What makes a great webinar? Part 1

In 2015 I explored various aspects of giving a great presentation (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).  Those posts concerned in-person, face-to-many-faces events, and I really need to turn them into an ebook.  Now I’d like to branch out and discuss what makes for a great virtual presentation.

I’m basing these thoughts on around two decades of webinar and videoconference work.  That’s included a wide range of tech, from NetMeeting to Elluminate to GoToMeeting to Hangout, Polycom, Zoom, Bluejeans, and Shindig, plus others I’ve forgotten.  That experience also covered a wide range of formats, affordances, and structures, from Brady-Bunch-style multi-person conversations to sage-on-the-stage addresses.  It’s also included different hardware, from cellphones to laptops to projections and robots.  I’ve seen some good work, some terrible work, and a lot of boring presentations.  I’ve also been putting my ideas and conclusions to the test with the weekly Future Trends Forum.

To begin with, people now have two completely opposed understandings of what a virtual event should be.  On the one hand we’d like something interactive, social, where we can get a good sense of other people and interact with them.  This view sees the technology as ultimately approaching a replacement for face-to-face interaction, a stand-in for in-person workshops, meetings, and presentations.  In the meantime the interactive webinar tries to reproduce as many of its features as possible.  More on this below.

webinars and the unlikely learner_Mcoughlan

On the other hand we also prefer … a time-released YouTube video, basically.   These presentations do not require audience interaction or, for that matter, action.  They involve a speaker or speakers presenting through sound, primarily; images or video can also play.  The audience soaks this up like watching a tv show or listening to radio.  We don’t have to do anything, really, although we can multitask, either for the webinar or for something unrelated, as we like.  Nobody’s watching us (except the NSA and Google and Facebook and friends, but we’re usually cool with that).

So when it comes to webinars* we expect two completely different experiences.  It would be useful to poll people in order to learn more about this.  Which populations prefer which model?  Is one more popular than another?  How about reasons for liking both?  But for now, in this post, I’m only writing about the interactive style.  I’ll follow up with the other in a later post.

What makes an interactive webinar great?  What does it take to give participants a buzz, so that afterwards they tell others about it?  Can we make mind-blowing webinars, that people actually want to attend?

I’m addressing this to event organizers and those who support them.  It’s also focused on an event itself, rather that its preparation or followup.  I’m also avoiding technical questions here.

Some of these ideas appear widely in best webinar practices articles, yet I see them so rarely used that I’m happy to echo them here.  Others do not.

How to run the best interactive webinars

Overall, my personal strategy is to connect with as many participants as possible while getting them connecting with each other.  This spirit of connection means treating logins and small pixel clusters as people, humanizing them as far as the technology allows.

The onus for that is on facilitators and presenters.  They have to establish a welcoming and sociable environment right away, then maintain that throughout the session.  I think it’s best to make this overt, with the host actually saying “we’d like this to be a social space”, or words to that effect.  This is very different from the non-interactive version, and also from formal, face-to-face presentations.  Not doing this throws the audience back into the non-interactive mode.

webinar, by Linh Do

A good way of getting the social environment going is to encourage participants to start doing easy, interactive stuff. I’m fond of goading informal conversations or offering gently shaped prompts, like asking people to describe the weather where they are.  Other people run quick and light, sometimes funny, quizzes, if the software allows.  These are icebreakers, like the ones we use in face-to-face parties.

Unlike a party, it’s a good idea to lay out the session’s framework as soon as possible.  Describe the highlights, the desired flow of events, whatever rules of the road participants should know.  This brings the event into focus for the audience, letting them manage expectations and involvement.

If anyone has technical problems, and we can still expect they will in 2017, hosts should treat them in a genial, supportive, or lighthearted way.  We can now bond over glitches, and can use that connection to strengthen the webinar’s social situation. Continue reading

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A new digital literacy project begins, and is looking for examples

Here’s a new initiative I’m working on, and a chance for you to participate.

I’m leading a project with the New Media Consortium (NMC) to conduct further independent research into higher education’s digital literacy landscape. This project will be positioned as a follow-up to our initial work in 2016 on the NMC Horizon Project Strategic Brief > Digital Literacy. In addition to expanding upon the preliminary definitions outlined in the first report, we will now include even more global information and context.

We will also engage in deeper exploration of the use of and impact of digital literacy frameworks and initiatives on specific disciplines, including humanities, business, computer science, and general education/introductory courses mandated for first-year students. This research will contribute to the body of knowledge used by the higher education community to inform strategic planning around digital literacy initiatives.

Funding for this non-commissioned research will be underwritten by Adobe. The NMC and I will conduct independent research and publish an unbiased strategic brief.

