One of the signature technical assistance (TA) offerings of Westat’s IDEA Data Center (IDC) is the Interactive Institute designed to help states develop and sustain a culture of high-quality IDEA data. The center, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), provides TA for improving state capacity to collect, report, and use the high-quality data required for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Westat’s Julie Bollmer, Ph.D., an Associate Director, and Tom Fiore, Ph.D., a Vice President, are co-directors of IDC.
“IDC clients eagerly anticipate these annual institutes that bring together state teams and TA providers from across the country to network about data quality challenges and solutions,” notes Dr. Bollmer. IDC typically hosts 2 in-person regional institutes each year; however, responding to the reality of COVID-19, IDC canceled its second 2020 institute, reformatted content from 12 popular sessions from the in-person event, and hosted a national 3-day virtual event June 23–25, 2020.
As COVID-19 restrictions continued, it was clear that IDC needed to design and deliver an online event in 2021 that would offer, and even exceed, the depth of content and networking opportunities that participants valued during the in-person institutes. IDC held the 2021 Interactive Institute on April 13–15, 2021. “IDC built on the creative elements of the 2020 virtual event, such as using Mentimeter and Padlet to increase participant engagement during presentations,” Dr. Fiore explains. “Favorite music playlists and hosts, popular during the 2020 virtual event, again welcomed attendees to the 2021 institute.”
Challenged to take things to the next level, adds Dr. Bollmer, the team brainstormed with staff across Westat to deliver an institute that would provide invaluable content as well as give participants opportunities to make personal connections with IDC staff and colleagues from other states. A sample of the innovative ways that IDC encouraged networking and idea sharing and kept virtual meeting fatigue at bay includes:
- Facilitators used the polling feature in the institute app to ask 3 fun ice breaker questions and revealed the responses during the Day 1 welcome.
- The gaming and leaderboard features in the institute app allowed attendees to track points they earned for completing activities within the app.
- Participants won daily prizes based on leaderboard scores.
- Institute hosts held an orientation session for the virtual networking platform where attendees could get to know one another while becoming familiar with navigating the site.
- Fifteen-minute informal networking breaks throughout the 3-day event gave attendees the opportunity to move among different virtual spaces to chat in a cozy clubhouse, relax in the Chill Zone, or visit during a stroll in a public park.
- Virtual lounge spaces were the setting for 20- to 30-minute relaxing activities, such as chair yoga, a virtual tour of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a greatest hits music quiz.
- Each state’s delegation gathered in a private room to debrief at the end of the day.
“IDC teamed with Westat’s Shawn Petty and Liz Davis to combine technology with our staff’s creative facilitation skills to create and deliver an engaging and meaningful institute within a virtual environment,” notes Dr. Fiore. Mr. Petty served as the Technology Support Team Leader and Virtual Engagement Planner for the event; Ms. Davis was the Conference Planner and Cvent Expert. “Attendees left with a strong personal support network, fresh ideas, and actionable solutions to help each state improve its data collection, validation, reporting, data analysis, and use.“
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