MindWires Musings: Observations on Virtual Events

We recently shared the following podcast episode with our LMS Market Analysis subscribers. The topic is not directly about the LMS; rather, the episode is about the the nature of virtual conferences and other events during the pandemic and how these events can help us empathize with students in hybrid / online programs (whether due to the pandemic or in general).

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 that I will share in a companion post.

Transcription (our version of UDL, or the HyFlex of blogging)

Phil: Welcome to MindWires Musings where we throw caution to the wind and take a more informal approach to talk about the non COVID EdTech business of the day. I’m Phil Hill, and here, as usual, with Jeanette Wisemen. Janette – it’s great to talk to you.

Jeanette: Hey, Phil, how’s it going?

Phil: Oh, doing well. Quite a busy week and, you know, dealing with a lot of conferences, which we’ll get into. But, yeah, I’m glad to relax a little bit this afternoon.

Jeanette: Absolutely. I’ve already had my Margarita.

Phil: So tell me, what did you what did you do?

Jeanette: I decided I wanted a Margarita, I was not going to have any wine tonight. I should have remembered the tequila name, but I don’t. I will tell you, it was a small batch tequila that we got last time we were in Mexico, back in the days when we could travel. So it was a little bit that I had that and some Cointreau and to some lime juice. [00:01:00] Very simple.

Phil: Sounds good and good for the summer.

Jeanette: Yeah, absolutely. How about you?

Phil: Well, I hate to disappoint you, but back again with beer. I had a chance to see our our colleague, O’Neal Spicer over at Loma Brewing, which is in Los Gatos. And Loma’s owned by Kevin Youkilis.

Jeanette: Well, that’s right.

Phil: He’s a former baseball player. So if you’re a MoneyBall fan, Kevin Youkilis is the Greek God of Walks because he was known as statistically very efficient player, partially because how often he would walk and get on base, leading to some of one of his beers as the Greek God of Hops. If you’re a Boston Red Sox fan, then you’ll know him more as Youuuuuk! That’s that’s what everybody yelled out. So I’m having their Kölsch, which is,for my money, the best Kölsch that I’ve had, at least in the U.S. So it’s a great summer beer.

Jeanette: And that is that place open right now?

Phil: Yes, [00:02:00] they’re open, but there’s no indoor dining in the state right now. Los Gatos is finally done what they should’ve done a long time ago – they’ve radically expanded outdoor dining. And they’re on a side street, Loma Brewing is, and it’s not just tables on the sidewalk. They actually shut down the side street. And so they have quite a bit, relatively speaking, of nice outdoor dining.

Jeanette: Well, good. That’s nice – I haven’t done anything.

Phil: So we did the virtual conference circuit this week, which was challenging or interesting, and you don’t get to have the whole, you know, meet somebody for a drink in the bar and have a casual conversation when you’re doing these virtual conferences. So it’s nice that I was able to do that today.

Jeanette: That’s very true. I will say, you know, the one thing is typically these conferences are also back to back or at least on top of each other. So we were gonna take a positive spin on this week. We were able to, quote [00:03:00] unquote, attend two conferences at once if we wanted to look at it in a positive way. Normally, one of us would have been at Fusion or one of us would have been at BbWorld. So we didn’t do that this year.

Phil: And so those are the D2L Fusion and BlackBoard World. And I’ve tried to get on the vendors cases, like why do you guys schedule these the same week? I’m not quite sure if it was intentional.

I’ve asked them directly, and they have a very good answer. Yes. They’re like, why would we care where Blackboard is or when Instructure CanvasCon is when everybody who is on D2L is there. If they’re using Brightspace, they’re not going to go to CanvasCon, and they’re not going to go to Blackboard World, which makes sense. It’s only for vendors and people like us where July becomes a very inconvenient month in terms of travel.

Phil: That is true. I’ll give him that, we’re sort of [00:04:00] an inconvenient subset. Then we have to live through it. But it was definitely interesting having two conferences, not just the same week, but on the exact same days, more or less. And you’re doing real time swapping from one to the other. At least for the near term, certainly through the fall, this is the way that people are going to be trying to interact with each other in these virtual events. And I suspect it’s going to go beyond fall, it’s going to increase the usage of virtual events. So it’s really interesting to experience this. And that’s part of what we wanted to talk about today.

