The possibilities of video in live online learning with Chad Owen

 Everyone who is working remotely knows the experience of Zoom fatigue and the negatives of video conferencing; pixel vision, seeing yourself all the time, and what sometimes feels like an ocean of blank faces; but video conferencing also has many powerful possibilities for learning. 

These are the possibilities that Robin explores with Chad Owen in this latest interview.

One of the themes that often recurs in interviews around online facilitation is showing up as human online and really connecting with others. Chad explores ways to use video to help with being human online. The interview also includes some great tactics and finishes with a discussion about whiteboarding. There is a sub-theme in this podcast about working visually online.

About Chad Owen

Chad is the founder of Stimulus. Stimulus specialises in team acceleration for disruptors and innovators. Chad has a background in video making and storytelling and has worked for companies such as NIKE, CISCO and Wells Fargo. Chad has recently moved to learning and training. He creates immersive experiences to teach and practice new ways of working to reshape how people and systems operate. Recently, as well as moving his own learning experiences online, he has been helping other learning professionals move their work online.

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The Possibilities for Using Video in Live Online Learning with Chad Owen

Robin: Chad you have a background in video and storytelling and now work in learning. What do you see as the potential of video in live online learning?

Chad: First of all, I think it should be a default for everyone to turn their cameras on. I know in some companies this kind of crashing into working remotely has been very disorienting for many and opening up our personal spaces can be a bit frightening or uncomfortable for some people but I would argue that everyone has one small sliver of their apartments or homes in which they could put the camera on. For me, that is a very interesting invitation we're making to one another into our own homes and own spaces and so I think the first interesting opportunity with video is, we get to know one another in different ways.


And one quick activity I love to begin a lot of my virtual sessions with is, just have everyone... so choose a colour and say, "Okay everyone, spend 60 seconds and find a yellow object and bring it on camera" and so everyone rummages around and finds something yellow and everyone brings a yellow thing in front of the camera and you'll find the funniest things. Someone will grab a rubber ducky from the bathtub. Someone grabs a banana but you get to learn a little bit more about one another and you can have a little bit of fun at the beginning of some meetings. That's just one way I have found to make these seemingly endless video calls that much better.

Robin: When it works really well, there's a positive mixing between personal and professional when working from home and that's a really lovely example of it. We have cameras and there is all this potential for them. Even if the group was large would you still say camera on for anyone? 

Use of Cameras in Virtual Sessions

Chad: That's a very interesting question, Robin, because the number of people that you have in these virtual sessions, I think, makes a big difference in how you leverage the technologies. So while I might begin a meeting with more than 15 people with everyone having their cameras on, often what I advise clients to do is break up into smaller breakouts. So groups of let's say five to seven people or have the people that aren't actively participating in the discussion or in the presentation to turn their cameras off because paying attention to ... our brains, our human brains are hardwired to engage with and recognise other faces, so when we're trying to manage 30 faces or even 50 faces on our computer screens, it's very cognitively draining.

And so I have found it better to keep people's attention and focus people to try and not have more than 10 or 12 people on camera at any given time and so it's just about being intentional about that group size and managing people's attention.

Robin: That's interesting because essentially I see that a group of 12 to 15 as being perfect for online or face-to-face. A bigger group than that and it's very hard to have a whole group discussion.

Chad: I think even breaking that group of 15 or 16 into groups of four or five, depending on the activities, can be really helpful. I think that's one thing as a meeting facilitator and work facilitator, you are always asking yourself, "What's the right number of creative minds to bring together for this particular task?" Sometimes it's a really big group and other times it's a small group.

Robin: The idea of the right creative minds for an activity is a great mindset. Getting back to the idea of using the cameras for focus. As people are going into breakout rooms you can say, "Hey, microphone's on, cameras are on." That means that when people start to form into a group, they can actually make connections faster.

Chad: It's really hard to feel like you're looking people in the eyes if there's 30 people on the screen, it's much easier if there's fewer people.

Robin: What possibilities does video have?

Workspaces - Virtual Sessions

Chad: I think the possibilities are practically endless. We have these cameras attached to our computers and we can point them wherever we want. We don't have to keep them stationary. So imagine treating your laptop almost like a roaming video camera. I think another thing I love to have people do is, to just have them in the middle of a meeting change locations from which they're working. I think most of us have found two maybe or four or five different spots in our homes to work from.

And so just transporting people into a different space and showing a different space can help reinvigorate and re-engage people in the work that they're doing. I don't know about you but I can't sit and take eight video calls one after the other in the same spot all day long. I mean, I'm recording to you now from, I think my third workspace of the day.

Robin: I really like that idea, perhaps for a facilitator it’s just about saying, "Hey, let's move around our spaces''. It’s common when we are working face-to-face to move spaces.

Chad: We can point the cameras in many different directions. I'm a note taker. I love taking notes in any kind of meeting or work that I'm doing and one real easy thing you can do is just simply tilt your laptop screen down so that the camera's pointed more at your screen and you can put your notepad or your Post-Its in front of your keyboard and you can demonstrate or show a diagram that you're working on.

