A range of feelings as we finish two BEtreat workshops for social learning leaders at our house in California: excitement at the potential, sadness at seeing old and new friends leave, and relief that we can now put our feet up.

There is always a moment when face-to-face folk wave good-bye to those participating online. The feeling on both sides is one of friends parting. What is it that gets us to that moment?

We’ve written before about our experience of blending online and face-to-face (here and here) but I thought I’d revisit the topic with our ongoing learning about what works for us – and what we could do better.

(Main photo is a screenshot from an online participant)

The tech set-up

BEtreat wiki

Wiki
As usual, we have a wiki for our online home. It’s the first meeting place for online and face-to-face folk.  We share the program and resources and each participant has their own page for reflections and for sharing the project they are working on. We start using the wiki before people arrive – for personal introductions, signing up to a leadership group, and sharing travel logistics.  Everyone is invited to connect on Skype and have each other’s contact information before the workshop begins. This makes it quicker to connect in small groups during different activities.

Devices
There were a number of innovations this year. We got rid of the big screen where we used Adobe Connect to project slides along with the online participants. A screen sends the energy to the wall rather than keeping it in the group space. This year slides were on the wiki, which people accessed on their own device. It’s easier these days because a) “everyone” has a device and b) devices and portable computers take up considerably less space than they used to, so the table doesn’t feel crammed.  Our concern that people would then have their nose in their device rather than with the group did not happen. People are so used to having their own device at meetings that it felt very natural and did not detract from conversations.

Skype
We used to use Adobe Connect for visuals and Skype for sound. But without the need to project slides, we only used Skype for the synchronous discussions. The sound and image quality in Skype is so much better. And combining Adobe and Skype occupies too much bandwidth for people who don’t have great connectivity.

DisplaysLife size
Instead of the big screen, we had a high-resolution Apple Thunderbolt display for the online folks in the room. It made us feel like they were sitting with us around the table.  As before, we also connected into the Skype conversations with a phone attached to a selfie-stick so that there were close-ups of the person talking.

WhatsApp
Another innovation this year is that we used WhatsApp for side conversations rather that the chat function of Adobe or Skype. This worked really well for keeping up a social conversation that included everyone – face-to-face and online folks. And the conversation could continue on any device, whether we were on Skype or not.

 

Tech notes: The sound quality from our MXL AC404 USB conference microphone (price $83.99) is excellent, better than ones we’ve used before. (Aside: it’s also light and compact so ideal for traveling). We still use the Logitech C930e laptop webcam (price $104.28) with its wide-angle view.

Some practices

Here are some of the things we do that people have said work:

Online breakfastGather first
We start at 8:00 a.m. with breakfast and coffee. Online folk are brought in on a device and join the breakfast conversation. I don’t think it would generate the same buzz if we got down straight away to work at the table.

Buddy up
Everyone has a turn at being a buddy with an online person. They become the eyes and ears for them in the room and make sure they don’t get left behind. There is something about caring for someone that creates quite a bond.

Switch leading
Everyone has a chance to lead a session, which means we get some people leading from a facOnline leade-to-face position and some from an online position. It’s a good switch of modes. We even had one session where Etienne ended up participating online (even though he was just sitting in another room). That also helped to equalize the conversation.

Extend your “home
Every artifact that is created during the workshop goes in the wiki. It’s as if the wiki was an extension of the physical building – or the physical building is an extension of the wiki. Not only does this make everything (except food and drink) accessible, it also helps us create a good record of each workshops.

What doesn’t work

Too many people talking at once
Face-to-face folk can sit round a table and have multiple conversations going in parallel. It simply doesn’t work if you are online. Everything is going through the same microphone and it’s a noisy garbled mess.

No buddy
Sometimes we forget to assign or remind a buddy and an online person gets left on a table waiting … That doesn’t work!

Busy busy
If you participate face-to-face you tend to seal off the four days for a workshop. But if you are participating online it can be tempting to try and squeeze in some meetings. We tell people that this is a four-day experience, whether you are online or face-to-face. It’s an immersive experience and not one you can dip in and out of. You need to be locked away from your family and work colleagues.

Why participate online?

Practical reasons
People participate online for a number of reasons, including travel costs to California, visa issues to the U.S., needing to be somewhere etc.

Pacing yourself
But there are people who prefer the online experience. We’ve heard a similar line from several people who have participated in both face-to-face and online mode. They say that online participation is better for reflection. They find the face-to-face version intense and with competing calls to your attention. For example, at breaks you are drawn into yet more interesting conversations with people you want to hear from. But if you are online it’s easier to gather your thoughts, reflect, and work at your own pace.

Online charisma
We have also noticed that the people who prefer online often perform better when they are online. They have a charismatic online persona and can hold the group’s attention in ways that weren’t so noticeable in face-to-face interactions. It is a curious observation.

What we need to get better at

Leveraging online presence
What are the advantages that an online person has over a face-to-face person in a small group activity? Our activities tend to assume that an online person has to be “brought in”, but what about “flip” activities where online folks have the advantage and bring in the face-to-face folks.

Exploring vulnerability
Participating online in a face-to-face has some similarities to being in a wheelchair. People can talk over your head, or as if you weren’t there. You are dependent on someone “carrying you” (on a device) to join a conversation. You are at the mercy, to some extent, of someone who is participating face-to-face. Feeling vulnerable is an important dimension of learning. How can we turn this online experience of vulnerability by an online participant into a learning opportunity for all?

 

Is anyone else out there exploring the boundaries of blending online and face-to-face (with a budget of your average community)?

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