And I’ll start off with it was I felt like an online student in a way. So BbWorld they use in InXpo – InXpo is a virtual event software. And I needed to run that on Chrome [00:05:00] for it to work properly. D2L used Swoogo, which is a smaller startup company it looks like, and they mostly launched Zoom for the actual sessions. And Swoogo seems to be more of a wrapper around that. But I ended up in the situation of having to go to multiple places, different browsers and keeping track of, ‘OK, Blackboard re-sorts the agenda so did the OnDemand sessions after they’re done are down at the bottom. Or is D2L, once they’re done, they send you to a D2L course, in their learning management system and that’s how you get on demand. And my head was spinning, trying to keep track of everything that I was doing. And I felt like, one of the common complaints of online students or even face to face or hybrid students if there’s no consistency. I felt their pain today or this week.

Jeanette: No, absolutely. It was a good experience maybe for us to look at that because [00:06:00] there was a lot of technical issues. But the platforms, everything from like audio to systems crashing. And then you’re right, there’s a big platform differences between these two conferences and just trying to figure out where to find anything. You had a relearn it every time. I guess we feel the student’s pain, especially after this week after experiencing it.

Phil: So this isn’t really about D2L or Blackboard or LMS per se. But let’s talk a little bit more about what we experienced. And I might even compare it to Aula and Moodle and GSV and some of the other virtual events. So if you go to it, Blackboard World was run on InXpo, it’s a long term system – I mean, it’s been around for more than a decade and it felt like it had a lot of features, but it felt very dated. The software. I’m not quite sure when they last updated the look and feel.

Jeanette: I think, there’s definitely [00:07:00] this feeling of like here in a Sims. Right. Or Second Life type, where you’re supposed to be entering this new environment, which Blackboard also played up right. There was their environment was we were going into outer space and they are part of this big educational gap. Yeah. Galaxy of learning. And so they they used that as their theme in this like Sims like environment, which was dated.

I mean, those types of things – I think I’m a pretty fun loving kind of person – but those types of things, I feel like I’m being pandered to. And I they kind of they really put me off right away, like but I don’t think I think I might be in the minority there, because things like in that Blackboard conference, there was things like the puppy cam. Right. And I don’t need to go to a conference, I want to learn about what I need to learn about. About the Blackboard platform. I want to see how instructors are learning [00:08:00] about it. But if you go into social media, everybody loved the puppy cam. That was a really good thing. So I think I might be in the minority there that I was like, I can go look at a puppy cam anytime I want. I know how to use Google. I don’t need it to be in my conference environment

Phil: Get off my virtual lawn!

Jeanette: So I don’t know. I’m in the minority. People love it. People loved it.

Phil: I thought it was a cute idea for about five seconds. And now part of the part of me was saying, well, it’s not even something unique to them. It wasn’t like employees’ puppies. They found a puppy cam or several of them and then made them available. So it didn’t do anything for me. What about the overall visual of the keynote? Where they’re trying to make it look like they’re standing in a space station, and then they’re talking to people, so they were on your virtual lawn?

Jeanette: Yes, I don’t like that. I don’t know. That’s something that I don’t like. I don’t like people pretending. I see how sometimes it can be funny [00:09:00] for a few minutes. And I think that there are – and I’m all for this – where you go to these users conferences, and there’s usually a funny video, and everybody plays along, and you see the CEO, and you saw all these people that, you know are part of it, and they’re sort of in on the joke. I like those kind of funny videos. I’m not always ‘get off my lawn’ type of person. But when you just continue that theme throughout, to me, again, it becomes really juvenile and it’s not what I’m there for. So to me, it’s just like … Stop with that stuff. I don’t like that. And they really they doubled down on the the galaxy thing.

Phil: Did you see any other comments of, ‘I like the immersive environment. It held my interest, made me feel part of it.’ Did you see anything like that?

Jeanette: No, I don’t think so. I would say that there’s an environment, you know, the people that were commenting on it, they really did like the puppy cam. I saw that more than I did anything else. And I don’t know how much we want to get into this. I don’t want to be jumping around, but I think for both conferences, [00:10:00] the things that became the most meaningful for people, or at least the things in social media that were commented the most on, were the more authentic things. And that came down to usually really well done demos.

I think the most liked – and it could be that people are just being kind – but we’re the ones where people brought in their kids, and we’re talking about K-12 type kids, and used them for demos. D2L had a fantastic example of this. But then also Blackboard did it a few times as well, where they really spoke about what the K-12 community was doing within the platform and interviewing their kids and how they were using the platform.

And that seemed to be the most, which was also the least scripted of any of these conferences, that I found and the most authentic.

Phil: Let’s come back to it, OK? I don’t want to jump around too much. I won’t be able to mentally follow it all the way.

