Can I Recover My Asynchronous Practice?

Calm, asynchronous communication isn’t the norm. It’s going to take a major shift in thinking to recognize that focus and balance are vital assets that companies need to protect in order to be successful.

Source: My Company Tried Slack For Two Years. This Is Why We Quit.

Quite a while back this quote floated by my eyes and I grabbed it for “blogging later.” Beyond the reference to the use of Slack, I’m deeply interested in asynchronous text communication. That “grab” was early July. It is now September. The irony does not escape me…

Still, I was drawn back to this draft after participating in a Facebook thread with Bryan Alexander. Bryan is always asking thoughtful questions, rather than throwing out statements, as so many of us do on Facebook. As the conversation asynchronously continued, Bryan asked what would get me back participating in the conversations he hosted on Facebook. My honest reply was I needed someone to get all my family work done for me!

Time and fractured attention practices have made my less willing and capable of meaningfully participating in asynchronous conversations online. It used to be a central part of my practice and learning. I was a passionate advocate for asynchronous online conversation. I LOVED it! I shocked myself, because I believe in the power of asynch.

Family obligations aside, I relate to Katie Hafner’s description of “squirrel-chasing-dog.” I’ve lost the motivation to focus deeply on any online thread. I bookmark. I take a note to “come back.” I don’t. I used to have laser focus and could read long threads, synthesize, respond with questions or comments, nurture the engagement of others. I’m currently designing a new online course for a fabulous refugee educator initiatives on supporting distributed communities of practice and I’m asking myself, what modality is best for the participants and me. I used to position asynchronous threads front and center.

Is this just me getting old? As an adviser for Trusted Sharing, a platform and practices for asynchronous or “flex time” interaction, I should (STILL!!) have this down pat. I’ve lost it. How about you?

My question is this:  is calm, asynchronous conversation valuable to you? Is it worth the (re)focus? If yes, what are your practices to do this well in a time of fractured attention. (Personally, I think there is something important about “doing less” and creating space for focus, but I struggle to practice this!)  What is your current stance and practice in asynchronous conversation?

Lessons from a Crazy MAFN Multi-Sensory Webinar

Warning: Long post suitable for process geeks and lovers of detail. The rest of you might want to skip to the bottom and download the annotated slides PDF!

For the last few years I’ve enjoyed presenting a 90 minute synchronous session for the Mid Atlantic Facilitators Network, or MAFN. The hosting team is top notch, more organized and supportive than any other I’ve experienced, so it is easy to say yes when they invite me back. (This is worth a blog post of its own!)

Each year I use the opportunity to push my own borders. One year I introduced Liberating Structures (2014). Another year Any Lenzo, Nancy Settle-Murphy and I co-led a session about technology and facilitation (2015).  I think there was something in 2016, but alas, memory fails!

This January I said yes again and decided to really push the boundaries of experiential co-learning in a synchronous online environment and play with what happens when we switch up sensory modalities. I positioned this ENTIRELY as an experiment, not a talk given by someone who is certain about something. That alone is an unusual twist. People expect experts. I arrive as a practitioner, and I love claiming this identity.

The title was Fingerpainting Online: Experiments in Synchronous Multimodality. The experiments I proposed included adding music, creating physical objects as interaction prompts, physical movement, taste/smell, vocalization and creation/destruction/recreation. I used the first modality of music by introducing a piece of music – a fugue – and riffing off the structure of fugues. That was probably taking my metaphoric imagination a bit too far, but it was fun. At the bottom of the post you can see pictures of the slides as well as an annotated PDF of the deck which include my notes and some of the anonymized feedback that happened in the group chat.

Prior to the session, participants were emailed a list of preparations which included downloading and making a small paper foldable animal of their choice, having a snack near by, and printing out a note taking template I drew for them.

Listen

The first modality was aural. Before I started even talking, we put on a clip of contemporary classical music. My camera was on so they saw my face as I listened, but I did not talk for a good 120 seconds. An eternity online. During this time I showed three slides, one a brief prompt asking people to think of the 90 minutes together as a piece of music, a quote from Donella Meadows on “getting the beat” of a system, and a definition of a fugue.

I want to explicitly share the Meadows’ quote here as it has value on its own. This idea that we observe, before we disturb. A great process tip!

  1. Get the beat.

Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened. If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system. Peoples’ memories are not always reliable when it comes to timing.

