Being in the same room with my friend, colleague, and co-presenter Samantha Adams Becker earlier this week along with colleagues from the Golden Gate Chapter of the Association for Talent Development (ATD)—formerly the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD)—required a combination of technological sleight of hand; some knowledge of the neuroscience of the brain, learning, and magic; and plenty of practice.
What helped make the evening intriguing was that Samantha, in a very real sense, was not more than a few feet away from me in San Francisco for our “Ed-Tech, Learning, and NMC (New Media Consortium) Horizon Reports: What’s In It for Us..and Our Learners” discussions with local ATD colleagues while simultaneously being more than 1,850 miles away, in Baton Rouge.
I’ve been learning how to be in at least two places at once ever since colleagues and I, in fall 2007, used Skype to connect a colleague from Ohio with an onsite audience in San Francisco to show how the use of free online tools could effectively and viscerally bring people together in ways that simulate face-to-face conversations—think of it as telepresence without costly investments. I continued the experiment with Skype in a different context for a virtual face-to-face just-in-time lesson in using Excel and PowerPoint two years later to help a friend prepare for a job interview she was about to do. Racheted it up a bit more via Skype by bringing two offsite colleagues into an onsite presentation for ASTD Sacramento Chapter members in May 2011. And returned to the experiment with Samantha in June 2012, shortly after Google Hangouts became available as a way to viscerally connect individuals regardless of geography: she was co-presenter, from New Orleans, for an onsite session I was facilitating in San Francisco’s East Bay Area for ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter colleagues.
We knew we had exceeded participants’ expectations—and our own—when I managed to step out of the room unnoticed while the Mount Diablo Chapter members were interacting with Samantha; rejoin the conversation from outside the room by logging into the Google Hangout via a tablet I was using, and briefly talk to her about how that interaction by tablet was an example of how smartphones and tablets were allowing us to engage in a variety of m-learning (mobile learning) opportunities regardless of whether those opportunities were asynchronous or synchronous—which is what the ATD Mount Diablo Chapter event had become at that moment.
Our latest collaboration with members of what is now the ATD Golden Gate Chapter included some interesting twists, and those interested in how to duplicate the experience have plenty to consider. Basic equipment includes a desktop or laptop computer; webcams (mine is built into my relatively lightweight Toshiba Portégé laptop); ability for us to hear each other (both of our laptops have small built-in speakers that produce high-quality audio output when hooked up to an onsite speaker system), and she usually doesn’t wear a headset or have any other visual cues that would remind people she is not physically in the room; a small, portable back-up speaker system that can be hooked up to my laptop in case the onsite speaker system isn’t working properly on the day or night of a presentation; and a projector and screen (or blank white surface) to project Samantha’s video feed from the Google Hangout in a way that made it easily and clearly visible for everyone onsite.
Onsite rehearsal time is critically important. When using a site for the first time, rehearsals can extend from an unusually short 45 minutes if all works well—it rarely does—to as much as two two-hour sessions if intensive trouble-shooting becomes necessary. (We once had to solve an unexpected Internet connectivity problem by ending one very frustrating two-hour session so I could obtain a 4G hotspot device and make arrangements to purchase enough online time with that device to carry us through an additional rehearsal and the live event itself.) Rehearsal includes checking sound levels from various points throughout the room, locating the best position for the webcam so it captures enough of the room for Samantha to be able to see as many participants as possible, and trying to create the least-intrusive tech set-up possible: the point is to create a set-up which has participants looking at the projected image of Samantha, me, and each other as much as possible so that the technology quickly fades into the background—which, thankfully, it generally does!
Understanding how our minds process visual and audio information also helped us more effectively take advantage of creating the illusion of presence even though she was physically in Baton Rouge, so reading the section on ventriloquism in Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde’s book Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions. The key element here is understanding that our brains process sound the same way they do when we watch movies in a theater, matching sounds with images to make us believe the sound is coming from the screen rather than the speakers, so we always attempt to have speakers unobtrusively placed as close to the screen as possible and match the sound level as much as possible to the level of my own voice onsite.
We have also come to understand that worries about lack of synchronization between what participants hear and see (as when lip movement is ahead of or behind what they hear) is not as important as many of us might assume. Macknik and Martinez-Conde convincingly demonstrate, in their book, that we focus on an extremely small part of what is in our overall field of vision. Extrapolating from what they show, we realize that the only time participants notice discrepancies between sound and lip motion is when they focus their visual attention on the motions of the speaker’s lips onscreen. If they are looking at Samantha’s eyes, or at me, or at anything else in the room, the illusion of presence is not at all interrupted.
Our onsite-online blended presentation this time also carried the experiment one step further. To control and limit potential bandwidth problems, Samantha and I were the only two participants in the Hangout; other offsite participants received the program feed via a separate remote-viewing option that Chapter members routinely provide. If offsite participants had wanted to ask questions, the person monitoring that external feed would simply have repeated questions to Samantha and me, and we would have responded orally so the outgoing feed carried the response from the room to the offsite participants.
But all of this is just a prelude to the real magic that occurs through this type of learning experiment/experience: it’s a perfect match of content and delivery method for everyone involved. We were introducing participants to current trends, challenges, and developments in educational technology that affect them and their own learners, and we were facilitating discussions on the topic through the use of relatively low-cost technology that they themselves could immediately use if they chose to do so. We had cobbled together a smart classroom to show how relatively easy a task that could be. We learned from the questions they asked as much as they learned from the presentation we offer.
Most importantly, it became another example of the power of learning opportunities that are engaging. One of our most rewarding discussions came from participants’ observations that e-learning/online learning experiences generally are far less engaging than they should be and almost leave learners requiring the assistance of trauma-unit personnel—which made us laughingly agree that one service ATD and other learning organizations could provide would be an e-learning trauma/paramedic service to minister to those who had suffered through traumatically bad learning experiences online. We also used our ersatz smart-classroom set-up to exchange ideas about how to address digital literacy challenges among ourselves as trainer-teacher-learners as well as among the larger group of learners we all serve.
The conversation came to an end with the all-important confirmation that everyone in the room felt as if Samantha had been there with us in our blended onsite-online learning experiment—and in every significant way, she had been! The technology we have and the technology that others are continuing to develop creates magnificent opportunities to meet and interact with first-rate colleagues and provide effective learning opportunities—as long as we focus on each other and see the technology as the background tool that facilitates learning, communication, interactions, and meaningful collaboration.