Submit a digital literacy example buttonOne piece of this research involves looking for more examples of higher education institutions actually running digital literacy initiatives.  They can be campus-wide or single-departmental, based in libraries or in writing centers.  If you are working on or know of one such, please head to this short form and tell us about it!

I’ll share more updates as they come, in my usual spirit of transparency.

Click here for more of my digital literacy work.

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Has Trump’s presidency cut international student interest in the US?

One possible impact the Trump administration might have on higher education is depressing international student applications to American campuses.  Trump’s hostility to immigrants from certain nations (Mexico, some Muslim-majority countries, etc.) could recast the US in a negative light for prospective students.

Are there signs that this downturn has started to occur?

AACRAO logoThe American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) recently published a report indicating that a Trump-inspired downturn is in the works… sort of.  Let me dig into it.

To begin with, AACRAO hedges their report very carefully:

This survey was intended to be a snapshot of student/family perceptions and institutional activities as opposed to a deep-dive into applicant numbers…Because of the annual and in-depth nature of those reports, we will not see those numbers for many months.  This report provides a snapshot of foreign applications to U.S. higher education institutions, initiates a dialogue, and should assist institutions as they forecast and prepare for what might lie ahead.

In other words, this is a tentative sketch, light on data. They even used the word “snapshot” twice in the same paragraph.”

The sample size is also pretty small, “[m]ore than 250 U.S. institutions”.  That’s around 5% of America’s higher ed sector.

Given those caveats, what did they find?

39% of responding institutions reported a decline in international applications, 35% reported an increase, and 26% reported no change in applicant numbers.

That’s really all over the place.  A little more than one third of colleges and universities saw a decrease, while nearly the same number saw an increase.  Then one quarter saw no change.  (NBC only saw the first number, and completely missed the second two.  Remember what I’ve been saying about American tv “news”?  To be fair, Marketplace made the same mistake.)

international student applications for fall 2017

We can’t tell how many students are covered by those institutions. The total number of students is not accessible at this point.

We can look into which nations have changed their student attitudes.

One national set is unsurprising: “Institutions report the highest declines in applications from the Middle East.”   Yet this doesn’t constitute a major impact on American campuses: “Open Doors data from the 2015/2016 academic year indicates that there are more than 100,000 students studying in the U.S. from the Middle East, making up just under 10% of our international student enrollment nationwide.” (emphases added)

Larger numbers come from east Asia and India, and there we might be seeing a serious hit:

26% of institutions have reported undergraduate application declines from India and 25% reported application declines from China. 32% of institutions have reported graduate application declines from China, and 15% have reported application declines from India.

Yet those are still minorities of American institutions (26%, 25%, 32%, 15%).  How many are seeing increases?  The report doesn’t say.

The report also addresses attitudes of potential international applicants, rather than numbers, and those are both unsurprising and important:

Perception of a rise in student visa denials at U.S. embassies and consulates in China, India and Nepal.
Perception that the climate in the U.S. is now less welcoming to individuals from other countries.
Concerns that benefits and restrictions around visas could change, especially around the ability to travel, re-entry after travel, and employment opportunities.
Concerns that the Executive Order travel ban might expand to include additional countries.

Unless those concerns and perceptions change, we should anticipate an actual decline in total student interest in the near future.

So where does this leave us in late march 2017?   Continue reading

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More on demographics: American white people’s declining lifespan and what it means for education

Human lifespans have tended to rise over the past century.  That’s been a signal achievement of modernity, a combination of improved knowledge, health care, sanitation, and education.  But one American population has seen its lifespan decline since around 2000.

Anne Case and Angus Deaton first published on rising death rates among adult white people in 2015, shocking the American public.  Last week they issued an updated report (pdf), which has many implications for the future of American society, including the education sector.

[W]e see our story as about the collapse of the white, high school educated, working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.

deaths by race and edu 2000-2015_Case and Deaton

To begin with, they articulate a new explanation for increasing morbidity.  (Actually, the term they prefer is “age-specific mortality”.) It’s a combination of factors, anchored on economics:

We propose a preliminary but plausible story in which cumulative disadvantage over life, in the labor market, in marriage and child outcomes, and in health, is triggered by progressively worsening labor market opportunities at the time of entry for whites with low levels of education. [emphases in original]

“Cumulative disadvantage” is a resonant, gloomy phrase, and one we might hear widely used.  Note how it draws together multiple factors – and the trigger is economics.  “[W]e emphasize the labor market, globalization and technical change as the fundamental forces,” which lead to disappointment, fewer marriages, less education, and more dangerous behaviors.