But [00:11:00] if we if we go over D2L fusion they uses Swoogo. It had more of a modern software feel, but fewer bells and whistles. And they actually launched Zoom primarily as the actual video conferencing. And this is where I had my get off my virtual lawn. The cartoon characters, I felt that it’s like I’ve had enough of cute little cartoon characters, so the design element didn’t work for me. But it definitely had a different feel. So there were fewer bells and whistles, but it seemed to work a little bit more seamlessly in terms of just working. I saw fewer audio problems and fewer fewer video problems there.

Jeanette: Totally.

Phil: It was a little bit more disjoint because of what I mentioned early on. If you wanted to see on demand after the event happened for D2L, it launched you into a D2L course in their LMS. And I get why you do that. It was sort of a nice [00:12:00] touch, but it was extra clicks for me and it wasn’t, it wasn’t as holistic. So I don’t know which is better, but it’s interesting that there are different approaches.

Jeanette: Well, I would think just on a technical aspect, if I was going to vote from watching, being on both of those environments this week, I would say that the biggest problem with the Blackboard one was there was a lot of technical issues. I don’t think that I was on one session that the audio did then drop out at some point.

Phil: I even felt bad. I saw early on some of their speakers, because of the audio, or freezing, that they ended up having to call in and use their phone to add the audio when they clearly weren’t planning on it. And you feel bad – this is the world we’re in. We’re having a conference and you’re trying to recreate some sort of connectivity, and it’s difficult, and technical glitches can get in your way again. To me, we’re describing online education.

Jeanette: Yeah, [00:13:00] absolutely. And I think either case, you know, the marketing team and the product teams that worked so hard to put this together, they just wanted to created that sense of community. Both of them. And we’re really working hard in a tough environment. This is not the way that they normally have user conferences. I think you have to give kudos to both. You know, I might not like the puppy cam, but a lot of people in my community did. And you didn’t like the cartoon characters. They didn’t bother me that much. I think they’re cute.

Phil: I could do without the Powerpuff Girls.

Jeanette: I like them. I mean, I think it just shows that there are it’s a hard balance to strike for these teams that are trying to create something that their communities are going to latch on to, and still have a fun time with. So I think that these teams are really trying to create an experience that they couldn’t necessarily virtually. But kudos to them.

Phil: And [00:14:00] again, our main the main thing I wanted to cover today is not necessarily these two companies, but what do we learn about the challenges of having hopefully an engaging experience online, even for virtual events and hopefully Educause and others can learn from this. But let’s talk about the synchronous / asynchronous, because I found this to be a different approach, but it was illustrative as well. Clearly, both of them did live sessions, they were talking synchronously. Both of them had, D2L and Blackbaord, had On-Demand availability fairly soon after the events were over, and that was particularly useful for time zone issues. If you had an inconvenient time zone. And of course, if you’re watching then you can’t see the real time chat, and in fact the on demand viewing of the chat. You lose the whole experience. I [00:15:00] see the value of going asynchronously with on demand. But you certainly can’t see the discussions that are happening right there. But then to add an extra element to it, that you and I have already talked about, Blackboard, they clearly had their presentations prepared, but they talked live. Unfortunately, D2L, for most of them, it was reading directly the script. The transcript going with the closed caption was even ahead of them. They were talking, and they were reading it. And that to me was too prepared. And it lost a lot of authenticity when watching most of the D2L sessions, that they over-prepared and they read scripts. Way too much for my taste. And in fact, the best session I think that you mentioned that you had seen was a one where they didn’t seem to be going off a script at all.

Jeanette: Right. Are you talking about the one where Maya, the daughter, showed . . .

Phil: Maya, [00:16:00] that’s a different one. OK. Maya gave one of the best conference presentations I think I’ve ever seen. And what she did, for people that didn’t see it, was somebody’s daughter, and she was using D2L’s mobile, using the whole system through mobile. And she was showing how to do it. And she was just talking and they caught her on video. First of all, it was it was cute. It was engaging. But you get to see how kids actually interact with technology. And so it was informative. That wasn’t the one I was talking about, but that had to be the best presentation of the week.

Jeanette: Kudos to Maya. Yeah. She did great.

Phil: And then Vivek’s son, right, on the Blackboard side. He had some pretty he had some good presentations as well. He didn’t top Maya, but he was good.

Jeanette: And you maybe just for everybody, who is Vivek?

Phil: Oh, Vivek, he does product management for Blackboard, and he’s been around for a while, really [00:17:00] good guy. But he had his son, who’s really cute, who looks like a young version of him. So they did a little riff on time travel with him. But he got to be shown twice, at least twice that I saw during the time.

Jeanette: He did a great job, too. Blackboard also did, I thought, the most engaging part of Blackboard, especially getting the keynote, was the time when they just let students talk about their experiences last spring. That was the best part, which was the least scripted part as well.