Donella Meadows

http://donellameadows.org/archives/dancing-with-systems/

When I finally talked, I offered the invitation into this experiment, confessing I had experiences as a practitioner, but no definitive expertise around the experiment. We then talked about the music. Some of the points I raised included:

  • How we carry stress in our bodies, and how that influences group process as facilitators and participants. Music can begin to release some of that stress (or, in moments of uncertainty, create more.)
  • Icebreakers were originally about creating somatic awareness, listening and connection. How does music break ice?
  • Adults react to music based on their experience with that music. Our memory of a particular kind of music will influence the effect. Children tend to just jump into it and be with it. Dance, sing, listen.
  • In my practice, I often use music that reflects context, domain, desired energy level. If I’m working overseas, I use a mix with local music – a subtle honoring of local context.
  • I am often mixing things up, selecting music and language that is familiar enough, but has some unfamiliarity. This bit of dissonance serves to break entrained thinking patterns, and causes us to sit up and pay attention differently.

In the chat room, the comments resonated with some of these observations.

  • It did not resonate with me
  • I was curious. Wondering where this was going.
  • I felt relaxed.
  • It helped focus and ground me to the session
  • curious
  • Relaxed; soothing; all working together
  • engages my right brain, which helps me access creativity (when we start discussing something)
  • Calm, not thinking : )
  • I was not concerned about where this was going. (thinking)
  • relaxing and getting ready
  • Felt lighter. Was thinking “this is different”
  • Actually thinking about past experience of a client very liner which was uncomfortable with anything different.
  • helps slow down the runaway train thinking…
  • I think there’s a question in this for us as facilitators re. our role: are we sage on stage? are we simply facilitating their energy, so they own the process?
  • Nancy White: Yes yes yes… hold that thought . When you change modalities, you change how people notice and pay attention. I’m going to take you on a sensory adventure. Music as conviviality and sociality. Music in complement to visual practices.

We were off and running. In the spirit of the three parts of a fugue, exposition, development and return, we did a bit more exposition and I reviewed the visual note taking template. The central part of the invitation was to treat this experience with curiosity, withholding swift judgement for each modality and then reflection. I warned them some of the parts of the experiment would be down-right weird, and some would be limited by the limits of the technology itself, and I was NOT aiming for some sort of perfect experience. It was EXPERIMENT!

Touch

The next modality was the physicality of touch. Each person had picked, downloaded and built a small foldable animal. The animal they picked determined which chat breakout room they would go to and reflect on a prompt about the artifact they created. There were the elephants, the lions, alligators, rhinos and giraffes.

I asked them to download, print and build an animal based on something I learned years ago from Lisa Kimball. She was my first guide in online conferencing, back in the almost entirely asynchronous, discussion board days. When she hosted an event, she would send out a packet of printed materials (shocking!) which included something to print out, construct and keep by your computer. The agenda was printed on the different faces of the object we assembled. When we were online, one of the prompts was to hold the object when reading other people’s text comments. The kinesthetic experience in the conference, where we were all disembodied, help us feel a connection.

It was a great set up in Adobe Connect because while people chatted in their respective chatrooms, they could see all of the rooms and look “across” the experience. All the Rhinos are holding the same object, working on the same thing.  Then we debriefed. Right off the bat one participant noted it was a “metaphoric opportunity” that helped us become present in a different way through the mere act of touching something. I smiled. Here are a few of the chat observations (beyond the riffing of animal jokes!):

  • A tremendous amount of diversity of thought!
  • Could be in multiple breakouts at the same time — and see what was happening in all of them at the same time.
  • OK to not follow the rules – that in itself is a great intervention, encouraging people to speak up, and to take some ownership. (I told them they did not have to follow the rules I offered!)
  • Metaphoric opportunity for application to real issues
  • My lion just bit me!!
  • Creating connection – all the rhinos, all the giraffes – I think that’s brilliant in a D&I context – we connect with other people around shared whatever; it creates an affinity that I might not feel for you because I don’t know you.
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Seem likes the object needs to be relevant to the to the group work at least as much as ice breakers

Move

Our conversation was moving us from the fugue’s exposition to development. We wrapped this section up by me asking them to take their hands off the keyboard, hold their animals, then imagine the other people in the group who had selected the same animal. A shared, somatic experience. And we moved right into the main somatic experience of moving. I invited people to stand up, move about for a few minutes. To release the tension in their hands, arms, neck and shoulders. To breathe. (See Linda Stone’s work on email apnea!)

