The demand by community members to start co-op businesses is rapidly increasing, but if you want to form a new co-op, available support to do so remains limited. This is not a new problem. Back in 1999, a small group of co-op developers—that is, technical assistance providers who help communities start co-op businesses—formed the organization I’ve directed for the past five years, CooperationWorks! (CW). Our initial members focused almost entirely on rural communities. Today, that network includes three dozen groups located in both rural and urban areas. Since 2008, we estimate network members have helped start over 1,000 new co-op businesses employing a total of more than 15,000 people and have developed over 4,000 housing co-op units.
The range of co-op businesses started is broad. Some are worker-owned; many are producer- or consumer-owned. Industries vary greatly too—from childcare to grocery to value-added agriculture, and many others. But we remain tiny. Our budget has never exceeded $200,000. We rely on membership dues and some small donor and foundation income, plus earned income we obtain from the annual intensive training we offer to educate future co-op developers. In 2019, 17 people completed that training. Over the years, we’ve helped train over 200 developers, building the field one person at a time.
We do many things beyond education—cataloguing resources, fostering peer-to-peer bonds, and promoting co-ops to the public among them—but our flagship program is our annual in-person training. And when COVID-19 hit, like many nonprofits running in-person events, we had little choice but to cancel the in-person program and retool.
We call our program The Art and Science of Cooperative Development (A&S). It offers cross-sector training for new cooperative developers that delves into the co-op business model and prepares participants to assist groups starting cooperatives. As the economic and social fallout of the pandemic took its toll, we recognized that co-op businesses could help secure stable jobs and meet community needs.
The need to retool our education program to be delivered online was obvious. What was not obvious was whether we could do so in a manner that would not only encourage people wishing to learn how to develop co-ops to enroll but do so in ways that meet the need of the people seeking to start co-ops in communities across the nation.
The process of bringing an in-person training to the virtual world was challenging and filled with questions. The in-person version was designed to bring people from across the US together for week-long periods that included four intensive 10-hour days of training. The program also included site visits to co-ops in different industries exhibiting different forms of ownership, governance, and operations. Would participants have to sit in front of their computers for 10-hour days? How long can a meeting go before Zoom fatigue sets in? Could we recreate the unique networking cradle of the in-person trainings? How could we create a sense of community over four time zones? (Hint: separate agendas for each time zone!) Would the presenters be able to translate the engagement factor through a screen?
Some answers were obvious—no, 10-hour Zoom days would be a laughably bad idea—but other questions were far more complicated. How do you create a sense of community online, really? One of the most important deliverables of our co-op education training were the connections that emerge within the cohort of people being trained. The relationships—the “art” part of “art and science,” if you will—were as important as the technical skills gained (the “science” part). We know how hard the transition to online learning has been, especially in K–12 public schools, but even at the university level. This was a non-trivial problem—and it required reimagining every stage of the co-op education process.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on our “Building Blocks” program—the first week of our three-week training series.
Revisioning the Curriculum
One key component of our in-person training involved site visits. Clearly, these were impossible online. But what we could do was not only insert case studies, but integrate guest video presentations on producer, worker, service, consumer, and housing cooperatives into the training.
The 2020 offering of Building Blocks was originally set to take place in Philadelphia and highlight the cooperative movement in that region. If we couldn’t bring participants to the City of Brotherly Love, we could still bring Philadelphia to the participants by bringing in local trainers, letting local co-op developers share their stories about how over the past decade they had developed a cooperative support ecosystem from very modest beginnings, and spotlighting Philly co-ops through case studies.
Adjusting the schedule was also critical. We took advantage of the space afforded in the virtual world and ultimately settled on offering the course over eight days that spanned the course of four weeks. This schedule—two days a week with four to five hours of Zoom meetings, with time built in for breaks—allowed participants to manage their home and work life while being fully present in the program.
Dividing the course in this way also created the opportunity for some people to sign up for modules without enrolling in the entire training. This was useful both for current co-op developers who wanted “refresher” courses on key segments of their work, as well as for new people who wanted to “test drive” the program before committing fully.
Training the Trainers
As many teachers, students, and administrators have learned the hard way during this pandemic, education online is not the same thing as education in person! Our education program has long relied on hiring paid outside guest expert co-op educators, who taught in person. They knew how to teach engaging participatory adult education classes and had taught for us for years. But many had no experience teaching online whatsoever. So, we didn’t just need to develop a new training program for co-op developers. We needed to develop a new training program for our trainers!
To address this, CW went straight to the source of participatory education in the co-op world and contracted with the Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA) to train the trainers on creating thoughtful, engaging, and interactive presentations. TESA provided critical tools for eliciting participant responses and cultivating virtual spaces that mimic physical spaces.
They utilized free, familiar resources like those provided on Google to demonstrate best practices for presentations, transitions, and facilitation. For instance, between connectivity issues and Zoom sound preferences, it’s crucial to leave space for each person to speak, even if it’s to say “pass.” Having a clearly laid out round-robin with a visual aid will help ensure all participants are able to have their voices heard. Providing prompts for breakout rooms in multiple formats (verbalizing, on a shared screen, in a Google Doc, in the chat) will facilitate smooth transitions that maximize small group discussion and minimize confusion.
Setting the Space
Figuring out how to build networks was perhaps the most challenging aspect of recreating our training online. How do you foster the organic conversations that happen over coffee breaks and meals? How can a virtual space with participants clicking in from home offices, couches, and kitchen counters across the US replicate the coherence and sense of place of a live gathering? We drew participants together with intention over the course of the training, and it started before the first day. We encouraged networking by providing participant bios to the group ahead of the training. Everyone had a sense of who else would be in the room, where they were from, their experience, and their current work. We further encouraged this interaction by letting participants share their background, what they hoped to get out of the training, what they might want to connect over, and their contact information in a shared spreadsheet.
