I just returned from a meeting in Seattle with distance education colleagues from several universities. Six of us traveled from the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Madison to the institution of our outstanding hosts at the “other” UW (University of Washington). We were joined by instructional designers, media developers, and distance education leaders from Georgia Tech, Northwestern, and Boston University. The meeting was a great example of how to gather a group of experts together to create a meaningful learning experience. This post is part reflection and part micro-case study.
The dean at UW-Extension had spoken with his peers about the distance learning groups in their institutions. He sent an email to see if there was interest in getting instructional designers and others in elearning departments together for a professional development opportunity. Representatives from five other institutions responded to the email. I agreed to start the ball rolling by setting up the first phone conference. We began phone conversations in September 2011 about whether the expense and effort of a face-to-face meeting would benefit our teams. The first point of discussion was about the format. I asked whether we needed yet another conference for our teams to attend. The steering group agreed that there was little value in that format because there are many conferences we can attend if we want a traditional event. I suggested that we try a loosely structured series of conversations. There would be no no PowerPoint or even show-and-tell, just semi-structured conversations and networking time.
These types of events can seem a bit risky if you are used to having lots of structure and predetermined content. Will we have enough to talk about? What if our work is too different to relate? Will everyone be able to participate? This group, however, immediately thought the format would work and we brainstormed about 20 topics.
Tools for the job
I started a Google doc and we began to use it as a central repository for topic ideas, the attendee list, and logistics (hotels, meeting info, etc). We then narrowed down our 20 topics to 6, each with 90 minute blocks over a 1 1/2 day event. We added 45 minutes for morning coffee and bagels, an extended networking lunch, and 15-minute breaks after each session so that we had plenty of mental “white space” around the topics.
In the Google doc, we created a table with the schedule and included an extra column for volunteer moderators. At first, no one ventured to put their name in the boxes. I sent an email explaining the moderator role as a facilitator, not an expert on a topic. Moderators needed to simply come prepared to throw a few questions out as conversation starters. The column filled with moderators as the event approached. Moderators began listing topic questions in the Google doc and created spaces for notes. As the event unfolded, the doc became a crowdsourced repository of links, notes, and ideas.
The event was held in a unique setting: the Center for Urban Horticulture just off the University of Washington campus. There reasons for holding the meeting there were largely pragmatic but there was some intent to get us out of a traditional conference space. The unique space made a big difference. People felt at ease as soon as they walked through a small garden to reach the classroom.
We started with introductions and then launched into the first conversation about LMS usage. Even though the moderator was prepared to keep the conversation going, there was no lull that required intervention. The first 90 minutes was almost over too soon and people continued talking into the break. After the break, people were seated and ready to go, no prompting or gathering required. The next topic, mobile learning, quickly picked up steam and carried us through to lunch. An extended lunch gave us time to get to know each other and take strolls along the nature paths down to the lake.
After lunch, we discussed how our institutions were approaching the use of media in elearning courses. This was not a deep technical discussion but showed remarkably different approaches to using video, interactive media, and dealing with faculty perceptions of media use. We ended the first day by describing how we work with faculty and subject matter experts as we build online courses. In all of the first day’s topics, the differences were more interesting than the similarities but we sensed a growing shared understanding about our work.
We made informal small group plans for dinner and left for the night. Unfortunately, a few of us never made it to dinner due to a bit of a debacle with a cab company, but that is a different story. When we returned the next morning, it was almost as if we had all been working together for years.
We discussed how we cope with the “firehouse of new technology” in our organizations. Working with online learning technology keeps us all on the bleeding edge at our institutions but maintaining our innovative spirit and continuing to invest is a significant challenge with tight budgets. In the final session, we had our only breakout session. People could choose to talk in-depth about online learning development tools or discuss managing the distance education enterprise. We could see the progress across groups because people were taking notes for both sessions in the same Google doc.
We came back together for a few minutes before we had to go our separate ways. Numerous ideas came out about how we could all work together to solve some of our shared challenges. Some of these ideas became next steps in the Google doc. The most popular idea was that this event was one of the more valuable professional development opportunities people had attended and it should be held at least annually. Boston anyone?
By the end of the meeting, our Google doc had expanded to over 15 pages of shared notes and we all gained a lot from sharing across institutions. More importantly, the format showed us that we had colleagues facing similar challenges and we could reach out when needed. I look forward to learning more with this group as a part of my extended network!