Chat Notes after standing up and moving:

  • I seemed to have greater energy . I was able to be more focused
  • It’s fun to freak people out sometimes! : ) (reflecting on the fact that people in the office wondered what this person was doing!)
  • I move more as I work
  • relaxed me a bit
  • it just occurred to me.. we should do this whole thing using xbox!! I’d love to see snapshots of people’s moves : )
  • True! VR is the future and coming soon!

Think about the movement towards standing desks? (3+ participants said they had one, one didn’t know what a stand up desk was). How many walk with their phone during phone calls? We are learning that we are killing ourselves prematurely by sitting too much. There is a stream of work aroundwalking meetings” and redesigned work environments.

But  what do we know about the value of movement in group process? We then explored the connection between moving, attention and how body position can impact attention and prevent more computer based multitasking. Stretch breaks.

Dancing is a metaphor used in our work, just like music (“Its like Jazz!”) Movement and kinesthetic experience has long been incorporated into K-12 pedagogy. The link between math and balance board activities, the association of certain sports activities with areas of studies such as music and math, and the emerging consensus of the value of recess, particularly the physical play aspects, are visible and most of us are aware of them.

If you do a general analysis of group processes, looking at their underlying patterns, there are strong movement components. Large/Small/Large group alternation. “Stand up” meetings.  Visual practitioners talk about the power of people getting up to a wall and making a mark (expressive arts) . The body, my friends, is powerful… Trios in walking tasks improve the quality of thinking and conversation.But we don’t find a lot of results with a Google search about physical aspects of online group facilitation. Building the kinesthetic experience into F2F is fairly common (mode choice), but not very often online. The most frequent thing you hear is to take physical breaks in online events every 40 minutes.

What might technologies like virtual reality help us do? How can our use of metaphors of movement (like dancing)  stimulate the somatic memory. Donella Meadows talked about “dancing with systems.” There are ways of doing strategic planning that are about building resilience, flow and action versus a static plan. We need to build kinesthetic metaphors into our vocabulary and moving methods into our process. I move tables out of the room for more physicality (tables are for eating!), use the human spectrogram to tease out positions and avoid people getting trapped next to the two people they sat down between at the start. What does this look like online?

Different technologies influence our design.  The invitation to engage in these things is important – the language we use.  “This is too childish… we are adults.”  If we have a clear purpose, the activity has to have a direct link to purpose. Talking about facilitation ideas in the abstract is less powerful, because their use towards purpose is what matters. The connection to the purpose: that is the integrity of the design.

Here are some of the ideas the group shared in the chat room: :

  • Instead of having people sitting at breakout tables, have the groups gather around chart paper on the walls around the room
  • I have people stand for exercises all the time . My purpose is to get them focused on the task and get their energy up
  • Love the idea of walking breakout groups
  • I have conference centers give us breakout rooms without tables and chairs. Only flipcharts
  • If folks have cell phones, you can use the Adobe app, etc.
  • How about hololens? An augmented reality headset. Like a next gen Google Glass
  • when working from home, I walk around with my laptop
  • Who says they all have that capability?How to get around the fact that people will sign in with diff technology that prohibits
  • We breakout participants in groups at the end of a day’s session and ask them to produce a skit of their summary of key takeaways from the day. I am always surprised at how much adults love to produce and act! …we can geek out 🙂
  • Love the language change suggestion!
  • there’s a fun platform, MURAL, that allows you to do fun things on the computer that you would do in person – like creating and posting sticky notes with ideas.  https://mural.co/
  • A group of children is almost always more creative than a group of adults. So being “childish” may mean more creative.

Taste/Smell

It was about half way through the 90 minutes when we moved on to taste and smell. Snack time! We’ve heard the line: “Wake up and smell the coffee.” or “That is a tasty idea.” smell and taste metaphors are rich and common. They are one of my favorites because as a chocoholic, I often invoke it in many ways. I shared a picture using chocolate as a metaphor for coming together via  a chocolate mandala at a retreat. Here was a bit of my rap:

Can you smell the chocolate? Does it remind you of something beyond the act of eating chocolate?  Smell memories are some of the most powerful. Smell and taste are powerful parts of the limbic system. Associated with memory and feeling. They can trigger something almost Pavolovian.

Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously. “ (HowStuffWorks) When I smell “Love’s Baby Soft” perfume, my year as an exchange student in Brazil as a high school student rises up in all its detail, when otherwise I simply remember the stories I retold the most after my return. Rice cakes make me think of my pregnancies.

I invited you to bring something yummy to eat or drink. Take a sip or a bite right now, if anything is left. Pay attention to your body. What is happening?

