We’ve all been there in the last year: trapped in the gaze of a webcam while a speaker drones on and on or addressing a class full of black boxes wondering whether anyone was at the other end. Our pandemic dependence on videoconferencing accentuated the unique pains and pleasures of interacting with our fellow humans mediated by technology.
Digital environments, like their physical counterparts, can offer great opportunities but, in order for them to be sustainable, we need a system to define and understand how different online interactions actually work. I call this system the Four Stages of Zoom Enlightenment.
Stage I: Presentation (Substitution) This is by far the most common form of videoconferencing I’ve experienced over the last year. For the most part, it consists of an “expert” holding forth on some subject. The best of these resemble TEDtalks. The worst are long, rambling monologues punctuated by the occasional slide.
Presentations work at conferences because they are separated by hallway conversations and it is usually those conversations, not the presentations themselves, that we carry back with us. Informal conversations are also central to learning. Online, informal conversations almost never occur, leaving the presentation hanging in the air. There is also little sense in doing live presentations when they can be recorded and viewed at the convenience of the audience. On a conversational level, presentations reflect the primacy of the self. Almost all conversation emanates from the presenter and is directed at the audience.
Stage II: Distributed Conversations (Augmentation): These are discussions where the community is elevated to the same level as the guest/speaker and the focus is on engaging in two-way conversations about the ideas of the speaker.
Under the auspices of a skilled facilitator, Distributed Conversations can be a very effective way of getting to know an expert, what makes him or her tick, and bend the content of the presentation around the interests of an audience.
One of the best examples of this is Bryan Alexander’s Future Trends Forum . Bryan is an excellent facilitator. He skillfully brings a wide range of questions from his informed audience to his expert guests. The platform he uses, Shindig, lends itself well to the format he has chosen in that it incorporates a chat stream where side conversations can occur, a Q&A functionality, and the ability to beam questioners up to a co-equal status with the host and guest(s).
On a conversational level, this stage moves the center of gravity from the speaker to the audience and flattens the conversation considerably. It allows participants to be distributed geographically and have meaningful conversations with people who might live on the other side of the globe. Furthermore, it disrupts the hierarchical culture inherent in most speaking environments where questions might be solicited but follow up and deeper conversations are impossible.
Stage III: Workshopping (Augmentation) These are self-contained live events where the center of attention focuses on an activity rather than a speaker. Breakout rooms may be used to split people into working groups. Simulations and other kinds of activities are often integral to the exercise. The focus is typically on the activity and frequently a product like a shared document is created in the process.
On a conversational level, this stage is primarily centered on the audience, but its focus is contained within the temporal bounds of the event. Group activities can be difficult to manage in online settings as the “breakout rooms” function in most platforms is clunky in execution. In a physical setting, having an environment that facilitates frictionless movement between different sized groups is critical for facilitating innovation. These movements must be initiated by the participant, not some omniscient administrator, and the technology is the lagging factor. Workshops would benefit from virtual spaces with movable walls.
Stage IV: Digital Constructivism (Redefinition) Mating videoconferencing with persistence, one of the strengths of Digital Age technology, this stage creates new kinds of interactions impossible until recently. Creating distributed projects is a hallmark of our new network-based technologies. However, videoconferencing tools by themselves are ephemeral. This mode combines the strengths of live events with the persistence of digital artifacts to grow ideas for weeks or months at a time.
One of the more useful tools of most videoconferencing systems is the ability to share your screen. This means that you can leverage a wide range of distributed technologies during any given session. Using sharing services such as Google Drive, Miro, or Jamboard, interactive documents can become persistent, active canvases. I do this in my classes as well as hackathons where I use applications like draw.io to create dynamic documents available long after a session is over. This participant-driven concept map is the output of a hackathon I did at ShapingEDU’s Winter Games unpacking strategies from my 2020 book, Learn at Your Own Risk.
Interactive documents can be used to asynchronously connect multiple synchronous sessions. As a teacher, I have developed similar activities to allow my students to work collaboratively, parallel to our class meetings. These documents become a persistent, growing archive of their work.
Starting in May, I will be facilitating a Virtual Community of Practice for the ShapingEDU Project that will hack how our tools shape pedagogical practice. We will create a living document to connect the sessions as we analyze sets of tools (physical, digital, and XR). The live sessions will be used to frame conversations, assemble groups, and workshop ideas. Participants will continue to edit the shared document between sessions.
Truly connecting with a remote audience is never going to be easy. Creating any Community of Practice demands as much from the participants as it does from the convener and that is a learned behavior shaped by cultural norms. To reach the highest stage, all participants must seize digital opportunities in whatever digital environments they find themselves in. Remote, live sessions can be a powerful tool to connect speakers and participants. True enlightenment, however, requires everyone to share in order to learn.