In contrast, black and Latino life spans are increasing, “similar to the rate of mortality decline in other rich countries.”  One important detail:

Mortality rates of black non-Hispanics have been and remain higher than those of white non-Hispanics as a whole, but have fallen rapidly, by around 25 percent from 1999 to 2015; as a result of this, and of the rise in white mortality, the black-white mortality gap in this (and other) age group(s) has been closing… due both to mortality declines for blacks, and mortality increases for whites.

Gender differences are stark here, with women’s death rates soaring past men’s:

the increase in all-cause mortality is larger for women, a result we have confirmed on the data to 2015 (36 per 100,000 increase for women, 9 per 100,000 increase for men, between 1998 and 2015, age-adjusted using 2010 as the base year, with little variation in the increases across different base years).


The key story… is the increase in mortality rates for both men and women without a BA, particularly those with no more than high school degree. For both men and women, deaths of despair are rising in parallel, pushing mortality upwards… [emphasis added]

In the international setting, comparing America to related (OECD) nations, this mortality change is unusual.  “[T]he US has pulled away from comparison countries…other wealthy countries continued to make progress while the US did not.”

For example, Continue reading

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America’s demographic currents flowed on schedule in 2016

During 2016 America’s population continue to move in many of the ways we’ve come to expect.  538 analyzes the latest census data.  There isn’t anything mind-blowingly new in this report, beyond confirmation of trends I and others have been discussing.  However, these trends are reorganizing American society in important ways, with important ramifications for education.

Here are the key trends.

First, people continue to move towards the south and west, and away from the midwest and northeast.

We can see this in changes to the populations of large and medium-sized cities, as those in the sun belt burgeoned, while northern urban areas shrank or stabilized:

American population in cities 2016

Second, the countryside continues to lose people, while cities gain them.  However, suburbs are doing better than cities or rural areas:

American cities suburbs country 2016

Jed Kolko reflects on this in detail well worth quoting at length:

Those figures run counter to the “urban revival” narrative that has been widely discussed in recent years. That revival is real, but it has mostly been for rich, educated people in particular hyperurban neighborhoods rather than a broad-based return to city living. To be sure, college-educated millennials — at least those without school-age kids — took to the city, and better-paying jobs have shifted there, too. But other groups — older adults, families with kids in school, and people of all ages with lower incomes — either can’t afford or don’t want an urban address.

The BurbsTo put it another way, urban growth is a class thing.  To put it yet another way, we’re seeing the limitations of Richard Florida‘s creative class model, and the growing explanatory power of Joel Klein‘s model emphasizing suburbs and red state cities.  For a long time we’ve been talking about the importance of urbanization.  Perhaps we’ve really meant a combination of cities and suburbs, but “city” is a much sexier term than boring old “suburb”.  These exciting urban kids are also, and maybe more likely to be, sururbanites.

What does all of this have to do with education?

To begin with, as colleges and universities become increasingly competitive for a student applicant pool that at best isn’t growing much, and when the total number of enrolled students keeps on declining, they will have to target their recruiting efforts in the south and west.  Midwestern and northeastern schools that fail to do so, or that don’t manage to bring in international students, will come under fierce financial pressure.  This is where queen sacrifices tend to appear.

This also means we need to pay less attention to northern K-12, and focus more on southern primary and secondary schools.  The latter are where about one half of high school graduates will appear.

Third, the increasing wealth of cities suggests college advancement efforts will increasingly settle there.  As income inequality continues to escalate, urban areas will become ever more important in influencing the fate of institutions.  That’s also where campuses have the best chance of finding the wealthiest students whose families are most likely to pay full tuition.

Fourth, rural campuses will continue to find their location a challenge in attracting students, faculty, and staff.

Again, none of this is new.  This Census data, and 538’s accounting, reveal only that trends we’ve been discussing continue to bear out.  America is changing, and our education sector with it; population shifts power a good deal of those transformations.

Are you seeing these major population shifts play out in your area?  Do you detect any countervailing forces?

(thanks to Todd Bryant)

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Universal basic income: Bruce Sterling imagines the rest of the 21st century

How might universal basic income play out, if we choose to adopt it as a way to restructure our economy and society?  Cyberpunk writer, journalist, and killer speech-giver Bruce Sterling dove into some possibilities at the close of this year’s South By Southwest.

