Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Website banner for New Lines newsletter Spring-Summer 2022  edition

Beyond Zoom: Hosts seek to enhance connection

Main content start

Whether a webinar, a virtual conference or a book-talk series, organizers want discussion to thrive after events end. 

8 contour drawings of Sarah Stein Greenberg and posted on the Gather Learning platform by attendees of her May 25 book talk.
At a recent event, attendees drew pictures of the speaker and later shared them with each other.

By Annie Sadler

Throughout 2022 Stanford Digital Education has been staging an experiment in how to support informal learning online with a monthly book-conversation series, Academic Innovation for the Public Good. The series launched on Zoom in January with Davarian Baldwin, professor of American Studies at Trinity College, author of In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, in conversation with Michael Kahan, co-director of Stanford University's Program on Urban Studies. 

In April, the series added a new online feature, a discussion forum designed to weave the Zoom events together into an ongoing conversation. The goal is to foster a new dimension of engagement with the ideas in these books and interaction with the authors and other participants in the series. 

For much of human history, the exchange of ideas occurred through in-person conversations. Around 5,000 years ago inscribed tablets and manuscripts extended the range of ideas across larger spans of geography, and around 500 years ago came the printed book, which ushered in the modern era. Are we on the cusp of a similarly historic transformation through the digital exchange of ideas?

In-person scholarly conferences are often annual gatherings that support professional relationships, foster collaboration, and strengthen networks. Our question is whether we can recreate some elements of those meetings online, with the aim of expanding access and lowering the barrier to entry for participation in the knowledge exchange. 

Zoom emerged during the pandemic as a widely-used tool to host course lectures, class discussions and webinars, and our series also relies on it for our monthly events. But Zoom is not as well-suited for facilitating multiple strands of a conversation amongst a larger community, particularly large conferences. To address those gaps, new platforms have arisen.

Take, for example, the recent 2022 Pandemic Pedagogy Research Symposium (PPRS), organized by Duke Learning Innovation. It used a platform provided by Whova, a company “with the mission of revolutionizing attendee networking, engagement, and extending organizers’ events beyond time and location.” At the PPRS event, panels and presentations occurred throughout the day; participants logged in from across the country and posed questions to speakers, as well as texting amongst themselves through the Whova platform. The conference was a tremendous success, and the conference organizers are trying to leverage Whova to allow participants to continue to build relationships and continue conversations that began during the event. 

Another interesting example of an education-focused virtual series is the Future Trends Forum, the brainchild of Bryan Alexander, a futurist, researcher, and teacher. It’s an ongoing, participatory, open online conversation about the future of higher education. Every week Alexander presents a conversation between the guest of the week and the participants via chat, video, and Twitter through a platform provided by Shindig, which seeks to help produce “online events that are just as interactive, productive and memorable as real life.”

At Stanford, event organizers are experimenting with a number of different platforms to bring intellectual communities together online. The university’s Center for Human-centered Artificial Intelligence encourages participants in its weekly seminars to post questions in advance through Slido. The Stanford Humanities Center is developing its own platform, posting recommended readings from guest speakers before the presentations as well as videos and other materials afterwards. It’s also developing a capacity for ongoing dialogue. “We are working to give the community a place to continue the conversation and bounce ideas off of each other,” said Humanities Center director Roland Greene. “Perhaps the speaker would be willing to answer questions after delivering a lecture.”

For Academic Innovation for the Public Good, Stanford Digital Education and its organizing partner, Trinity College, are piloting Gather Learning, a platform to support informal continuing learning and community from cultural and academic institutions and to help people come together to create. The Academic Innovation series organizers have recently added forums on Gather to foster community before and after event and enable ongoing conversations. “We are trying to figure out how to make live Zoom events into something less ephemeral and engage before and after an event in order to build a connected conversation across book talks,” said Kristen Eshelman, a co-organizer of the book-talk series and vice president for library and information technology services at Trinity College, “Gather is a platform that builds the infrastructure for those wrap-arounds.”

The effort to extend the conversation began after the April 27 event with author Emily Levine, ‌a historian and associate professor of education at Stanford, and Richard Levin, president emeritus of Yale University. For 48 hours after the live conversation on Zoom, participants were able to post questions on Academic Innovation's Gather forum and Levine and Levin responded asynchronously. 

The next event in the series—the May 25 conversation between author  ‌Sarah Stein Greenberg, executive director of Stanford, and Allison Salisbury, a senior vice president at Guild Education—had a video posted a week beforehand on Academic Innovation's Gather site about a lesson in Stein Greenberg’s book, Creative Acts for Curious People. During and after her talk with Salisbury, a conversation space was created on the site for participants to try another exercise, Blind Contour Drawing, an energizing practice that opens the book. They posted on a dedicated space on the site 34 different drawings [see picture at top of page], along with comments on the drawing activity and how it relates to innovation work. The responses were open and lively, reflecting the fun and quick nature of the blind contour drawing activity and enhanced by the ability to share their drawings with others at the event.

“Here is mine,” posted an attendee, with his drawing. “Great practice!” A few minutes later, another participant remarked: “Letting go of expectations, control and 'your eyes' is quite refreshing. Makes you think, what else can we do this way?!”  A third added: “This was so fun! Enjoyed the conversation!”

The pilot of Gather is part of the larger mission of Stanford Digital Education, which serves as an incubator for new approaches to teaching and learning at the university. In the wake of the first two years of the pandemic, SDE  is exploring how best to adapt the lessons from emergency remote teaching in terms of synchronous and asynchronous combinations: How can we build on it to move past the default zoom model of online education?

“Our experiment with Gather is one example of how we are trying to figure out how to be more intentional about the design of informal learning environments,” said Matthew Rascoff, the other co-organizer of Academic Innovation for the Public Good and Vice Provost for Digital Education at Stanford “We want to keep some of the benefits of flexibility that were experienced in the pandemic, even as we return to face to face.” 

So far, a couple of months into experimenting with Gather, the most intriguing aspect of the platform has been the ability to expand the timeline of the conversation with the experts beyond the video into asynchronous text based sessions that capture the post reflection revelations and the ‘didn’t have time for them’ questions. These side conversations that can happen quite naturally at the end of an in-person event with the folks sitting in close proximity don’t have an obvious online counterpart. 

The experiment with Gather will continue with future events on the Academic Innovation for Public Good calendar, including the July 27 event with Ethan Riis, assistant professor of education at University Nevada, Reno, discussing his book, Other People's Colleges: The Origins of American Higher Education Reform. Whatever is learned from this and the remaining events will be shared with others at Stanford as part of SDE’s vision to advance innovation  in online and hybrid education.

Annie Sadler is a project manager at Stanford Digital Education. Her goal for 2022 is to spend 10 percent of her year in the wilderness. She lives in Seattle.