For two weeks every July for more than four decades, up to 300 municipal professionals from around the state of Iowa have descended on Ames to receive training focusing on real-world instruction that assists municipal clerks, finance officers, and administrators in doing their job. The Iowa Municipal Professionals Institute and Academy (MPI/MPA) are offered by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Office of State and Local Government Programs and the Iowa League of Cities.
The year-long planning process for the 2020 MPI/MPA was already well underway when COVID-19 started spreading through the United States in March. It didn’t take long to realize that bringing 300 people together in person for the annual training was not feasible for July 2020.
Moving forward with a virtual MPI/MPA posed a number of challenges. First, because registration was already open, changing the dates of the Institute and Academy was not an option. Then came transforming 44 different courses into a virtual format that would occur over 10 days, leaving all-day trainings in place for many of the participants. Giving in-person sessions a virtual home for 300 participants who all have different class schedules followed shortly behind. There was also the question of whether instructing these courses would make sense in a virtual format and then adjusting what that learning meant in a virtual world. Fortunately, ISU Extension and Outreach’s Community and Economic Development unit was already immersed in the process of moving programming to an online format.
Participants attend MPI/MPA to obtain certification from two different organizations - International Institute of Municipal Clerks (IIMC) and Iowa Municipal Finance Officers Association (IMFOA) - both of which require that all classes be live and interactive to receive credit. That and the fact that every participant would potentially have a different schedule provided the roadmap for taking an entirely in-person event online. The participants were housed in a Learning Management System with links to their class schedules, quizzes, online sessions, and all class materials such as handouts and presentations. Courses were held via Zoom sessions during which instructors relied heavily on breakout rooms, polls, and survey questions to encourage engagement; all attendees were required to keep cameras on throughout the sessions.
Making in-person training completely virtual necessitates having the assistance and support of a good team, as well as having instructors willing to try new technologies, adapt curriculum, and work to assure that it flowed virtually. It also requires a degree of leniency from participants as the hosts find new and creative ways to work through technological issues. Being able to identify and troubleshoot issues for all users in advance lessened the anxiety of the actual event. Doing walk-throughs and pre-sessions can benefit instructors, hosts, and participants and provide a level of comfort for the actual event.
What July has shown is that without any prior experience in online events, hosting a 300-person, 44-class, two-week event is feasible, completely possible, and even beneficial to participants, as comments from their evaluations show:
“Personally, I loved the virtual training. I felt it moved along better than in person and I retained more information.”
“The city was able to save so much money. There was no hotel, no travel, no food bill, etc. That was a HUGE plus. Being a small city if we are able to save money we try to.”
“[The virtual sessions] made it easier to attend class during the day and go into work at night to try and stay caught up. Being gone from the office for 10 days would be a nightmare!”