I mean, even just writing something down on a Post-It or on your notepad and holding it up and showing it to the camera is another way to just engage with people differently. You don't have to use Google Docs or some fancy virtual whiteboard. You can doodle and draw. I've gotten a little fancy in that I have a dedicated overhead webcam and a portable whiteboard so that I can use a whiteboard but you could also have an easel pad behind you or if you are working in a home office or at your office, just move and point your camera at the whiteboard and pretend like you're at the front of the room on a whiteboard, with your participants.

Robin: Online whiteboard tools are not completely fluid. Just being able to point the camera at a piece of paper and draw, as your talking through something is so simple...

Virtual Collaboration Tools

Chad: I feel like it's taken three months to onboard everyone, even just for simple video calls, let alone all of the other virtual collaboration tools that are out there. I love the simplicity of the analogue Sharpie and Post-Its or notepad.

Robin: It’s a nice way of thinking about the whole experience. We have cameras, how can we use them to engage with our physical spaces? Chad, your background is in recorded video rather than live video, isn't it?

Chad: It's a little bit of event production thrown in but yeah, mostly documentary productions.

Robin: Why I’m asking is, the approaches we're talking about are very raw and there's a whole lot of other video and event production people who are really pushing towards a sort of very polished video online that has to be perfect but you're talking about something that's very raw, very improv.

"Perfect is The Enemy of Progress"

Chad: Well, I subscribed to "perfect is the enemy of progress" and I think any kind of video while collaborating remotely is better than a perfect video. That said, I have helped friends and colleagues set up perfect, pristine, virtual studios but I don't know ... if they're not showing up as real and authentic people in those studios, what's the use in going through all of that trouble.

Robin: That is really lovely sentiment in many ways that sense that the video actually has a possibility to turn as a whole person. There's a whole lot of people that are using Zoom backgrounds to block out their background. I personally tried it a little bit and it doesn't feel right. I went into a family call, Zoom call with one of my Zoom backgrounds I've been using with work and they didn't like it because they were not connecting with me in my space. After that I stopped using a Zoom background. 

Chad: I think even in the most buttoned up corporate of settings, I don't recommend using the virtual backgrounds. I believe in Microsoft Teams, you can blur your background, which isn't quite as off putting for me but I'm fortunate enough to work with people that don't mind inviting us into their spaces and so even if it's a little embarrassing, maybe there's a little bit of a mess or I haven't cleaned off the table behind me or something like that. I feel like, I think you were saying, it's almost like you feel like they're trying to hide something and even if it's just at a subconscious level, I think that can affect how you interact with people over video.

Robin: It's that sort of blanking out, the blurring of the background in Microsoft Teams is interesting because you still see a person’s space but you don't completely see it. For me, it also works in a really nice way where it focuses on people's faces. 

Chad: I think that does a much better job of focusing people's attention versus I think the virtual backgrounds, as they're implemented in Zoom are just simply distractions and almost kind of like toys as opposed to tools.

Robin: I actually heard someone say these third party whiteboarding tools and things like using open broadcast systems - OBS, just increases fiction. It might actually make things look more polished but it just creates more technical overhead for everyone. 

Chad: I have fallen into that trap myself. I've experimented with all of the live broadcasting software tools like E-cam and OBS, multi cameras, using my digital SLR cameras as webcams, different types of audio interfaces. Oh yeah, I've spent probably 40 or 50 hours hacking my own system and asking others and helping others with theirs but I don't know how much really that dividend has paid off. Yes, it's nice to have an external webcam to maybe get a little bit better quality and kind of point it independently of your computer screen but aside from that, I really don't think that there's a whole lot of use for most professionals to go so overboard in their video and audio production.

Robin: It’s interesting that for someone with a professional video background, you have backed away from the complexity of these tools and just focused on the power of webcams for sharing different ways. I was going to set up our digital SLR as webcams, I'm not going to waste my time doing that anymore, Chad.

Webcams for Sharing

Chad: Well, it's not to say it isn't worth it but treat it more like a hobby because you will go down the rabbit holes and spend way too much time figuring it out. This particular model doesn't work with this particular software which doesn't work with this particular operating system, right? It's all of those technical gotchas and before you know it, you've spent 10 hours troubleshooting your tech and you haven't spent one minute figuring out who are the right people to get together in this meeting, what are the right activities and processes to get us to our outcomes. So you've kind of lost sight of what you're trying to accomplish together.

Robin: It’s about focusing more on the learning process instead of the technology. What's your other gems of wisdom for people around facilitating using video?

Chad: Well, I led with this straight out but I would encourage everyone to be encouraging of and celebratory of turning your cameras on. If you're in a work environment where that's not the case, try and figure out how to gamify it. Like I said, there's lots of different icebreakers and activities you can do to invite people to get them on camera.