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Some elements of setting the space for in-person events translate directly into the virtual world. Co-creating community agreements, making space for check-ins, and leaving ample time for breaks are just as important. Building Blocks Online actually created more space for check-ins, with the first 20 minutes of each day dedicated to letting each person settle into the space and reconnect with the other participants. Throughout, we learned that virtual gatherings need to create much more frequent space for breaks. Sitting in front of a computer camera for Zoom can start to feel like sitting around a panopticon! Ensuring participants feel free to take care of their bodily needs and giving them ample space to do so is important for sustained engagement.
One tip TESA passed on to program trainers was to take opportunities to make the space feel more physical. This can be as simple as creating a graphic of a table with participant names in each of the chairs to signify breakout groups. Participants have a sense of their group and understand that they’re going into a group discussion with their “table.” This can also involve using programs that mimic whiteboards or asking participants to contribute to the conversation by writing their thoughts on a “post-it.” The familiarity of these tools helps participants feel comfortable and connected to the group while creating an interactive space.
Finally, Building Blocks Online created space for participants to network with each other and the trainers. This was done through extracurricular “happy hours” and speed-networking sessions. We encouraged participants to stay in conversation with each other over long breaks by making use of breakout rooms. Trainers were also encouraged to include breakout rooms in their presentations to foster small group conversations and networking.
That said, we certainly hit some stumbling blocks with the first session. Extracurricular activities were not always well attended and inserting enough networking time into the agenda was tricky, especially with participants calling in from four time zones. As we planned Toolkit Implementation Online, a mandatory pre-training day was added that focused exclusively on introductions, creating community agreements, and networking. This was a successful adjustment for increasing inter-participant engagement.
When we made the decision to go virtual, we weren’t sure what the appetite would be for this type of training for a world in crisis. One benefit of going virtual—perhaps obvious in retrospect, but hardly so at the time—was increased enrollment. After all, travel to an in-person event—even if the cost is covered by scholarships—can be disruptive. We had 17 participants complete the training in 2019; in 2020, 33 participants did.
With record enrollment and diverse participation, Building Blocks Online was successful across many metrics.
Participation: Enrollment was nearly double the average in-person attendance of the last several years. The option to register for a single day, or module, increased participation even more. Ten people took advantage of this option. High registration made the program a financial success and allowed CW to further lower tuition with an early bird special for Toolkit Implementation Online, the second session of A&S.
Affordability and Accessibility: Moving online made the training program available to a much wider audience, attracting many participants who would not have been able to attend in person. The costs of an in-person training include tuition, travel, and lodging and can easily exceed $2,000. CW was able to reduce the cost of tuition by $200. Without flights and hotels, overall costs for participants fell by half.
Additionally, the online format allowed for content to be offered as modules separated by day. Modules included Co-ops 101, Co-op Business, Feasibility, Group Dynamics, Co-op Sectors, Case Studies, and Building Ecosystems. This gave participants the option to purchase a single day of training if they were unable to attend the entire program or only required access to specific content.
Many participants balanced the training with work, childcare, and/or elder care. While the pandemic exacerbated this balancing act, these obligations would have prevented many of these people from attending even pre-pandemic. For many potential attendees, multi-night travel is cost or time prohibitive. The online format enabled each presentation to be recorded and shared with participants. This, too, provided greater accessibility. Participants were able to review dense and complicated materials. People who had to miss a session to provide homeschooling or go to a doctor’s appointment were able to easily catch up and maintain full participation. The recordings also provide a longer-term resource for participants to use in their work.
In Toolkit Implementation Online, Spanish language interpreters were brought in for one presentation for the program to take advantage of Zoom’s simultaneous interpretation capabilities. This added accessibility was highly regarded, and we plan to offer Spanish interpretation for online trainings moving forward. We anticipate that this increased language access will enable many more people to participate in the trainings.
A New Vision for Co-op Education
In a post-pandemic world, we will surely hold in-person trainings, but we intend to build on lessons learned both from our decades of in-person experience and this past year’s online experiences. The economic and educational success of online training, coupled with its increased affordability and accessibility, has inspired us to expand our offerings in 2021. Our vision is to offer the trainings both in-person and online post-pandemic to ensure that cooperative development education is accessible to all communities that would benefit from it.
We envision taking and refining the elements we developed in 2020 and offering training quarterly instead of annually this year. Each offering will focus on a specific US region, much like how 2020’s Building Blocks Online partnered with cooperative development experts in Philadelphia. Each training will highlight the region’s experts, cooperatives, and movements while tackling issues specific to the area or population. This expansion will help us scale our offerings to expand rapidly co-op development knowledge and enable as many as 100 cooperative developers to receive foundational training this year. A well-trained network of cooperative developers can work with their communities to implement the cooperative business model for equity and resilience.
Even after the pandemic subsides and the world presumably moves back toward in-person gatherings, the opportunities afforded by online trainings cannot be overlooked. And in some cases, this might include hybrid forms that combine online and in-person convening.
The increased affordability and accessibility help make our movement truly inclusive. As the late Elandria Williams wrote in NPQ last June, the need for what she called “transformative hybrid online spaces” for popular education, learning, and network-building is obvious.
Developing well-honed skills for virtual trainings will hasten cooperative growth by providing more outlets for communities and people to plug in. Moreover, the lessons we’ve learned may also be of use to trainers in other contexts. While online education has an extensive history, as does participatory education, the story of participatory online education is only just beginning.