A short manifesto about the future of online interaction
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The world is changing. Faster and more suddenly than most of us expected.
And beyond the fraught health emergencies that so many are going through, many of us are being asked to quickly move our meetings and our classes online.
Fortunately, there are powerful and inexpensive tools to do just that. Unfortunately, we’re at risk at adopting a new status quo that’s even worse than the one it replaces.
We can make it better.
You have a chance to reinvent the default, to make it better. Or we can maintain the status quo. Which way will you contribute?
Rather than doing what we’ve always done in real-life (but online, and not as well), what if we did something better instead?
Here’s what we think we get from a real-life meeting:
- A chance for people to come together and discuss important issues.
Here’s what we actually get:
- A chance for some people to demonstrate their status and power.
- A chance for most people to take notes and seek to avoid responsibility.
Real-life meetings are among the most hated part of work for the typical office worker. They last too long, happen too often and bore and annoy most of the people who attend. They can mostly be replaced by a memo (if they’re about transferring information) or they could be better run (if they’re about transforming information.)
But at least you’re not in school.
The traditional school day is nothing but a meeting. Eight hours of it. In which you are almost never asked to contribute, or, if you are, it’s at great risk, both social and in terms of academic standing.
And now, because of worldwide events, local meetings and local schooling are going online.
It will lead to one of two things:
1. Just like the ones in real-life, except worse.
2. Something new and something better.
Forgive me for not being optimistic, but if what we’re seeing is any guide, we’re defaulting to the first (wrong) choice.
It’s worse because you can check your phone, your email and your fridge. It’s worse because you can more clearly see the faces of people who are bored right in front of you who can’t realize you can see them.
[Did you know that there’s a ‘focus’ button in Zoom and other tools that shows the organizer when people in the room have put Chrome or something else in front and are only sort-of paying attention? It’s there to ensure compliance and it’s there because we’re figuring out how to not pay attention.]
The compliance of the mandatory Zoom meeting is not nearly as firm as it is in real life. It’s like an episode of the Office, except it’s happening millions of times a day.
And then when we try to move classes online! First we coerced students to pay attention with grades, withholding what they want and need (a certificate, a diploma, an A) in exchange for them giving up their agency and freedom and youth.
Then, because we weren’t getting enough compliance, we invented the clicker.
It’s a pernicious digital device that probably had good intent behind it, but like so many things that are industrialized, it’s now more of a weapon than a tool.
How the clicker works: Every student at a large university is required to buy one. Yes, you need to spend more of your own money to be controlled. It has built-in ID (it knows who you are) and wifi and GPS. Inside the lecture hall, you need to click. Click to prove you’re there. Click to prove you’re awake. Click to prove you can repeat what the professor just said.
Sure, it’s possible to use clickers to produce powerful and engaging discussion. My quick research seems to indicate that this almost never happens. It’s easier to have the student simply pay for compliance in exchange for the certificate.
So, we have a few problems:
1. The in-person regime of meetings and school is riddled with problems around status, wasted time, compliance, boredom and inefficient information flow.
2. Moving to online gives up the satisfaction of the status quo, diminishes the ego satisfaction for those seeking status, and creates even more challenges with compliance, boredom and the rest.
There’s a solution. A straightforward and non-obvious choice.
Let’s have a conversation instead.
A conversation involves listening and talking. A conversation involves a perception of openness and access and humanity on both sides.
People hate meetings but they don’t hate conversations.
People might dislike education, but everyone likes learning.
If you’re trapped in a room of fifty people and the organizer says, “let’s go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves,” you know you’re in for an hour of unhappiness. That’s because no one is listening and everyone is nervously waiting for their turn to talk.
But if you’re in a conversation, you have to listen to the other person. Because if you don’t, you won’t know what to say when it’s your turn to talk.
Conversations reset the power and compliance dynamic, because conversations enable us to be heard.
Conversations generate their own interest, because after you speak your piece, you’re probably very focused on what someone is going to say in response.
You don’t have to have a conversation, but if you choose to have one, go all in and actually have one.
And here’s the punchline:
The digital world enables a new kind of conversation, one that scales, one that cannot possibly be replicated in the real world.
There’s even a special button for it in Zoom, and if you have enrollment and the passion to engage with it, you can use it to create magic.
We know, because we’ve done it at Akimbo. We’ve created important and useful conversations for a group of 700 people at a time. More than 97% of the people who joined our online meeting were in it at the end. With no coercion, no diploma, no grades and no clickers.
If we want to, we can use Zoom to create conversations, not a rehash of tired power dynamics. We can create peer to peer environments where conversations happen.
Here’s how it works:
0. The most important: Only have a real-time meeting if it deserves to be a meeting. If you need people to read a memo, send a memo. If you need students to do a set of problems, send the problems. If you want people to watch a speech or talk, then record it and email it to them. Meetings and real-time engagements that are worthy of conversations are rare and magical. Use them wisely.
1. People come to the meeting ready to have a conversation. If they’re coerced to be there, everything else gets more difficult.
2. Part of being engaged means being prepared. Consider this simple 9 point checklist.
3. Organize a conversation. That can’t work at any scale more than five. How then, to do an event with hundreds of people? The breakout.
A standard zoom room permits you to have 250 people in it. You, the organizer, can speak for two minutes or ten minutes to establish the agenda and the mutual understanding, and then press a button. That button in Zoom will automatically send people to up to 50 different breakout rooms.
If there are 120 people in the room and you set the breakout number to be 40, the group will instantly be distributed into 40 groups of 3.
They can have a conversation with one another about the topic at hand. Not wasted small talk, but detailed, guided, focused interaction based on the prompt you just gave them.
8 minutes later, the organizer can press a button and summon everyone back together.
Get feedback via chat (again, something that’s impossible in a real-life meeting). Talk for six more minutes. Press another button and send them out for another conversation.
This is thrilling. It puts people on the spot, but in a way that they’re comfortable with.
If you’re a teacher and you want to actually have conversations in sync, then this is the most effective way to do that. Teach a concept. Have a breakout conversation. Have the breakouts bring back insights or thoughtful questions. Repeat.
A colleague tried this technique at his community center meeting on Sunday and it was a transformative moment for the 40 people who participated.
If you want to do a lecture, do a lecture, but that’s prize-based education, not real learning. If people simply wanted to learn what you were teaching, they wouldn’t have had to wait for your lecture (or pay for it). They could have looked it up online.
But if you want to create transformative online learning, then allow people to learn together with each other.