NEKLS Innovation Day 2015: Training-Teaching-Learning While Hanging Out in Kansas

April 30, 2015

I’ve hung out before, and I’m sure I’ll hang out again, but I can’t imagine a more intensely innovative and emotionally-rewarding approach to incorporating Google Hangouts into training-teaching-learning than the one collaboratively created as part of the 2015 Northeast Kansas Library System (NEKLS) Innovation Day program yesterday.

nekls_logosm_400x400What we’re continuing to explore with Hangouts is highly-engaging, low-/no-cost web-conferencing, a rudimentary and surprisingly effective form of telepresence, and  notably strong levels of interaction in training-teaching-learning made possible through the use of an easy-to-learn social media tool—something that fell into place nicely in two consecutive sessions during Innovation Day.

It has taken a fair amount of experimentation and practice to reach the point we reached yesterday: an onsite event that seamlessly expanded to include two offsite presenters (Harford County Public Library Technical Trainer Maurice Coleman and me) so we not only could interact directly with onsite participates but with each other as if we were all in the same room—and the room expanded further via connections simultaneously made with Twitter.

My own experience in training-teaching-learning through web conferencing and rudimentary telepresence dates back to a successful experiment to bring an offsite presenter (from Ohio) into an onsite event attended by more than 200 people here in San Francisco in 2007 in a way that encouraged some limited, direct interactions between the online presenter and members of the onsite audience. I expanded the exercise a bit a few years later by incorporating Skype, Twitter, and onsite colleagues into one of these blended learning events at a Sacramento ASTD (American Society for Training & Development meeting, then carried it a bit further with my New Media Consortium colleague Samantha Adams Becker when we switched over to Google Hangouts for onsite-online blended sessions with ASTD Mount Diablo and Golden Gate chapter colleagues.

What many of us were realizing at that point was that with proper preparation (which included abundant amounts of rehearsal time) and the right equipment (most of which was already available to us in each of the venues we used), we could erase geographic barriers in ways that caused onsite participants to forget that the online participants weren’t physically in the room.

An expansion of the experimentation included adding an onsite Twitter facilitator (colleague Larry Straining, who ad-libbed from a basic script to tweet out what Samantha and I were doing via Google Hangouts for ASTD—now ATD, the Association for Talent Development) at a conference in the Washington, D.C. area in late 2014. Adding Twitter to the mix in this focused, pre-planned way helped make the point that the “rooms” in which each of these events was physically taking place was actually expanding to include a global audience comprised of participants working synchronously and others who could participate later in an asynchronous fashion by seeing and responding to the tweets in an ongoing conversation. Carrying this another step further by drawing “left-behind” colleagues (including Maurice) into the 2015 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting (held in Chicago) provided yet another example of how Hangouts could produce live as well as archived learning opportunities —and further laid the groundwork for what we accomplished yesterday during the annual NEKLS Innovation Day conference: live interactions between the two of us who were offsite, interactions between the two of us and those who were physically present at the conference; and interactions with non-conference attendees who saw the tweets and shared content through retweeting. All that was missing yesterday was synchronous two-way interactions between those non-conference attendees and those of us who were participating onsite or via the Hangout)—but we had a hint of it as my own Innovation Day tweets were picked up and retweeted by several unfamiliar tweeters here in the United States and elsewhere.

NEKLS Continuing Education Consultant Patti Poe initiated the process as part of her overall Innovation Day planning by inviting me to use Google Hangouts as the vehicle for a presentation/discussion on using online collaboration tools. When she mentioned that Maurice would be doing a separate (closing keynote address) session via Hangouts, I asked if it would be possible to also include Maurice in the session I was facilitating and schedule that session in the time slot immediately preceding his keynote address. The experiences Maurice and I had with the ALA Midwinter Meeting experiment primed us to attempt something that was both structured—with specific learning goals and objectives—and improvisational so that onsite conference attendees would very much be involved in learning while also shaping the nature of the session.

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

Rehearsal for Innovation Day Hangout (Photo by Robin Hastings)

As Patti noted shortly after the day ended, it exceeded everyone’s expectations and once again demonstrated that it’s possible to have this technology as the vehicle for—not the central feature of—learning opportunities and to have all of us interacting almost exactly as we would have if we hadn’t been spread over a 2,800-mile distance—in essence, creating a 2,800-mile-wide room. Maurice and I had a PowerPoint slide deck (with extensive speaker notes) and a supplemental resource sheet that I prepared and that served as our roadmap even though we actually didn’t display either during the live session (we wanted onsite attendees seeing us rather than slides as part of our effort to create the sense that we were  in the room in a very real sense); the slide deck and resource sheet were posted online later as additional learning objects and as a way to give the synchronous session an extended asynchronous life. We also allowed for plenty of interactions via question-and-answer periods throughout the entire hour-long “Using Online Collaboration Tools” session just as we do when we’re physically present in training-teaching-learning sessions. And when that initial hour came to an end, we took the same sort of between-session break we would have taken if we had physically been onsite, then returned with Maurice assuming the lead and with me maintaining an onsite-onscreen presence through a small window at the bottom of the screen as I watched his onsite-online presentation.

All of us had set out to create the sense of presence (i.e., close physical proximity) that we believe—and continually prove—is possible in well-planned, well-executed onsite-online learning environments capable of transforming learners. All of us confirmed with those onsite that we had achieved that goal. But several hours passed before I realized that in my playful role of the trickster who creates the illusion of physical proximity, I had unintentionally even tricked myself, for as I sat in the comfort of my own home here in San Francisco last night—never physically having left that home—I unexpectedly felt the same sense of melancholy I sometimes experience after intensively engaging in learning with colleagues at onsite conferences and then being physically separated from them as we return to our own homes and workplaces across the country. And I have the same sense of longing to be back with them again sooner than later to continue the connected-learning process that brings all of us such deeply rewarding experiences and relationships.

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Location, Location, and Location: Hanging Out and Learning With Samantha Adams Becker and ATD

May 17, 2014

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.

Horizon_Report--2014-CoverWhat 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.

ASTD_to_ATDOur 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!

Sleights_of_MindUnderstanding 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.

Emergency responders needed for e-learning trauma?

Emergency responders needed for e-learning trauma?

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.


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