. For instance, at the particularly memorable and historic online RightsCon we learned from colleagues about the numerous digital surveillance and privacy threats activists consider when deciding whether and how to convene and facilitate training online in the Coid-era. Even with the “hive mind” knowledge and wisdom about online facilitation, we continue to evolve in our efforts to make our online training with human rights activists feel, well, a little more human.  

And that’s where we think we have made some progress. Here are just a few of our lessons learned that we hope human rights activists around the globe will find useful as they similarly facilitate and mobilize groups of people using online tools. 

Lessons for Human Rights Facilitators Moving Trainings Online

Self-Paced Learning Can Work, But for Fewer People
When we leaned heavily on asynchronous training we simply did not get great results with participants satisfaction or retention. We still keep it as an option for people who do well with self-paced learning, but fewer people really gravitate towards this learning style. 

We are Social Beings: Make Trainings Social
Synchronous learning with weekly Zoom calls using breakout sessions improved retention, community building, and satisfaction. It also requires A LOT of personnel resources. We would never run an in-person workshop with 35 people with just one trainer given the nature of our method, so why should this be any different online? We found more staff facilitation with frequent use of small breakout sessions got better results: more peer-to-peer learning, more engagement, and better participant understanding of the advocacy strategies we use. 

Early on in the Pandemic our team in Jordan adapted lessons learned from a graduate class at Harvard, to make our in-depth training more closely mirror face-to-face workshops. But very few of us out there doing grassroots work have the resources of Harvard. 

Human Rights activists looking to shift their training and convening online should plan internally for the staff time it takes to successfully convene online, and have open conversations with funders about the cost and staff time it takes to deliver quality online training and mentorship. 

Bringing Back Joy to Online Facilitation
Once we implemented a more synchronous model with staff-heavy support for participants and opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction, we found that not only were our participants getting more out of our workshops, we were too. Our staff meetings about our training became more and more animated, with more stories about the actual people we were working with and the issues they were working on. Ask yourself: Am I as a trainer or campaign organizer getting energy from these online facilitations? If so, it is likely your participants are too. 

Integrating Third Party Interactive Tools
In addition to using Zoom’s interactive features we now sprinkle in some new tools to break up online training and get people to engage. There are MANY interactive third-party tools so we are just referencing a few with links to the most helpful facilitation guides and tips from K-12 teachers who use these often. . 

  • We like Menti because the poll results can be visual and just a little more engaging than a zoom poll, as you can see here; and we hope to incorporate this more.  
  • We like Mural for visual cooperation and activities. Deemed as a “visual workspace for visual collaboration,” their resource guide for how to facilitate online workshops is a great read for any trainer or facilitator of meetings. They have free educator accounts for people working in educational settings. 
  • Google’s Jam Board is a nice free alternative to Mural or the Zoom White Board, and K-12 educators seem to use it frequently and have some nice how-to videos. We like this list of zoom friendly icebreakers for K-12 students, some of which use JamBoard.

One note: These interactive tools are visual heavy and often rely on stock images linked to big corporate stock photo databases. It’s been pretty terrible to ask participants from around the globe to do a visual ice breaker using the images embedded in these platforms. Their images are often Euro-American centric and do not reflect the diversity of those places or of the globe. If you encounter a similar experience let those companies know your experience...we have a long way to go to achieve global representation in these online tools.

We use Canvas, an online learning management system for our in-depth trainings, which we have found can allow some people with physical disabilities to take our training who could not previously travel to our in-person trainings. And yet, we know we have a long way to go to truly make our trainings accessible to persons with disabilities. We think every human rights group convening online could print out copies of these posters, The Do’s and Don’ts of Designing for Users with Disabilities, to discuss with their teams and keep top of mind when planning online trainings. It’s not a comprehensive list and accessibility requires a lot more attention on the part of e-learning platforms and the organizations using them, but we found this to be a good starting point for discussion. 

Breathing Is Good - Energizers and Icebreakers are too
Remember that it is okay to take a break and to sprinkle in the same kind of energizers and ice-breakers that you might use in a face-to face training. We often talk about heavy topics in our human rights workshops, so it helps to take breaks and use appropriate ice-breakers to lighten the mood. At the beginning of the pandemic many of the icebreaker guides felt really big company-heavy, but each month there are better and better guides to online icebreakers. Let us know if you have developed or come across specific intercultural or human-rights specific energizers and icebreakers. 

Expanding reach with frequent, short webinars
Our webinars have flourished as well, and in the last two months we completed 7 webinars in both English and Arabic with nearly 100 participants. These 1-3 hour webinars include New Tactics trainers and a sea of people who participate using the chat function, due mainly to security. The introductory webinars have succeeded in promoting our online resources and familiarizing new audiences with our tools and resources. It means that people who aren’t able to sink a month’s worth of time and work with us can still get a taste of our methodology and access to our free resources for advocacy campaigns. Webinars can also be a starting point for participants who decide to attend the full course. 

As we honed our online training skills and developed more interactive features to spice up a “chat-bar only” webinar we also started to get some better feedback. After a couple of our webinars participants said things like: “Thank you so much [New Tactics staff] for a fantastic webinar. And thank you to all you lovely people! See you all at the next one!” We thought this comment was indicative of our best, most interactive moments online. The participant left not thinking about a computer screen or a chat bar or just the content, but about the other participants who had helped make the webinar engaging. And that after all is our goal: connecting ‘passionate people’ doing essential work to promote human rights.


We want to hear from you! What are your lessons learned as you have moved your training, facilitation, and advocacy organizing online. In particular, do you have resources in other languages or from educational institutions in your country that would be helpful for other human rights activists?