Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: The Whatfix Digital Adoption Summit and Social Isolation

May 27, 2020

Missing out on social interaction is, not surprisingly, one of the greatest concerns among more than 2,500 trainer-teacher-learners recently polled about their reactions to adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic, James Hudson reported yesterday during his first-rate “Impact of COVID-19 on Learning & Development” presentation on Day 1 of the three-day (May 26-28, 2020) whatfix Digital Adoption Conference online.

Those of us immersed in training-teaching-learning-doing are, by nature, people who thrive on helping other people learn what they want and need to learn to more effectively deal with workplace challenges they face. We are lifelong learners who take great pleasure in supporting the efforts of other lifelong learners. We are, in many ways, happiest when we see the face of one of our co-conspirators in learning light up in response to having gained an insight or having developed an understanding about something that matters to that learner. So, the thought/fear/horror of not having that opportunity for interaction and success—and the pleasure that accompanies it for learning facilitators as well as for the learners with whom we work—is, at the very least, a bit distressing, as Hudson’s survey confirms.

The good news for many of us is that the creativity and innovation inherent in much of what we do has been amply on display recently while individuals and organizations have been struggling—and, in many cases, succeeding—to meet the challenge of quickly moving from onsite learning environments into online learning environments. Even better is the news that companies like San Jose-based whatfix and many other organizations have been stepping up to the plate to support us during our transition—something that the currently-underway Digital Adoption Summit is accomplishing magnificently—and providing yet another opportunity to avoid social isolation while engaging in social distancing.

What makes an undertaking like the summit successful is that there is something to be gained by everyone involved. Whatfix, for example, benefits from the opportunity to make many more people aware of what the company offers through a platform “which provides in-app guidance and performance support for web applications and software products. Whatfix helps companies to create interactive walkthroughs that appear within web applications.” Summit presenters have an opportunity to discuss—and, by extension, promote—what they are doing in the field of digital adoption at a time when enormous numbers of people are, with little choice and preparation—having to go online to accomplish what they have been comfortably doing face-to-face for years or decades. Summit participants—free of charge, thanks to whatfix’s decision to not charge a registration fee—have an opportunity to pick and choose from among more than 30 sessions, led by a total of 41 presenters, to learn more about topics that are important to them in their/our day-to-day work. And writer-trainer-presenter-consultants like me have yet another opportunity to both participate in and to step back from the action so we can reflect on what goes into making an online summit/conference successful.

This is learning that meets short-term (shelter-in-place) needs while also laying foundations for long-term positive transformations in the way we work and interact in an onsite-online blended/digital world. It is well-targeted and engagingly presented. It features presenters/colleagues who are learner-centric in their offerings. And it is presented in nicely-designed bite-sized chunks—sessions rarely last more than 30 minutes, with plenty of breathing/reflection time between each one, and the daily opening sessions highlighting what whatfix offers have been much shorter.

The online summit is a great example of how to make an online conference engaging even when participants have minimal, if any, contact among themselves. The decision to pre-record the presentations and then make each initially available during specific time slots does, in essence, transform a series of webinars into pieces of a cohesive three-day event—which, of course, suggests low levels of in-the-moment interaction between presenters and summit attendees. (This is something that Steve Hargadon avoided during his own daylong Learning Revolution “Emergency Remote Teaching & Learning” online conference by having presenters facilitate sessions live and engage in speed-of-light interactions via the chat function of Zoom—the platform used for that session.) The whatfix summit approach, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for live interaction if participants find their way onto Twitter and connect through the #DigitalAdoptionSummit hashtag—something, surprisingly, that few have done so far. But what is lost in synchronous interaction has provided other unexpected gains for any of us who do seek the social-media connections: each presenter whose sessions I have attended has been great about providing contract information. Some—like writer-presenter-entrepreneur Charlene Li, whose session was centered on applying the content to her book The Disruption Mindset to the situation we are currently facing—have taken the extra step of posting materials on their own websites and, as Li did, fostering further engagement by providing a link to a site providing a free copy of her book so those of us who are so inclined can read that book while its content is fresh in our minds and, possibly, continuing the conversation in other online settings.