Phil: I think I know the answer. But what was your impression of the scripted nature of the presentations versus more free flowing information?

Jeanette: I have a really hard time paying attention to the scripted. I think that, not having completed my cognitive science degree, I just feel like there is something about it. If you’re not a script reader, if you’re not an actor, and you’re not giving it a in a way that’s very [00:18:00] free form, it just ends up becoming something that’s noise. And so I had the hardest time concentrating during those scripted sessions. My mind would just wander. I’d be sitting there. And that’s when if you’re Blackboard, it’s hard because that’s when people are looking at the chat box, where people were not always having the best fun.

Phil: Yeah, as they they even said to me, there were some very “candid” conversations. Yeah, you’re right that that was that was something that you end up paying attention to. And I think you mentioned this in one of our recent podcasts, where you said there’s a real risk that now that you have a virtual conference, that if somebody who’s got something negative to say, it’s not just to the group around them, or at the bar or in the hallway or even just maybe on Twitter. This is [00:19:00] in the main chat box that everybody’s looking at. There was one session I saw where I’m quite sure the presenter saw how badly the conversation was going in chat, and I think I saw some flop sweat going on. That was interesting. Let’s just say I feel for them because it’s a tough situation. But it was also authentic though. I will give them that.

Jeanette: It was authentic. But nobody wants to be presenting to who knows how many thousands of people, and people trashing what’s happening while you’re presenting. So I definitely felt for them. I think, though, the one that I saw it, it reflects frustrations that we’ve been hearing, which is, presentations of add ons that cost money were not what people needed at that moment.

Phil: So it’s sticking again to the event, and keep you from going into the meat of the actual vendors, we’ll get to that in future episodes. [00:20:00] OK. You mentioned thousands. I think the numbers I heard – so typical D2L Fusion or Blackboard World, you might get 1,000 – 1,500 attendees who are there. I believe at least one of them, maybe Blackboard World said they had 9,000 people registered. I’m not sure how many were actually online. But that’s another thing, because it’s for free, because it doesn’t involve travel, they got many times the regular number of attendees. Well, that changes who’s going to these events. And you could view that as a great opportunity as well.

Jeanette: You could have. Look, we don’t know what the demographic makeup was. So it could have been just IT people that hadn’t had the opportunity to go to these conferences in the past. But my guess is that it was more practitioners and instructors who were desperately trying to figure out how to better build a course for fall. And I didn’t see [00:21:00] a lot of really practical ways to do that. This is how you were setting up your course, this is how I’m setting up my discussions. My guess is a lot of those people that registered didn’t necessarily need to understand new features or how fast Blackboard’s going to SaaS, things that were really presented. They probably really need to do step by step guidance and best practices.

Phil: I keep trying to pull you back to the event.

Jeanette: I’m sorry. OK. I think it’s on both sides, I’m saying that generally.

Phil: I guess what I’m trying to pull out, is I think that’s part of the nature of virtual events. You’ll have a greater number and a different type of audience. And you really need to think about why are they here. ‘It’s not like I’ve already chosen and spent the money to go to Anaheim or Orlando.’ And let’s go ahead and admit it, if there are two [00:22:00] places I’m glad got canceled to do it online, it’s Anaheim and Orlando.

Jeanette: Holy moly. No kidding.

Phil: You need to be aware, this is a different audience and you really need to fine tune your message to who’s attending. And it’s not the same people who would do the same event, which gets challenging because you probably have a greater mix of audience as well, too.

Jeanette: Well, and I think it also shows the challenge, if we’re going to tie it back to just the student experience in academia, is that they had to do this and pivot very quickly as well. They were probably hoping that this could possibly still happen in person.

Phil: This was their emergency remote transition of a conference.

Jeanette: Yes. Yeah. Again, like, you have to give kudos to all these people who worked really hard to do this, because I’m sure if they were given a year to do that, they probably would have figured it out differently. So I feel like, you know, playing quarterback now. What is that? Sunday quarterback. I get those analogies mixed up.

Phil: Monday morning quarterback.

Jeanette: So, I [00:23:00] mean, for us to do that right now, I feel like it is unfair. I’m sure they worked really hard on that. They probably could, if this happens again next year, I’m sure that’s what you’re going to see.

Phil: But I will push back on that, Unfair. What I’m saying is this is a chance for us in the community – hopefully this doesn’t come across as too much of a critique – it’s more of a look at the experience, and this actually can help you empathize what students and faculty are going through with remote teaching, with well-designed online courses and all the different issues that we that we go through. So I think it’s illustrative, and it’s it’s a great learning opportunity.

