Guest blog: How I learned to love digital

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Sian Shaw

Zahra Dhalla, a Community Learning Officer at Westminster Abbey, shares her three key takeaways from delivering digital learning for families from scratch during the pandemic, and looks forward to what the future holds.

On 18th March, I began my new job at Westminster Abbey as a Community Learning Officer. This was also the last day we had in the office due to the pandemic. I cried in the office infront of my colleagues. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t the start I was hoping for. The concept of doing this onsite, delivery-focused role from home felt overwhelming — digital learning might have been somebody’s strong suit, but it certainly wasn’t mine. 

Now it’s been 6 months of working from home. Having delivered a busy families programme over Easter, May half term and the summer, running virtual tours and digital workshops on Zoom and developing complementary Facebook Lives, I’ve learnt a lot and come away smiling. 

Here are my three key takeaways:

Use what you’ve got 

When you work somewhere like Westminster Abbey, there’s no doubt about it, the building is the star of the show. So our challenge throughout this time has been: How can we bring the Abbey’s story and the magic of the Abbey to families? Well, we had to use what we’ve got. For us, this meant using high quality images and screen recordings from our website’s virtual tours to build our sessions.

You can build relationships with families online

At the start of all this, I made the assumption that building relationships with families online would be close to impossible. The magic of being in the space together would be taken away and any chance of developing a rapport would go with it. In reality, it’s been so different. With family learning, we’re often trying to connect spaces, objects, the stories we’re telling, with families’ daily lives and at home those connections are easier to make. We’ve also found that children who might not feel as confident sharing their ideas and thoughts face to face, are often more outspoken and forthcoming in online sessions. 

Virtual collaboration is possible and brilliant 

I’m most proud of our Virtual Family Days, I would have never have believed that this sort of collaboration could be achieved virtually. Hosted on Zoom, we ran themed family days in which families could take part in a carousel of virtual activities over an hour through making use of the Breakout Rooms function. Each activity was hosted by a different partner organisation. It’s been a great way to support each other in this difficult time, to introduce families to new faces and spaces and to learn from each other. 

At the end of the day, what most of us need and want in our lives is connection. To know that we have value, that we matter, that we have a voice and that someone wants to listen to it. It is totally possible to make children feel heard and that they matter online. If that’s at the heart of what you do, if you are able to maximise the resources you’ve already got and ask the right questions of yourself, you’re there. 

Looking to the future

By investing time and energy— and you’ll notice I didn’t say money here — in creating high quality resources, you can make something that lasts and that has value now and in the future.

Once onsite activities resume, we’re not going to leave digital learning behind. We’re going to make use of what it does best for us. We’ll have a blended programme and our audience will have more options. In time, we’ll be able to enhance, grow, repurpose and maybe even re-design the digital resources we’ve developed alongside our onsite programme. 

Now in September, the teary-eyed woman who left London in March is no longer — the new me has longer hair, an increased appreciation for leggings and wants to champion digital learning. I think that says it all. 

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