While they were munching, I mentioned the work of a client at the CITA program who have introduced good nutrition before family court hearings. and how this simple act of providing protein is shifting court experiences and outcomes. Yes, our bodies are in this with our minds.

Immediately someone asked about the relevance of an experiment like this – the relevance to the purpose and the relevance of the group. Sometimes I step a bit away from purpose and look at creating or holding the space or conditions for working on a purpose. Punctuation – not the main meal, but things that help the main meal go well. But it can’t divert or detract from purpose. Our role is not entertainment – it has to be purposeful. But food has strong social connotations and it evokes memories. So how can we use this in online facilitation?

Chat Notes:

  • Dark chocolate over coconut – the taste and smell is heaven!
  • Wondering about the realistic application of this during an actual on-line session with people that use diff tech to participate and have diff ability and comfort level with any specific tech. Examples of your use of this ??
  • Nancy: This is exactly my question, I don’t know the answer! 🙂 But I want to hear ideas!
  • Does Adobe allow all of us to connect our cameras and audios for 30seconds?
  • I like what you set up… inviting everyone to bring food / drink and even to eat/drink at the same time. And then… ask to share and go to impact or application??
  • What are you eating? You can eat and type, but hard to eat and talk at the same time.
  • coffee and almonds, here in Philly
  • that was my point 😉 sharing everyone’s eating and drinking 🙂
  • @ZZ, we can turn cameras on, but one person at a time. Anyone want to go on video for a bit?
  • a smell that holds memory for you? and the feeling accompanying it/ and …?
  • we have had ‘celebratory’ online meetings with colleagues around the world — the meeting was to celebrate the group’s work and get feedback on the process,
  • Cranky if we aren’t experiencing good nutrition
  • The same issue with nutrition happens with people with dementia or cognitive impairments
  • I certainly agree that food is good for in person meetings, but it is interesting that I don’t want to be watching people eat on-line. Interesting. Is it just because it is different? Or am I impatient because I see it as taking up time?
  • brain & thinking impact from chronic stress… ACES study.
  • Appreciate the question and exploration of ideas for how to do this. At the end of the day does it not need to be relevantly useful for the group’s work?
  • @YY agreed. But I’m finding myself enjoying seeing the coffee drinking.
  • I’m with XX – don’t want to watch people eat 😉 adverse childhood experiences…

Sing/Vocalize

Next was the experiment that, in a previous setting, was the most challenging for people: shared vocalization in the form of singing. Now I know that when we open up multiple mics there will be a sound mess. Things won’t synch up, so I warned everyone in advance. Then we sang Happy Birthday together.

My friend Steve Crandall mentioned a while back some research about the role of singing and social bonding. (Two here and here.) This got me thinking about singing together. I did a little experiment last year at the Sketching in Practice conference in Vancouver, BC with groups using different modalities F2F and the group that had to sing to communicate was, well, not happy. They rebelled. Singing is not a shared public practice, it seems. 😉 We need to figure out how to USE it!

If you look at the development of shared communication, singing has played  role. But we have often excluded in business as “not appropriate.” They create moments of discomfort, regardless of online or offline. Can we use these moments productively? Can we access the value of shared vocalization more deeply?

I’m not suggesting singing Kumbaya and holding hands, but thinking about the value of shared vocalization, in neurostimulation. As we work in a complex world with different people and contexts, shouldn’t we be calling about these things as part of our process? Shouldn’t we be asking these questions? Maybe just playing music alone is not enough, but need something purpose driven around shared vocalization.

“We show that although singers and non-singers felt equally connected by timepoint 3, singers experienced much faster bonding: singers demonstrated a significantly greater increase in closeness at timepoint 1, but the more gradual increase shown by non-singers caught up over time. This represents the first evidence for an ‘ice-breaker effect’ of singing in promoting fast cohesion between unfamiliar individuals, which bypasses the need for personal knowledge of group members gained through prolonged interaction. We argue that singing may have evolved to quickly bond large human groups of relative strangers, potentially through encouraging willingness to coordinate by enhancing positive affect.” http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/10/150221

The online technology is not friendly to us today, but we should be asking questions about how we can improve the experience. Maybe virtual reality will help us.

Create/Destroy/Recreate

And with that, we moved on to “create/destry/re-create” which is an experiment I’ve run many times in online meetings. This is the “finger painting online” bit – actually mouse-painting for most people, working on a shared white board and using images instead of words. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll move right into the debrief, as this post has grown to gargantuan proportions. Oops!