The speech begins with a gloomy rumination on the conference, so you can skip ahead to around 25:00 or 26:00 for the possible UBI futures.  And no, there’s no transcript available yet:

Sterling turns to human history to find ways of structuring a society that pays people not to work.  Helpfully he plays them out against the left-right political spectrum.  They include:

  • a universal academy, where people devote themselves to learning.
  • militarization: people serve and receive basic support, which pleases the right wing.
  • refugee status, where authorities supply clothing, food, shelter (“universal basic everything”).
  • a religious settlement, like living as monks or under sharia
  • expanded retirement.  “Everyone retires at 40… everyone learns to mimic the elderly.”
  • extermination, either First Nations or WWII style.
  • “health care uber alles”, a combination of hospitals and spas, focused on preserving and growing wellness.  Transhumanism and life extension come in here.
  • intentional rural communes, protected from the rest of society.
  • urban bohemians.  Getting paid to keep cities weird.
  • “Enlightenment” in the Buddhist sense, where people seek religious truth in “a permanent Burning Man”, “a state of general liberation from desire.”
  • a combination of religion and army, “all jihad all the time”.

This runs until 45:05 or so.  Then Sterling offers the possibility of a historical break, only to discount it, based on what he’s seen from SXSW.

Afterward the speech turns to robots and the judgement of history, with a serious call for a kind of neo-existentialism.  That’s powerful stuff.

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The Patreon project, two months in

Two months ago I launched a Patreon campaign to support my future of education work.  I’d like to share some thoughts on how it’s gone so far, since readers know I’ve been committed since 2013 to making my professional work as open and transparent as possible.  Consider this a case study in crowdfunding.

tl:dr version – it’s going well, but we need your help.  Please join us.

Some quick background: I currently create a lot of digital content about the future of education.  This includes the monthly FTTE report, the weekly Future Trends Forum videoconference and recorded videos, and an online book club, not to mention this blog and a possible podcast to come.  All of this content is free, and created independently.*

Bryan's Patreon page header

Taken together, producing it all is a significant part time job.  Put another way, I make this stuff when I could be doing my other, paying work (consulting, leading workshops, giving speeches, writing for publishers, researching on spec, etc).  So how can it be sustained?  Maybe crowdfunding is a way.  Hence the turn to Patreon.

After researching the Patreon ecosystem, its various best practices, recommendations from successful campaigns, and seeking advice from numerous friends and/or professional contacts, I built a campaign structure (i.e., a set of funding levels for supporting specific services, plus rewards for contributions) and launched my site.

Immediately people started signing on to contribute, which is enormously, deeply heartening and exciting.  In fact, people have been adding themselves pretty regularly over the past two months.

Meanwhile, as I’ve continued producing content, I’ve been updating Patreons (Patrons) on my progress using the site’s blogging feature.  I can’t tell how many people have read them, possibly because I haven’t figured that out yet.

How far have things gone?

Patreon is built on a series of escalating funding levels, each associated with a certain supportive goal.  Here’s the series I set up:

$250 per month – Patreon community activated! The blog is now secure.

$650 per month – At this point the monthly FTTE report will be secured.

$1,000 per month – All basic media operations are now sustained at this point. The blog, the FTTE report, and the Future Trends Forum are good.

$2,000 per month – I can create a future of education podcast, adding that to the other media projects.

$3,000 per month – I can make all of this media happily, from blog to podcast to videos, without having to cut back any of it or take on extra paying work (speeches, consulting) to support it.

$10,000 per month – I devote myself full time to Future of Education media production.

Patreon goal #2

Patreon goal #2

Within a few days supporters reached the $250 mark, so my baseline was achieved, and this blog could keep going.  Every week more supporters joined up, growing the monthly total contribution to $534 as of this morning.  That’s closing in on securing FTTE.  To put it another way, if no other Patreons sign up for the rest of the year, the current community generates around $6000 for 2017.

I’m also working on making those Patreon rewards more effective.  I’ve been conversing with Patreons through email, Twitter, etc., which is good.  The living wall of credits should be available tomorrow or sooner.  I’m hoping to hear more from contributors who want me to raise their questions (that’s the “Thematizer” reward.  I have to launch a Q+A on the Patreon site.  These and more are all in the mix.

So, so far, this is very good.

Personally, it takes a huge load off of my mind.  You can imagine me writing FTTE reports on a laptop crammed between airplane seats, or racing to find a rare bandwidth spot in Vermont for the next Shindig recording, or typing up a blog post at 6 am while waiting for the primary home fire to catch… and being less worried about being able to pay the mortgage, or this month’s student loans payments (mine and my daughter’s).

It’s also… a start.  Check the funding level series again.  We’re almost at the point of making FTTE secure.  More work is needed to get the whole slew of content production services on a firm footing.  If I’m going to launch a podcast, as people keep asking me to, further support is called for.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of transparency, I have to say that things are getting harder beyond these projects, mostly because of politics. Continue reading

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