An additional unexpected benefit of the synchronously-arranged presentations through recordings has been that it’s possible to stop a speaker at any point when those of us who are tweeting want to capture a thought by composing a tweet, reviewing it for accuracy, posting it on Twitter, and then returning to the talk without missing a single word of what the presenter is providing. It’s yet another example of how our world of intertwined synchronous-asynchronous interactions offers us opportunities to more fully absorb what is available to us in terms and under conditions that let us bend time a bit to serve our training-teaching-learning needs. And whatfix is spreading the opportunity to providing post-session links to the recordings of any sessions we added to our schedules, and posting links on Twitter to places where those who did not register for the summit can gain free access to the session recordings.

Another positive aspect of the whatfix approach well worth noting is the high level of incredibly responsive online support company representatives are consistently providing to summit attendees. Initially distressed that I wasn’t seeing the live feed of the opening session yesterday morning, I took advantage of the open customer-support chat window that is continually available during all summit presentations. The response, delivered within a couple of minutes of my having posted a question regarding access to the session, was tremendous. “Sunil” not only provided a new link that immediately gave me access to the session from its opening moments, but also was very reassuring through his suggestion that there might have been a bug causing the problem (so I knew it wasn’t a problem from my side of the equation). A couple of hours later, he was just as cordial and helpful when I inadvertently closed out a session that had been underway for almost 25 minutes and was nearing its conclusion. Relogging into the session, I was briefly disappointed and frustrated to find that I was apparently going to have to rejoin it from the opening moments, so asked Sunil if there was a work-around—which, of course, there was, and I was soon back in the session exactly where I had left it. This is the sort of just-in-time response to a conference-related problem that is common at the best of the onsite events I attend, and it’s an example of how that level of customer service can easily carry over into online conferences/summits when organizers carefully think through what it takes to create that level of support and engagement.

We are not going to have the lovely, unexpected, and ultimately rewarding hallway conversations in this summit that we have at onsite conferences and some of the other online conferences I’ve recently attended. We are not going to have the in-the-moment presenter-audience interactions and collaborations I cherish. But what we will find, through approaches like the one taken by whatfix, is a different sort of opportunity that ultimately helps eliminate the sense of social isolation that concerns our colleagues in training-teaching-learning and in many other contemporary settings. And for that, we can be thankful as we leap at the opportunity to learn things we might not otherwise have learned and open doors to meeting people we might not otherwise have met.

–N.B.: This is the eleventh in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.

May 27, 2020


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: The Learning Revolution Online

April 22, 2020

On a day when friends and colleagues are feeling isolated by current shelter- in-place guidelines designed to fight the spread of the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic), I’m feeling lucky. I have been immersed in plenty of live, stimulating, rewarding, interactions with dozens of teacher-trainer-learner-doers attending a global conference. We have been listening to and asking questions of a first-rate set of presenters. We have been chatting with each other about what we are seeing and hearing. We have been sharing resources we can all begin to use—or continue using—with the learners we serve. And we have been doing all this, without needing to wear protective masks and by abiding with shelter-in-place guidelines, by maintaining distances of hundreds, if not thousands, of miles between us—because the fabulously innovative “Emergency Remote Teaching & Learning; Survive, Thrive, & Plan for What Comes Next” daylong miniconference organized and facilitated by Steve Hargadon and his Learning Revolution colleagues has been entirely online.

One of the most interesting responses I’ve seen to cancelled face-to-face learning opportunities among trainer-teacher-learners is the rapid, often positive transition from onsite face-to-face to online face-to-face interactions through the use of Zoom and other teleconferencing tools, as I have noted in previous blog posts. (The transition obviously works best for people who were already comfortable working online, and obviously is problematic where people lack online access and/or lack laptops or mobile devices.) At least two of my favorite learning organizations have made the decision to move their popular, well-attended onsite conferences into onsite environments this year: the Association for Talent Development (ATD) Virtual Conference and the American Library Association (ALA) Virtual Conference). A glance at news updates suggests that ATD and ALA are far from alone in following this innovation-in-response-to-necessity approach to supporting members of their communities in times of need.

As we consider the gargantuan task of implementing such massive change within short timeframes, it’s worth returning to the Learning Revolution miniconference to see what made it work. It helps, of course, that Hargadon, his longtime partners, and his colleagues are hardly new to this endeavor; they routinely organize and facilitate global worldwide virtual events, including the Global Education Conference (since 2010) and Library 2.0 online conferences.through collaborations with the spectacular Learning Revolution project. And it helps that the presenters were uniformly engaging and well-prepared.

