The Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (RWI) is an academic institution that was founded in 1984, with the vision of realizing a just and inclusive society that recognizes human rights for all. One of the ways it does this is through the Blended Learning Course on Human Rights, the Environment and Climate Change (BLC).
In 2020, The Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (RWI) had to re-orient its BLC modality as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing restrictions, which made in-person workshops more difficult to organize. In response, RWI, together with InsightPact, conducted a BLC involving a 2-day hybrid hub-based workshop for judges, lawyers and NHRI representatives. This entailed local-hubs led by a local facilitator and a local technical expert from Insight-Pact in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines (with Malaysia being held online), which were digitally connected to foster cross-country exchange and learning on approaches and innovations. The BLC, in 2020, was attended by 85 participants across the four countries.
Due to the success of the hybrid hub-based BLC in 2020, RWI reached out to InsightPact again to organize the second cycle of the BLC in 2021. However, that year, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases across Asia, we were unable to host a similar physical hub-based workshop in the four target countries like we did in 2020. After careful deliberation, RWI and Insightpact decided to host the BLC using a fully virtual format, whereby the country hubs were transformed into online hubs using Zoom. To ensure that this virtual modality was as engaging, interactive and impactful as it can be, Insightpact identified a number of challenges to organizing fully online workshops, as well as solutions to those challenges.
The expectation was that there would be 4 countries participating in the 2021 BLC run: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. And yet, not all participants were comfortable speaking in English among a large group of people; specifically, people from Indonesia and Thailand preferred to speak in their native languages.
Previous events showed that these language preferences led many participants to interact exclusively with those from their own countries. RWI and InsightPact wanted to encourage everyone to exchange information and practice—regardless of the country that they were in—in order to have more opportunities for regional collaboration.
Both RWI and InsightPact pushed for the idea of hiring interpreters to assist the participants from Thailand and Indonesia. The budget that would’ve been used for hotel venues and camera crews was re-allocated to hiring simultaneous interpreters for Thai, English, and Bahasa Indonesia, so that participants could feel at ease when speaking in their preferred language.
Prior to the day of the event, InsightPact centralized all event-related documents, a few pre-recorded videos, slides, and some written speeches for interpreters to refer to. With all the preparation that InsightPact did, interpreters were enabled to do their best work and hence provided a great experience for the participants from various countries.
Additionally, the organizing team committed to sending reminders to participants that they were free to speak and write in their own languages when gathered in the plenary Zoom room, alongside people from all the other countries. Given the support from interpreters, participants were encouraged to share comfortably and were ensured that they would be fully heard.
Another concern was the fact that people could not physically meet and network during the event because of the virtual format.
Finishing the course was not the only objective of the BLC; the course also aimed to encourage people to get to know each other, share experiences and learn from different cases, and foster cross-institutional collaboration. Usually, this could be achieved through the formal sessions paired with casual networking opportunities that would arise during lunchtime or coffee breaks in a hotel venue. This fully virtual run of the BLC, however, meant such an atmosphere had to be recreated for an online space, in a way that was interesting and meaningful.
To compensate for the lack of physical networking opportunities, InsightPact designed a virtual networking hour for both days of the event to give participants the opportunity to get to know each other. This virtual networking hour would take place after the lunch break on both days in the style of breakout rooms with suggested themes or topics for discussion, supported by Technical Facilitators. During this activity, we made it a priority to enable people to connect, foster fair and open dialogue, and share experiences that would be helpful in a regional-level
Another challenge was the breakout rooms for the intra-hub discussions. It was the intention to create space for smaller group discussion within each country, which were difficult to manage, given the size of the group and the complexity of creating and overseeing all the breakout groups. This set up delayed the discussions to some degree as the content facilitators or moderators were unable to swiftly move from one small group discussion to another to guide them on their tasks.
The organizing team agreed that given the limited resources to oversee all the small groups, it was better for the rest of the course to streamline all intrahub-discussions into one breakout room, resulting in having four breakout rooms in total; one per country hub. With this setting, we were able to assign a technical facilitator into each of the rooms to be available to support at all times.
The overall output was a 2-day workshop on Zoom that enabled 96 participants representing courts, environmental enforcement agencies, NHRIs, legal bar associations and offices of the attorney general from four countries in Southeast Asia to fully network and share knowledge and experiences with each other on issues related to human rights and the environment. Participants were also able to exchange contact details for further conversations and collaborations post-event. One of the most-liked activities was, in fact, the virtual networking activity according to the post-survey result.