The debrief of the open drawing of the first round:

  • started to look like jackson pollack by the end!
  • it got messy!
  • incites curiosity
  • looks like Guernica
  • Depends what we are trying to do.
  • confused
  • LOL
  • For this kind of exercise it felt right
  • overwriting each other’s pictures could get in the way of purpose, or not!
  • I greatly improved other peoples drawings…
  • connection, another way to hi
  • the idea of an exercise of building off others’ work if interesting
  • This is a self selected group of people willing to experiment

The second round where a grid and specific instructions were provided:

  • started to look like jackson pollack by the end!
  • it got messy!
  • incites curiosity
  • looks like Guernica
  • Depends what we are trying to do.
  • confused
  • LOL
  • For this kind of exercise it felt right
  • overwriting each other’s pictures could get in the way of purpose, or not!
  • I greatly improved other peoples drawings…
  • connection, another way to hi
  • the idea of an exercise of building off others’ work if interesting
  • This is a self selected group of people willing to experiment

And the third round where we opened things back up to a more emergent creative practice:

  • This is an awesome exercise… here’s what it looks like in a room as part of a world cafe: http://lizardbrainsolutions.com/zwixnxzvcauu2d39y9ijr7kbumu9y1
  • Lol. Love the gump!
  • Ah, I see Forrest Gump
  • ha ha….ha
  • shared purpose
  • more like the first time
  • tower of babel tasking
  • felt more like intentional collaboration I looked for places to add, elaborate
  • jointly effort because we have a theme
  • it felt like we were all contributing to an agreed end product
  • It seems the drawings appeared at the same time.
  • more detail possible but still does not resemble tree
  • surprise, but shared purpose — yielded unexpected results you could build on
  • some people dominating?
  • a cactus would have been nice.
  • After creating several trees, I looked for open spaces. Trying to work together.
  • its difficult to control the stroke sometimes – inadvertently infringed on people’s space
  • would love to have the drawing exercise with music in the background!

Look at the progression: We had no constraints, then constraints, and then between the two we find the space to work together. We built awareness of intentionality and purpose, of our own acts and the acts of our colleagues. Fisher Qua has been doing a group drawing on large paper that starts with individual drawings on the perimeter of the paper and then work collaboratively towards the center. In a space of unfamiliarity, we act differently into the experience.

World Café table clothes where large white paper is set on each table with a range of colored pens for spontaneous doodling and drawing  are a very good example of this F2F. So too with drawing on whiteboards — we have a subtle negotiation of visual space and an easy place to play in the online space.

The Return

Our time was coming to an end. We reached the “return” stage of our metaphorical fugue. We started easy with aural and ended with easy with visual. We explored how to pay attention together and work together.  Individually. Collectively. At a distance and yet really together. We concluded with a “What? So What? Now What?” debrief which you can read in the PDF below.

For me, the insights were these:

  • We need to actively understand and experiment with including more modalities and approaches in our online work if we truly want to learn and work and play together online.
  • Switching helps us out of our thinking ruts and into new, productive spaces for engagement.
  • Discomfort is ok. Let’s use it productively.
  • We have a lot more work to do!

MAFN FingerP ainting Together Online Jan 2017 Annotated

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What does “digital native” imply? Just sayin…

F2FtoONlineA quote worth sharing from my blog draft backlog… emphasis mine. Smash stereotypes and remember many roots of learning are social, even online!

During two long-term studies, which looked at learners who had personal connected devices or were using a powerful online learning community, we found that many users struggled to operate the basic tools. Those who were more active users, rather than somehow miraculously working it all out for themselves, in fact belonged to groups of active users among both friends and families. It seems that learning to be a competent user of technology is a social and cultural experience. However, even where the learners were competent users of the device or service, they were not naturally effective learners using technology. Simple things like arranging their work so they could find it again was a challenge and there was no evidence of working iteratively, incorporating feedback from teachers or fellow learners. Searching skills were pretty rudimentary. They did enjoy drill and practice exercises and referred to these as “games” which they “played”.The minority who did use their devices more did also revisit work they had done earlier, including a few who referred back to relevant work in primary school following transfer to secondary. Being able to create, save , share and rediscover their work via a personal device was a game changer for the few who found out how to do these things – but they were a minority and they had help from home and friends, which made the difference. Not much evidence of the “digital native”.