Jeanette: Absolutely. I think that’s true. I don’t want to be seen as criticizing something that was, like you said, it’s like criticizing the instructors that had to move online really quickly. It seems like that’s where I feel like it’s unfair, because I just don’t think they were… I think given the time, things probably would have been different.

Phil: One thing [00:24:00] that is a little bit different than the emergency pivot to remote courses this spring is I’ve seen so far a variety of approaches. We mentioned InXpo that Blackboard World used, Swoogo / Zoom, mostly Swoogo that D2L Fusion used, plus their own LMS. When I did the Aula conference, that’s a new LMS out of the UK, they essentially did a very simple Web page – and I didn’t check see which package – that kept track of what the what the sessions are. But then they primarily used Zoom and they did have Twitter hashtags (everybody does that) and they used Discord for additional conversation. But it was mostly Zoom. Moodle with their online global MoodleMoot, they used their own product. So it’s sort of eat your own dog food idea where they have Moodle for workplace, where they’ve released that in the past year, and that’s [00:25:00] that’s targeted for corporate learning, and they’re tweaking it to become basically a Moodle for events. And the whole conference was held on that platform. And that was interesting because, again, you get to experience the actual core LMS with its strengths and its weaknesses. And I have to say with Moodle, the challenge that you have with usability, with too many clicks and things aren’t easy to access at your fingertips, that was what I experienced at the conference. But I see the potential of it. And they’re talking about fine tuning this for this exact reason, to come up with something that’s more usable for people to do virtual events. It’s interesting how many different approaches that we’ve already seen. Zoom is the most common thread through a lot of them, which is just like regular education. But if it’s just interesting to see as different groups are trying to figure out how to operate [00:26:00] and how to do the virtual conferences.

Jeanette: I mean, Kevin’s not on this call, but to point Kevin’s ideas and everything he’s written around HyFlex, that there does seem to be opportunity moving forward, that if they can get this many people that want to attend these conferences, they may able to curate the sessions to be things that are really useful for those people that are HyFlex type plan could work really well.

Phil: Well, that’s that’s a great point. Very interesting to think about. And a lot of these conferences have added virtual offerings already before the pandemic, but it’s almost just thrown on the side. Not too many people use it. I’ve seen people online saying ‘I’m not really at all participating in a similar way to people at the face to face event.’ I see the what’s happening now with the pandemic in the virtual conferences this year, is [00:27:00] thatt it will really increase in importance of what you just described, a HyFlex type of approach to conferences. But you got to do a lot better than what people have tried in 2019, in prior.

Jeanette: You know, I’ve seen I’ve seen them try to livestream stream conferences before, and I never pay attention to those either, because they’re always speaking to the people in the room. So those never work.

Phil: Are you describing that where people have tried to do a hybrid combination of face to face and and virtual, their idea of virtual, just stream it live? So it’s still synchronous. It doesn’t take advantage of the virtual opportunity to be much more on demand. They haven’t designed discussion tools to allow you to participate in discussions outside of Twitter, if you’re not there face to face. So that’s part of what I meant by it. Feels like they just threw something out there, but they haven’t really designed it. And [00:28:00] hopefully this year with all these companies and associations are going through that, we’ll start thinking through what is the virtual conference experience and how can you even take advantage of things you can’t do when you’re face to face? Good point.

Again, hopefully this comes across as an interesting experience looking at conferences and partially because we’re gonna be living in this world at least through the fall, if not beyond. But also interesting because it lets us see and empathize what it’s like to go through online and hybrid education and some of the various issues that we’re seeing.

Difficult week. But we did get a lot done . . .

Jeanette: We did?

Phil: Well, I mean, I saw a lot of sessions in parallel, and we had client meetings. You know, we’re doing a bunch of things all on the same day. So I think we got a lot done.

Jeanette: We got a lot done. [00:29:00] And I miss, like you said, the the bar conversation and the hallway conversations and, you know, even looking on the chats during the sessions or even on Twitter, you know, you miss seeing a lot of our friends. It’s sort of hard knowing that we should be there. And if life was different right now, but we did get a lot done, I guess we got to see both.

Phil: I know. So we’re the two sad people drinking alone in the corner of the bar right now.

Jeanette: That’s right. That’s all right.

Phil: Well, great talking to Jeanette. And we will be covering more of the actual content of the conferences, what we’ve learned from Blackboard and D2L in future episodes, but we wanted to share this discussion of the virtual experience today. Thank you.

Jeanette: Yes, thanks. Have a good evening.

Phil: You too. Bye bye.