Reflecting on online formats

How we did Zoom back in the day

It’s been a busy period for me for doing online events of various kinds. That ranges from big conferences to much smaller discussions, some for internal audiences and others for whoever wants to tune in.

That variety is perhaps obscured by the online-ness of it all. Whether I’m on a panel in front of an audience of a couple of hundred people or just discussing a draft paper with a few colleagues, I’m still sat at my desk, staring into a webcam and hoping my headphone earpiece doesn’t fall out again.

At some level that isn’t a problem: the flatness of the variation makes it possibly less daunting to do the big stuff. But at all the other levels it’s something we need to take seriously.

Central in this – for me, at least – is the risk of losing sight of learning objectives. Just as our in-person teaching practice is very varied and needs us to think carefully about design and operation of sessions, so too must we do the same for online work.

This was brought home the other day after a chat with a colleague who’s invited me to speak in the spring on an internal webinar series. Most of our discussion focused on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘would I’ or ‘when’ elements, because the ‘how’ comes with a lot more issues than the other two.

In particular, the discussion centred on who would be attending and what they might need from the session. Aside from what substantive content might they want/need, is there also an agenda of developing skills too (the audience is mostly students on our programmes)? Here, that might mean giving more time to Q&A than to a mini-lecture, or even having something that is closer to a discussion, with back-and-forth.

The chat over this underlined something that’s been on my mind for a while, namely our tendency to just cut-and-paste formats across events, with too little thought about it’s right for that new setting.

Some weeks ago I attended a one-day event, with a mix of academics and practitioners. While our panel had taken a more informal model of some questions from the chair and then Q&A, other panels had stuck to the usual academic format. You’ll be shocked* to hear that the latter typically only just squeezed in their presentations before time ran out and no one got to ask a question of them.

The obvious thing to say here would be something about the chair keeping people to time, but I defy you to find where that ever really works, especially in academic settings, online or in-person.

Instead, it is the format that needs to change, so that people don’t even start to think they can produce 50% more content than the space allows.

Indeed, online has more flexibility – for example, allowing parallel conversations – but we have to notice and grasp that.

So next time you’re running an event, ask yourself whether your format is helping you get your audience to where you want them to get to, or simply a model that you know. The answer is going to be different each time, so you have to keep in asking.

Just like you do when you run a class in a classroom.

* – not actually shocked at all.