Source: ‘The idea that young people are digital natives is a myth’ | tesconnect

Learning While Building eLearning: #4 Lessons from the Pilot

Scholar Project - 2This is the last of four pieces reflecting on the experiences of Emilio, a subject matter expert who was tasked with converting his successful F2F training into an elearning offering. This one focuses on the lessons learned from the pilot and we are pulling in Cheryl Frankiewicz, the project manager. You can find the context in part 1 ,  part 2 and part 3. (Disclaimer: I was an adviser to the project and my condition of participation was the ability to do this series of blog posts, because there is really useful knowledge to share, both within the colleague’s organization and more widely. So I said I’d add the blog reflections – without pay – if I could share them.)

Nancy: Emilio and Cheryl, what is your advice for someone else embarking on this process?

Emilio: Solve the prep work for the launch. Pay a lot of attention to the very important thing you do in every single project, no matter what it is. Getting the process of getting the people there. The enrollment, selecting a good partner and being on top of your partner so that nothing goes wrong in this introduction process. The key thing is to get the people there at the start of your course. That has to go flawless. If it starts flawless, it is almost a piece of cake to do a good learning course. Then everything flows easily.

Cheryl: I would encourage others who embark on this process to start by revisiting their objectives and making sure that they measure the most important learning outcomes. Once the objectives are clear, focused and measurable, it’s much easier to make wise choices about which content and activities to include in the course design. Interaction is just as important in elearning as in F2F learning, but that doesn’t mean that all the interaction that takes place in the face-to-face environment should be transferred to the online environment. Attention spans are more limited and the demands on learners’ time are greater in an online environment, so you have to be careful not to include so much interaction that it becomes overwhelming to learners.

If you haven’t facilitated online before, take an elearning facilitation course before you deliver for the first time. I took one before I delivered my first online training and it was worth every penny I paid. Not only did I get useful tips on how to manage participation in a virtual environment, but I also had the opportunity to practice them before going “live”.  The big surprise for me was how much I depended on participants’ body language for feedback in a F2F environment, and how lost I felt online without it. The course helped me identify other strategies for gathering and giving feedback online. Emilio wanted to take one of these courses but his travel schedule didn’t allow it.

One other recommendation I’d make is to plan for regular communication with learners. In a F2F setting, facilitators don’t have to think about how this will happen because they are in constant contact with learners, but in an elearning environment, extra effort has to be made to design and time communication in a way that helps keep participants on track and motivated to participate. Regular bulletins from the facilitator that remind participants what is happening in a given week or unit are a valuable tool for accomplishing this. These bulletins can also highlight key lessons learned or insightful contributions from participants during the previous week. The review can help re-engage those that have fallen behind, and the recognition can help motivate quality participation in the future.

Nancy: Emilio, I have done quite a bit of work with your organization around learning, facilitating and elearning. As you think about your experiences and the experiences you’ve learned from other colleagues doing elearning in FAO, what capacity is needed to do this sort of work in an organization like yours?

Emilio: We have our own elearning team at FAO doing their own projects for specific groups. Their services are relatively expensive.  If I were to do with them the same thing I did with MEDA I would have likely paid more. And they have a limited number of people. They don’t have enough capacity to be service providers to the rest of the organization. We have so many different units. Our organization is structured so that we have to provide services to each other and we have to pay for them.

Nancy: I know there is a lot of talent spread through the organization, but it is not clear that they are aware of each other, talk to each other, learn and support each other.

Emilio: You are right. I have a  colleague doing a training. She decided to work with Unitar. She is thrilled with the experience. Then she started talking about her very different needs and experiences. From what she tells me I would not be inclined to use that model. I would have to have something different.  It is hard at the end of the day to come up with a corporate, very well coordinated approach to this elearning, to cultivate that knowledge among all of FAO’s staff, or at least expand it as much as possible.

But you are right, the result is we don’t leverage, learn from each other, from a very valuable experience a colleague is having and have to go through painful process of learning myself.

Cheryl, how about you? What is your advice?

Cheryl: Don’t aim for the moon in your beta test. Aim to learn. As Emilio mentioned, only 41% of those who registered for the course actually completed it. But 100% of those who completed  it said they would recommend it to their colleagues. Learning happened, and more learning will happen the next time around because Emilio and his team are observant, open to learning, and patient with themselves and the process.

Make sure you bring together a good team of people who can cover all the bases that need to be covered when converting a F2F training into an elearning offering. Don’t expect that any one person is going to be your subject matter expert, instructional designer, programmer, learning strategist, platform troubleshooter and project manager all in one. Ultimately, a team of six people contributed to this conversion, none of us working on it full time, but all of us contributing expertise in a particular area. Make sure that someone on the team takes responsibility for organizing the work and keeping your timeline on track. And avoid the temptation to outsource everything because you’ll miss the opportunity to learn how to do it yourself. Emilio’s probably not ready to develop his next course entirely in-house, but he and Milica have built the capacity to maintain and adapt the courses that now exist.

