• Jim Richardson

The Learning Curve with Web Conferencing and Coronavirus

If you want to be lazy (or modern - depends on how you look at it) - I'll read this blog to you. You can read along, or read instead. Up to you!

In the last two weeks, I've had the pleasure to watch as people have had to adapt to social distancing in the workplace, at school, and at home.  I've hosted and participated in online schools, virtual family reunions, and work meetings with a variety of customers.

The thing I enjoy the most is watching a group of people enter a new web conference for the first time.  At first, most people are confused by all this.    I see people join the conference unknowing that their mic and camera are live and - you guessed it - they weren't "ready for the camera".  One person joined a conference from the bathroom!   Or, people join the meeting and yell out over and over "Can you hear me?  Are you there?"  Such funny etiquette.  I even heard another person ask "Why are all the other squares blank?  Why can't I see anyone?" haha.

This is the Learning Curve for Web Conferencing.

And we as a people all around the world are being forced to learn it all at once.  What a great thing!   I, myself, and some of you perhaps, have been working this way for the last 7 years - with mic and cam ON - practically ditching my old fashioned phone number for exclusively accepting only pre-scheduled Microsoft Teams meetings.  But for most people in the world, Web Conferencing is a new thing.

Almost everyone knows how to use a phone and dial a number.  Same goes for business people.  Nearly ALL of the people I've ever dealt with at work don't like to use the new technology.  They prefer to just "dial in" to a meeting.   It's easy.  Dial a number.  Enter a meeting ID on the keypad.  I always make fun of that approach.  In today's world, you can tell who is an old school "Audio Conference User".  They usually take two seats at the meeting - one for their computer to see what is being presented, and one on the phone because they don't have a headset or webcam.  Then, they proceed to forget that their PC has a speaker with volume turned up, and we get feedback.   It's fine.

Add the camera to the equation, and it throws in a wrench.  If you can get someone to join a web conference, good luck getting them on camera.  But, many people are already getting used to being on-camera.   Look at all the people using Instagram Live, or YouTube or Facebook Live.  The "First generation" of on-camera performers were performing just to the camera.  The audience came later or they could only react to you with hearts on the screen.  But, now with Web Conferencing, people are realizing they are SEEING their friends, family, co-workers, classmates - LIVE and in real time.   When they smile, you see it.  When they are confused, you see it.  They can express with their hands - or show props.  It's a completely new interactive connection.

But it's also brought to the surface something I've known for a long time - some people just don't want to appear on camera.   It's weird.  If you go to school, you walk into the classroom…everyone sees you.  If you go to work, you go to the office or into the conference room…everyone sees you.  But I still encounter people who don't want to turn on their webcam.   This too goes into the learning curve - how to appear on camera.   If you're shy about appearing on camera, but you really want to, here are some tips:

Since these times are "Stay at Home", let's focus there.  If you are attending school or work from home - you should dress appropriately.  That will make it easier to appear on camera.   Wear your top half (waist up) like you would go to work or go to school.  You're going to be asked to interact with people.  Of course, you don't have to worry about your lower half and feet because the camera is really supposed to focus on your face.    But feel good about how you look on the camera.  You can also use filters - but that's a real Pro Tip I won't get into here :)

Sit back a little from the camera and sit at a table or desk.  Use a wall behind you if you don't want to show your house.  If your hardware supports it, use a virtual background or blur your background.  Remember, you look the same to everyone else as you do at work or school, it's just the location is different.  And you're just not used to it at first.  But soon, you'll forget you're even on camera.  And that can be an oops moment too.   Just be conscious if you are on cam and be aware of what's behind you.  Always keep your camera visible in the corner - most good conference tools show you your own camera - so you can see what others are seeing.

Finally, remember when you are "On the Air" to tell your other co-inhabitants.  Ask them to carry on as usual but to avoid loud noises and from appearing on your camera (Although in these times if your pet or kids run into the frame, it's actually kinda cute).  I even saw a co-workers wife in the background and she said "hi".  When else can you do that!?!

Anyway, back to Coronavirus and the effect on the Learning Curve.  It reminds me of the video game I play called World of Warcraft when a new raid goes live.  You can join the "Looking for Raid" matchmaking service, and the game will pair you up with 39 other players you've never played with before to all work together to conquer the raid.  Of course, you can use in-game text chat and voice web conferencing to help solve the puzzles and learn the mechanics of beating the boss….but most people don't do that.  Instead, they just experience it.  Watch what others are doing, then try to emulate.  Of course you will fail at first.  Don't we all?  Isn't that the first lesson in learning?  Fail.  It's ok.

It's really fun to see the Raid group die the first time they fight a boss.  There are valuable lessons to be learned for the next time we try to fight the same boss.   Next time, don't stand in the fire, get into the purple circle when the boss does his superpower, run away when the boss does a massive pull, and turn down your damage when the boss is reflecting.  I apologize - I ran a little over on geek speak there.    The fun part is watching the group LEARN as a group.  A GROUP learning experience.  Some emerge as party leaders and provide helpful hints and tricks to others.  Some ask questions ahead of time to learn what to do.  When it's open and friendly, and there are leaders leading, the random group of strangers usually ends up winning!

Now, back to Web Conferencing  It often starts with the simple task of just learning how to mute and unmute and how to turn your camera on and off.  Once you have that, you have mastered the basics.  You can perform well with others without really doing much.  But then, remembering to unmute when you want to talk.   I've seen so many people exclaim "You're on MUTE!" lately it's funny.

So, I see a very similar thing happening now with online web conferencing.  We join these conferences - and if you're new to it - at first it's exciting!  My 6 year old had his first Zoom meeting last week with his class of 35 kids, and for the first 10 minutes of the meeting the kids were all just saying hi to each other.  All of them showed amazement that they could see the faces of their friends and school mates.  Imagine if we started a business meeting with that enthusiasm!?!?  Haha.  Then, the teacher (the leader), had to adapt quickly and mute the audience so she could be heard and give instructions.  Then, the kids were off to explore being called upon to speak - then unmuting and talking, then re-muting when they were done!   I even showed my kid how to share his screen!  That really blew away the other first graders.  Hehe.  But you can bet, they all asked how to do it and we were happy to explain.

When we did our virtual family reunion last weekend, I kept hearing - Hey, how'd you get that background?   Hey, how do you get grid view?  Hey, how to you mute the whole audience?  How do you prevent "ZoomBombing" (Where someone joins your public meeting because you haven't locked it down and anyone with the meeting ID can join)?   It's amazing once people master the first thing - how to connect to the meeting - then the learning curve starts to flatten.  As we all do something together and learn at the same time, the learning curve flattens.  We adapt.  We develop new standards of communication.  We groom the youth to use modern technology to collaborate and connect with one another.  And we have to remember to include our elder generations too.  It was so much fun to see our grandparents and older aunts and uncles joy in amazement at seeing all the kids from around the country.  Include the elders and be patient with them!   This stuff is easy for many of you, but for them it's like an alien came down to the planet and gave them some newfangled technology thingy and the phone worked just fine and why do things have to change, blah blah blah...

Then, you can learn how to do the cool things like blur your background, change your views, host your own meeting, control everyone's microphone, and so on.  It's best to learn one thing each time.  That way, you can return and practice the thing you learned last week and then add one more new trick to your arsenal.  At some point, you will "flatten the curve" (Sound familiar?) and you'll get to a point where web conferencing is second nature - like for me - and it may even become your favorite form of communication moving forward.

Why didn't we do this before?

Web Conferencing.

Stay safe.  Ahead of the Curve.


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