OeNB, the Austrian Federal Ministry of Finance, and the ECB organized a virtual training course
September 7–10, 2020, on “Challenges for Candidate and Potential Candidate Countries in the EU and EMU Accession Process.” Originally planned for the Spring of 2020, the course was postponed to September in the hope that COVID-19 conditions would improve. As it became clear that classroom delivery was not feasible, it was decided to go for a virtual course via WebEx.
Since the organizers had little experience with virtual courses, the challenge was to strike the right balance between offering participants meaningful value-added while keeping the course activities manageable. It was therefore decided to (a) reduce the number of participants to ensure active participation; (b) limit presentations to just 45 minutes to ensure a continuing attention span; and finally (c) abandon the workshops that had previously been part of the seminar.
Virtual Means To-The-Point Delivery
Participants and lecturers afterwards agreed that these measures had proved successful. The shortened presentations also forced lecturers to stick to the most important aspects of each topic, omitting perhaps interesting but less significant information, which meant that in some respects participants benefitted considerably from this new to-the-point formula.
But there were drawbacks too. Group work was very limited: participant presentations were difficult to organize, and virtual group discussions needed more time to be effective. Furthermore, we realized over time that webinar participants tend to ask fewer questions than those in classrooms. A blog that invited participants to interact during each presentation was not used at all.
The Magic of In-Person Interaction
This may be linked to the biggest drawback of virtual courses: the lack of personal contact. That interaction has always been the magic of courses at the JVI: People from different countries and different cultural backgrounds came together and built friendships. This spirit became an integral part of each course, which enlivened discussions and interactions among participants and with lecturers.
Other lessons: (1) Lecturers need to adapt to this new environment and get training in how to organize a seminar or a presentation in ways most appropriate to the virtual format and how to better connect with participants in a digital seminar, where, e.g., nonverbal interaction is almost nonexistent. (2) Obviously, the virtual environment requires considerable familiarity with both hardware and software. Here the course profited enormously from the high-end equipment at the JVI and the experienced support of its staff.
The experience with virtual courses will have a long-term impact on designs of future JVI seminars. For instance, standard courses delivered in classroom could be complemented by virtual formats, such as preparatory talks or debriefings.
We look forward to our next virtual course, where we will apply the lessons learned to enhance the experience of the participants—but we do hope to return to normality, and the magic of in-person exchanges, as soon as possible.
Thomas Gruber, Head of Division, Oesterreichische Nationalbank