Speaking of adaptation, one last piece of advice is to take advantage of the opportunities that elearning provides to monitor how participants are learning as they are learning and make adjustments to the course design as you go along. Emilio mentioned earlier that the feedback he received in the office hours helped him adjust the course materials, but our analysis of the quiz, final exam and evaluation results also helped us identify which concepts could be better explained, and which objectives could be better supported. We monitored how, when and where learners engaged (and did not engage) and this is helping Emilio to improve his next offering of the course. For example, we learned that participants who did not complete the course tended to follow one of two patterns: approximately one-third logged in only once or twice and did not finish even the first module; the other two-thirds participated fairly regularly and completed module 2, but then dropped out. With this information, and with feedback from participants who completed the course, Emilio is revising the design of the Module 2 group work, and he and Milica are planning to follow up more quickly with inactive participants during the first module of the course to identify if there are any barriers to participation that they might help learners address.

Here’s mine (Nancy)…

I’m really glad the decision was made to have a beta test which helps us sharpen the content, process, assessment and technology. The example of understanding how the exam was graded shows that there are always technical things to learn, and the careful attention to assessment as it relates to learning objectives helped us learn a lot.

We learned some things about the process of having a marketing partner, the importance of lead time and a very real need to  do some pre-course orientation for the learners about the technology and course expectations. We have talked about developing some short videos and having a short “week 0” prior to the actual start of the course to ensure the tech is working for learners before we dive so quickly into content and community building.

We need to get the participation rate higher because I’m convinced that is key to successful completion – look at the people who participated in the office hours — they stayed engaged and completed! I think this starts with a clearer ramp up and explicit expectations (including pre-course communications), regular emails during the course and refinement of our pre-course learner survey that would help the facilitator understand the learners a bit before the course.

That said, there were SO many things to pay attention to, it was easy to spend less time on the social aspects of learning: initial engagement with the learners, building a learning community (which is difficult in three weeks and limited expectation of learner hours), and helping learners contextualize the content to their contexts. I had warned Emilio beforehand that facilitating online learning is a bit different than teaching face to face. The learning management system delivers a lot of the content. The real role is connecting learners to the content and to each other.  

Thanks to Emilio, Cheryl, FAO and MEDA for supporting these four blog reflections!

Learning While Building eLearning: Part 3 – Facilitating Online

Scholar Project -8This is the third of four pieces reflecting on the experiences of Emilio, a subject matter expert who was tasked with converting his successful F2F training into an elearning offering. This one focuses on the facilitation aspects of the course! You can find the context in part 1 , and part 2. (Disclaimer: I was an adviser to the project and my condition of participation was the ability to do this series of blog posts, because there is really useful knowledge to share, both within the colleague’s organization and more widely. So I said I’d add the blog reflections – without pay – if I could share them.)

I want to kick this off with a quote from the amazing Beck Tench talking about facilitating online learning:

Learning and change are super complex. Consider we may never know the effects of our work. Every snapshot lacks context in some way. Proceed with listening, kindness, observation, and experimentation. Accept that there will be uncertainty, as in all things, and move forward anyway.

I love this quote because it reminds us that facilitating online learning is about the teacher’s expertise. And about engagement. And about our stance as an online facilitator – something I think is often invisible or ignored.  Emilio stepped into that stance with a lot of grace, tolerance for the unknown and comfort with trying, learning, and even with a little failure. In my experience this is not that common!

Nancy:  Let’s talk a bit about stepping into reality, the launch of the course. This was your first time facilitating an online learning course. What happened?

Emilio: The beginning was very stressful. There was a moment where I had to reset my vision that I had created at the beginning of this project. We thought we had everything planned by the Thursday before the course. We were prepared to send a message out  to the people who had signed up for the course, expecting them to register on the actual Moodle site, and begin surfing the site and get fully on board on the first Monday of the course.

Then our partner failed to send us the list of participants in time and we had to postpone the launch. Once we got the list, we sent the welcome message on a Thursday. And yet by Monday people had not surfed the website and registered. I had to say, “wait wait, convince yourself, just don’t get frustrated.” This is what we were paying for: a pilot to experience everything, anything that can go wrong. It is better to experience it now. Next time we will do it better. That will be the real start.

