We had an awesome interview with Rachel Davey, the director of The Haven on Gabriola Island in British Columbia, Canada. They recently experimented with offering an on-site retreat, combined with an online follow-up. Here is some of her sage advice about offering an online retreat.
I don’t believe that digital communication will ever replace direct human contact. In a sense, I agree with the people who say that it’s not possible to hold a program online. If you take the personal experience of sitting with other people in a circle, you can’t replicate it online. If you meet in a ten-person Skype conversation, you see quickly that it’s not the same as ten people being together in a room. But that’s not a reason not to do it.
I think there is great potential in using digital tools to create another type of experience. While it’s not possible to directly translate a retreat experience from an in-person model to a digital model, we can take what we do in-person, and create an online retreat that has the same fundamental elements. And, in fact, there are even advantages to the digital model.
For our online program, which we call ‘Living It,’ we begin with an in-person weekend workshop at our center, and then continue for two months online. Each week the group gets together through a webinar or on Skype. During these sessions, there are taught components, as well as group sharing.
What works well about this is the blend of intensive connection and long-term follow-up. During the weekend workshop, we have a chance to see each other face-to-face and get a felt sense of the group. But during the follow-up, participants are able to discuss a topic, then apply it practically during the week in their daily lives, and see how it goes, before discussing it with the group at their next meeting. This allows the group to support each other as they integrate what they are learning into their lives.
There are always technological challenges. There are many wonderful digital communication tools available, but rarely do they work perfectly. There are different tools for different things.
- Communication: Skype works well for 1-to-1 communication, and small groups, but there are some barriers for some of our participants. You need to have installed the most up-to-date version, and you need a relatively new computer. Some people also used the phone to keep in touch between meetings.
- Online community: Ning is an online platform which is very similar to Facebook, but is password-protected for the group. You can post images, videos, comments, and that kind of thing. You are able to customize it to a certain degree, and turn features on and off.
- Live-streaming: GoToWebinar and GoToMeeting. There some technical challenges with this software and we’re actually looking at other options for live streaming.
- Problem: We had a surprising number of people who didn’t know their way around the technology at all. Solution: We created a buddy system where someone who was more tech-savvy would help out someone who was struggling. We will also be giving people more information in advance in future.
- Problem: There were unresolvable technological issues for people who had older computers. Solution: We created a questionnaire–to be filled out in advance as a prerequisite–that asks what brand the computer is and how old it is.
- Problem: We weren’t able to ‘end with a bang’ on our online course. Solution: We may add an event at the end, not necessarily at The Haven, but maybe in Vancouver or Victoria, which are both nearby cities.
- Problem: People want to be in contact! Once the weekend workshop had happened we found that people definitely kept in touch. Solution: None needed!
Addendum – Webinars
We hold other webinars for two main purposes:
- Introductory webinars to introduce new people to The Haven and our work.
- Follow-up webinars to deepen people’s understanding of what they have already learned in a program.
We hold regional face-to-face groups which fulfill similar purposes, so webinars are especially relevant for people who don’t live in areas with a regional group. It’s part of building our online community. In terms of environmental consciousness, webinars help to reduce the travel involved in attending our programs. Travel is also expensive!
Rachel Davey is The Haven’s Executive Director. She has worked internationally in education management and consultancy for more than 15 years, for organizations including the British Council and the United Nations. She first came to The Haven in 2001 and then traveled to Canada from Cyprus every summer to take Haven programs. She began working at The Haven in 2006.
Find out more information about Rachel and The Haven on their website: haven.ca.