Further Observations on Virtual Events

In yesterday’s post I shared a podcast episode Jeanette and I recorded about virtual conferences and how they help raise issues about hybrid and online education in general. The full recording and transcript are available in that post, and we highlighted our experiences with BbWorld and D2L Fusion conferences in particular. These observations included whether simulation-type event software or cute graphics enhanced the participant experience and how prepared script-reading could make sessions seem inauthentic.

A long-time friend and colleague, Jim Williamson, Director of Campus Educational Technology Systems and Administration at UCLA, wrote an insightful note in response to the podcast episode that I’m sharing below with his permission. He takes the topics further in terms of the role and usage of technology in mediating virtual experiences.

Phil: You missed that Kevin Youkilis is married to Tom Brady’s sister (thanks for the trivia point, Google). Hooray! Baseball is back! Oh, wait … gees, well, get well, Marlins.

Phil and Jeanette: Agree with your take on virtual environments for conferences. (Loved your, “Get off my virtual lawn” joke, Phil.)

Your points about the “authentic” experience ring especially true. We are all balking at our enforced virtual Zoom meetings to which likely—aside from freeway woes getting to campus—no one prefers to meeting in person. Thus, we are already one layer of technology between where we want to be. Do these technologies create additional distancing layers between people, for both the presenter (“What mask/persona do I want to be today?”) and the distracted user (“Why did she choose that virtual hat? Oh, I see where her reality is showing through when she moves her head too fast!”)?

I think the technology overhead costs for much of these technologies impacting both the presenter and the audience should be balanced by the benefits. There are costs to use the tech, such as financial hardware and software costs, plus the time to learn the tools. Then there are “costs” to the audience who needs to decipher the tech, especially if it is new to them, as when stopping to realize the presenter is wearing virtual makeup, or when they stop listening to the presentation and try to understand the purpose/benefit of a virtualized environment.

I understand the “this is fun” position. “Fun” and “play” can actually be rich, meaningful contexts. Analog temporal progenitors, like Halloween for children, and tattoos, and Brazilian or Venetian carnivals for adults, are rooted in cultures, folklore, and mythologies that have meaning beyond “for fun.” What do we lose if this type of digital entertainment becomes divorced from meaning other than “fun?” Is entertainment for entertainment’s sake a sample of an unexamined life? Or does it represent a new type of life, unencumbered by tradition?

Re: “enough of cartoon characters.” At ASU’s recent Connected Faculty Summit an instructor touted the use of an avatar to engage students. Many people in the chat asked how an avatar was more effective than just creating a video of herself, but no compelling reasoning was offered.

BTW, if you have not seen it, this videos adds support for the point about using your own image (instead of an avatar) for a more authentic experience: (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfhRpfUi9GY&feature=youtu.be)

Stepping back, I think you talk to, but also around, a very interesting set of points. Early on, you use the word “pandering,” which excellently captured my sense. In the middle, you talked about authentic moments of watching the children use the technology. Later, you talk about empathizing and learning from the virtual conference experience. But here’s what we also can focus on: if we as adults see old-fashion SimCity-scapes, cartoon characters, et al as pandering, what do students, now and tomorrow, feel about attempts to hipp-ify the tech, rather than just getting to the authentic experience they came for?

Even when you can provide a good “why” reason to introduce tech, you also should also ask if the tech is introducing problems, either practical (costs, support, availability) or other (does the tech bring people together or push them apart? Does it interfere or help?)

Jeanette: great idea: HyFlex could be an interesting way to think of conferences. For classes, as Kevin and Brian Beatty have admitted, it requires a significant time investment (especially for class where content changes term-to-term), but if conference planners spent more time framing valuable content and less on a tech-first fixation, it could prove beneficial to attendees.

Thank you for the interesting conversation!