This process takes a little bit of emotional intelligence. You can’t lose your focus. You have to learn in the experience. Don’t focus on the idea that this is the official worldwide launch of your elearning program, but a learning experience. So it was not a big deal. Just a couple of hours of freaking out.

Nancy: Now that you have had the experience what reflections do you have about moving and facilitating your successful F2F course? How did you engage people?

Emilio: Other than wanting to respond more quickly? (Laughter: Emilio was amazing – he was not only teaching online for the first time, but he was doing it WHILE he was on the road for work!) Here are some of my lessons.

First, what should I do about participants that belong to a group not responding to each other? I see the first person in that group posts and gets no response. I wondered, should I intervene? I wondered about how to  group participants in some way, to point out some challenges and invite others to react. But I didn’t hoping they would eventually engage. There were two groups where no one commented at all. If I were to do it again I would immediately ask others to post something.  

Nancy: There are more experiments with gamification in online, where, for example, you get points towards badges for responses. I’m not always sure of the long term benefit of these kinds of incentives and if they actually support the learning, but they appear to get people engaged in the moment. Maybe it can trigger learner socialization quicker and be something useful to explore.  Because as you noted, participation in the design of this course assumes people will interact with each other. So socialization of the group is the first step towards that participation, and later is essential for successful group work.

Emilio: Second, I can teach from anywhere. I could see that in our pilot. I was travelling like crazy. Another take away is the real leverage of technology. I could be doing different things in different places in the world and still deliver a course. You see people are learning from anywhere. If you compare that to level of effort for a F2F course, it is a trade off. But the value is there and you as an officer, can become much more productive. Once you invest in the up front work of design and planning, which was more than I expected.

There are some challenges to this anytime/anywhere though! I feel a bit guilty. I could have done a better job dedicating a bit more time overall. Once I woke up I did not realize the time difference in the office hours and had to wake up at 3am. There are a couple of times I knew I was responding two days later. I know that shouldn’t happen, how I wanted it to be. I wanted to respond within 24 hours.

Emilio: Third, include a synchronous element. The most effective tool I feel I had was our weekly synchronous “Office Hours.”  They gave me an opportunity to introduce a dose of F2F interaction which is fantastic.

During the office hours I got a chance to interact with the participants. They would post several questions. The sharing the screen was super critical. I surfed and took them where we wanted to go, to a question related to a graph or slide and explain it. You can sense by the comments – “oh yes, thank you this clarifies a lot.” We quickly solved problems.

Also, just by hearing their questions I could pinpoint those slides where the message may not be that clear and I would edit a couple of things right away. So it helped me get clearer as well.

We tried to record and post the recordings for those who could not attend due to work or time zones, but we had some technical problems. We will try and fix that next time. But I will also really encourage the participants to attend, because it brings the passion for the subject matter and the collegiality which is needed for the group work and active participation. The people who attended office hours were also the people who completed the course!

Some ideas for next time is to expand the use of office hours to help better set up the groups and the process for the group work. Maybe teams could have a private chat or meeting once a week and I could use some questions to help them get to know each other in the context of the course. That leads to my fourth learning: group work requires building relationships. Our group exercises need to be reconsidered (design) and I need to figure out how to get people comfortable enough with each other to actually engage in the group work.

Nancy: Yes, that is really hard, particularly when the participants have allocated an hour a day for three weeks and there is a lot of material to cover!

Emilio: Fifth, don’t do this alone! Milica was my assistant and she was always there. One time I could not log into the office hours and Melicia took care of it. In hindsight, we should have included her earlier in the facilitation conversations and planning. Part of the team. You and the other consultants Cheryl, Terri and everyone were very helpful.

Nancy: What was the facilitation highlight for you?

Emilio:  The first and second Office Hours were critical. The course was mostly asynchronous. I knew people were coming in. I logged in and I saw people logging in and that made it real. There are people there! They had interest, and were  asking questions, actually reading the slides. I could see the numbers (page views). But until you talk to them, see them asking questions, it is hard to see if they really are reading the material. When we held our weekly synchronous Office Hours, this became much more real.

Nancy: So would you keep doing this?

Emilio: Absolutely yes, I’ll keep doing this. Reflecting on it now, and putting into perspective from an administration standpoint,  what I produced during those four weeks of the course, there is an increase in efficiency. I delivered a course – granted for 7 people – but while I was working Bangkok, Mexico and then Peru. Pretty impressive. Amazing, yeah. I had good connectivity fortunately.

Up Next: Reflections from the whole team