There are some new uses for old words in our corporate lexicon that very well could outlast the global pandemic. As both Xerox and Kleenex have become synonymous with the products they represent, the word “zoom” is having its moment.
Rather than its (not very often used) dictionary definition of traveling somewhere fast, “zoom” means something very different in 2020. Let’s Zoom has come to mean join a video meeting wherein we awkwardly stare at our own or each other’s faces while we test fake backgrounds and hope that something interesting happens in our co-Zoomers’ (Zoomies?) background, like a spouse, cat, or child Zoombombing. Merriam-Webster, take note on “Zoombombing” for next year’s crop of new words.
What we are really searching to replace with all of the Zooming, Skyping, Global Meeting, and Microsoft Teams use (Zooming does sound best) is engagement between audience and presenter; the audience with each other; and the audience with content.
From a training perspective, we can absolutely use one of our many online tools to provide virtual substitutes for the delivery of content. We can tick the boxes; give you thought leadership, cutting-edge information on hot topics, and best practices; and help you to fulfill your annual continuing education credit requirements. But, perhaps more boring than the term “delivery of content” is sitting through badly done online delivery of content. And the fact is no one needs to sit through badly delivered online content—salvation from that fate comes easily with the closing of a browser window.
Even if you are technically required to sit through badly done online content (for example, for a degree program), there is a point when it becomes unacceptable. Thousands of students were forced to attend courses online post-spring break last semester, but according to a recent survey from research and marketing company SimpsonScarborough, higher education is headed for a dire fall semester. In fact, the survey suggests colleges may lose up to 20 percent of their fall enrollment. Listen up, Merriam-Webster: Zoom fatigue is a real thing.
So, how do you elevate an online experience to help foster engagement? Sadly, some of my go-to, most pithy sayings, “e.g., if you build it, they will come” and “80 percent of life is showing up,” may work for live experiences but just will not work for virtual. With a live event, training, or class, engagement can happen organically. While you still plan, practice, and design the lesson, a teacher can read the room; a teacher can act and react to classroom energy and response and pivot if something is not quite working. For an online event, training, or class, everything must be plotted out and predetermined. Online engagement is the opposite of organic; it must be engineered.
There are long-held biases against online learning, such as the perception that it is not organic and too engineered—an assessment that is not meant as a slight. But if a course is not specifically planned for an online audience—such as what happened during the spring 2020 semester when educators were forced last-minute to turn live events into virtual ones—the experience will be touted as “less than.” That simply won’t work going forward. With more time and planning available for virtual education, students will expect a more engaging, thoughtful experience, and audience tolerance for online event experiences that are “less than” will wane.
As an adjunct lecturer, I teach both synchronous (live in class) and asynchronous (online, pre-taped) compliance practice skills courses. The preparation for the live versus online course is vastly different. After seven years of teaching the same live course, I have developed structure for my classroom experience. That structure, while set in syllabus, is certainly not set in stone. I regularly make updates depending upon the interests of the students and the hot regulatory topics of the day. If the conversation is not going well in the moment, I can change topics and tactics in the moment.
Conversely, for the asynchronous course, I had the benefit of the insight of a professional course designer (an eye-opening experience) who helped to construct a lesson with an eye toward (hopefully) not being boring to the online learner. While the weekly questions for discussion are determined well in advance of the course and fit within the course guidelines, there is the opportunity for engagement between students and truly organic conversation within the weekly discussion.
For an online undertaking, much thought must be given to how the content will be consumed by the learner, the focus on changing perspectives, multiple exercises, and designing an immersive and multimedia experience. Significantly “more than” standing in front of a class speaking. The syllabus for the asynchronous course might as well be constructed of (virtual) stone as a framework that is more resistant to change than the live experience. There is more rigor in the construction of an online experience because, quite simply, there must be.
In addition to our new post-pandemic vocabulary, the forced adoption and the mainstreaming of the delivery of online content provides us with a tremendous opportunity. Our challenge is to demonstrate how online learning has the ability to be “more than” it has been before. To accomplish this goal, “let’s Zoom” cannot be the only call to action. A truly well-developed online course, training, or educational experience must be pandemic-proof—wouldn’t it be nice if Merriam-Webster were considering that as its next new term?