In a day full of ideas and inspiration, it’s impossible to try to summarize the content in a meaningful way, so I’m left with recollections of moments and themes that somehow capture the overall beauty, creativity, and fun of the entire endeavor. Like opening session presenter Candy Mowen’s reminder, during her “Engaging Online Learners” webinar, that enhancing online learning flows from the creation of great learning environments. Or Zaretta Hammond’s commitment, during “Culturally Responsive Teaching Through Remote Learning,” to the idea that culturally responsive teaching “focuses on improving the learning of diverse students who have been marginalized educationally.” Or Steven J. Bell’s opening comments, during “Let’s Commit to Making Webinars Better,” about the importance of being relaxed, being ready, and taking your time getting started when working with our online learners. Or John Spencer’s sharing of numerous resources during his “Empowering Students in a Distance Learning Environment.” Or the opportunity to see George Couros, Katie Novak, and A.J. Juliani do wonderful variations on the themes they explored in an earlier webinar a few weeks ago and add updated material, including a very short, very funny video in which a music teacher performs a song she wrote to demonstrate her process of making the transition from onsite to online learning.

I didn’t try to attend every session; extensive experience attending conferences has helped me to realize that creating some time for reflection between sessions is an important and integral part of learning through the act of being a conference attendee. And I didn’t make the mistake of thinking that I would remember more than a few of the numerous points made or more than a few of the numerous links and other resources shared by presenters and participants; I took more than a dozen pages of hand-written notes and actually took the step of copying the extensive chat from a few of the sessions and then pasting it into a Word document—a document that ended up running more than 80 pages—that I can later review, in a more leisurely fashion, to jog my memory and help me continue my learning far beyond the day of the live event.

There’s plenty to learn from the miniconference in terms of how to successfully create and facilitate an online conference. It was, first and foremost, very well organized. Registration was easy; it simply involved applying for membership in the Learning Revolution for those who were not already members (a straightforward process that results in an amazingly quick response). Information was easily accessible online through the Learning Revolution website. A page on the Learning Revolution website itself served as the program book, with session descriptions and links to each online session. The presenters themselves were uniformly engaging and learner-/participant-focused in their approach to leading their sessions. Bandwidth issues did, at times, temporarily make the presentations a bit choppy, but Hargadon was there to smooth the gaps and help presenters and audience members quickly reconnect and move beyond those momentary blips. Interactions among participants was lively, and the numerous question-and-answer sessions between presenters and audience members were well-supported by the presenters themselves as well as by Hargadon in his role as producer/co-host/trouble-shooter. And best of all, the conference didn’t end when the live sessions formally concluded. Archived recordings are scheduled to be posted on the Learning Revolution website within a day or two after the conclusion of the live event, so the training-teaching-learning-doing can and will continue as long as any of us continue to call attention to those recordings and continue the conversations in any onsite or online setting we care to use for that purpose.

I’ve seen—and disagreed with—numerous comments I have seen online about how the cancellation of onsite conferences is creating a gap that simply can’t be replaced. I’ve seen—and disagreed with—numerous comments about the irreparable losses those cancellations are causing in terms of missed opportunities for interactions. I am not at all suggesting that onsite and online conferences and other gatherings are completely interchangeable. I know and recognize that going online creates barriers—particularly for those who don’t have adequate (or any) access to online activities; I also know and recognize that onsite conferences create barriers—costs of food and travel, the amount of time it can take to travel great distances to attend an onsite conference. But I am suggesting, based on my own short- and long-term experiences, that online conferences are far from the death knell for community gatherings as we know them; they have been and are increasingly becoming fascinating, engaging opportunities for communities to survive and thrive.

Observing and participating in today’s daylong virtual conference offers plenty of hope and guidance for anyone interested in sustaining strong communities of learning that thrive on online as well as onsite engagement. The conference is providing yet another example of the benefits and challenges of taking a conference online. And it suggests that if we positive approach our challenges collaboratively, we can sometimes produce positive results far beyond anything we might have ever imagined.

–N.B.: This is the sixth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.


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