I don't say this just because I'm a video person. Study after study shows people who contribute and engage in the first five to 10 minutes of any kind of meeting or work session are far more likely to continue to participate and contribute further on. So using video, I believe, makes our virtual work more equitable and more inclusive because we've defaulted to having the video on and we're allowing everyone else to see everyone else. I love how it kind of equalises the footing.

There's no one standing at the front of the room. There's no one dominating the boardroom, conference room table setup. We're all kind of equals in our equally sized boxes in the gallery view and in our video platforms and so I can't state enough the importance of having the default of using video.

But that said, there's times in which it's appropriate to turn it off and shift to the focus of what you're doing, either away from face-to-face, to some kind of shared working document like a Google Doc or a Trello board or something to that effect but make it clear when you're shifting that attention and bring people's attention. "Okay, everyone. I'd like everyone to come back on camera" and then you can re-engage in that way.

Robin: The really nice moment in one of the other podcasts in this series where Michael Gwyther talks about the relationships between teachers and students change when everyone's in their own homes. Everyone's turning up in a different way and it’s a different level of intimacy.

You just talked about bringing in other tools, such Trello. There's a whole group of people who are very keen on this sort of idea. Where you might have a Zoom meeting but using tools for collaborating as well. What's your thoughts on bringing in third-party tools in sessions? 

Software Tools

Chad: I believe the tools you use should actually decrease the number of face-to-face meetings you have. So if you're having lots of real time virtual meetings and you add some of these tools and you have the same or more meetings, you're using the tools wrong. I think the magic of these tools is, a lot of work can happen asynchronously and I could name so many of them but I think they become, again, more burdensome, oftentimes, than helpful.

So for example, a tool like Trello, for those that aren't familiar, it's a software as a service tool where it's essentially lists of lists. So you can sort cards into different lists. It's organised very nicely into columns. It's often used as a project management tool. Okay, here's the backlog to be done. Here's what we're doing and then here's what's been completed.

Product teams inside of a company can use that to track all of their work and progress and eliminate the daily standup meetings. That's how I have seen it used to great effect. So whereas teams would meet for 15 to 20 minutes every morning and talk about the work that they're doing, instead they've used this project management tool to do that for them.

That said there are some other tools like virtual whiteboards that I think are key to be using in real time with one another but the magic from those comes from having this asset of your work or artefact of your work after the fact.

Robin: That idea of the artefact is powerful. During our sessions, the producer is taking screenshots of the whiteboards and making a slidedeck with just those. It makes a great record of the group thinking process. 

Chad: When we're in person, we have the whiteboards and the easel pads and the Post-It notes but in many ways, as you're saying, it's more ephemeral than these digital versions because all of that stuff has to get taken down and it ends up in the trash bin but these virtual whiteboards can live on in perpetuity and they're easily shareable and easily understandable after the fact.


Two of my favourite virtual whiteboards are Miro and Mural. That's M-I-R-O as one tool and mural, M-U-R-A-L, is the other. Just imagine a digital virtual whiteboard where you can put Post-Its, texts, images, draw arrows between them. You can add tables. They're really fantastic tools to give you kind of digital pads of paper and things to move around and interact with alongside one another, when you're working in this virtual place.

You don't have to tell people how to use Sharpies and Post-Its in a live environment. The downside of these virtual tools is you do have to spend time to familiarise people with the tools and sometimes you don't have that opportunity. Sometimes, you really just have to get down and do the work. So that's the one caveat with these digital whiteboard tools is, they often take longer to learn and get onboarded than you might suspect.

Robin: You allow five minutes to train a group that comes in how to use the basic text tool in the Zoom whiteboard. Still 80% of people are not familiar with tools and some people really struggle with them. There is a nice moment with the tech induction and also a warm up activity for the group as well. 

Chad: I would say it's worth it if you're going to be working for two hours or more with a group of people, I think 10 minutes invested in, "Hey everyone, we're going to test everyone's microphones, we're all going to be on camera. Here's our virtual whiteboard tool or our shared work in progress tool." Spending 10 or 15 minutes on that at the beginning, I think will pay off and if you're going to be having multiple meetings with that particular team, absolutely spend that half an hour or even a whole session just figuring out how you want to use these tools together.

Robin: A bit of sub theme for this podcast discussion has been around using visual thinking, in terms of using video and whiteboards. I'd like to wrap up and you might've already said it a couple of times. What's your greatest gem of wisdom for being more visual?

Visual Thinking

Chad: I think my answer is actually to … I mean, I'm being transported right now down to Hobart in Tasmania, where I've never been but I think I get a little flavour of it, even now, as I'm communicating with you over podcast. The pixelation of your video tells me that you are literally on the other side of the world and I think that's a fun magic that I really appreciate in this.

Of course, it's been very hard for many, and I feel very fortunate to be continuing to work but I think more than showing up in and using video and visuals, I think it's more about showing up and being a little bit more honest and vulnerable and humane with one another, as we're all struggling to figure out how to work in this remote and virtual environment.