How to make online learning holistic

In the sixth part of her content series on holistic learning, Nicki Davey explains how, while the pandemic has presented many challenges to learning, it’s also opened up opportunities for trainers to be creative.

This time last year, I firmly believed that online learning could never be as effective as face-to-face learning. Having spent several years developing a model of holistic learning that engages learners physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually in order to generate deep and meaningful learning, I had focused almost exclusively on how to do this in a face-to-face environment. I had written a series of articles for Training Zone on holistic learning, published a book, The Holistic Learning Handbook, and run courses for trainers on how to create holistic learning, but I hadn’t really considered how holistic learning principles might be applied in an online environment.

Then the pandemic hit, and I started to apply the holistic learning approach to online workshops and courses. What I happily discovered was that with enough creativity, positive energy and planning it is perfectly possible to create deep meaningful, holistic learning online. I even discovered some benefits to online learning that I hadn’t previously considered, so here are five key lessons that I’ve learnt, plus a few practical ideas based on my recent experience.

1. Learners are able to be their authentic selves

When learners join online training from home, they tend to be more authentic and relaxed. As they are in their own environment, wearing comfy clothes, with their pets and families around them, they are more able to be themselves. One learner on a workshop during lockdown was concerned that her daughters would distract her during the session, so I encouraged her to include them in the activities. Their contributions and insights opened the eyes of the group to a completely different way of seeing things that really enhanced the learning, but it also signaled to the group that they can just be themselves and don’t have to put on a ‘work persona’.

2. Learners have access to more materials and stimuli

Learners have access to the contents of their whole house or office, so activities that involve finding materials to use as metaphors or to create visual representations such as collages or sculptures work really well, engaging people on a holistic level and unlocking their creativity. On one workshop I had someone bring her two pet iguanas along to illustrate a point, and on another someone decided to change the clothes she was wearing during a break from plain black to bright and colourful to reflect how her state of mind had changed as a result of the learning.

3. Learners do not have to be in front of their screens

Online training doesn’t mean that learners have to actually be sitting at their computers the whole time. We can create activities that are carried out away from the screen or require learners to move around or go outside, as well as encouraging them not to look at their screens with activities such as closing their eyes and visualising, looking around the room for metaphors, or gazing out of the window whilst reflecting.

4. Online workshops are just one part of the learning journey

We can create learning journeys that begin before any online workshops take place and continue the learning between workshops by setting a variety of holistic, blended learning activities. The online sessions are then used to bring learners together to discuss, explore, question, and connect with each other. Our Leading for Good leadership programme includes online workshops, but most of the learning takes place outside of these, through nature-based activities, reading and research, journaling and reflection, one-to-one conversations, creative activities and discussions via WhatsApp.

5. Forward planning is essential

Plan online workshops well in advance so that you know what materials people will need. You can then create and post packs of physical materials as well as giving learners plenty of time to complete any pre-workshop preparation. I love creating packs of materials – as well as helping learners to feel valued and invested in, they arouse curiosity as people open their packages and explore the materials. This triggers the release of dopamine, which enhances motivation to learn. As well as coloured paper and felt pens, I’ve included materials as diverse as willow hoops, mirrors, homemade scented playdough, herbal tea bags, lengths of rope, and wolf mask templates.




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