With massive federal budget cuts slated for 2013, EDC’s Chelsey Goddard knew that business as usual was not an option. The annual face-to-face meeting for staff of the nationwide Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies (CAPT) was simply not in the cards.
“With the travel restrictions that are being imposed at the federal level, I knew that we would have to be creative if we were going to keep our staff connected,” says Goddard, the CAPT’s director.
CAPT is funded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and provides essential substance abuse prevention training and technical assistance to SAMHSA-funded states, tribes, jurisdictions, and communities across the country. The meeting helps the Center’s far-flung staff set the direction for their year’s work with substance abuse professionals. Not meeting was simply not an option; critical work had to be done. So Goddard opted to try something completely new. She suggested a fully online meeting, with 54 staff members joining virtually from their offices across the United States.
To Goddard’s delight, the approach worked. And it may have been a better experience for everyone.
A better virtual meeting
Increasingly, EDC’s domestic federally funded projects are using online events to connect with staff, policymakers, and beneficiaries. And while budget issues are often at the root of this change, staff—like Goddard and many others—are realizing that virtual events can achieve the same goals at a vastly reduced cost, without sacrificing any quality of interaction.
“In many cases, virtual is better when you are trying to reach a lot of people,” says David Castañeda, an e-learning design specialist at EDC. Travel costs disappear, and virtual meetings can also provide participants with multiple ways to interact with each other. But he emphasizes that good instructional design is essential, and that online meetings need to be managed differently than face-to-face ones.
“I used to hear people say, ‘if we have to do this virtually, it won’t be as good as meeting face-to-face,’” he remarks. “I don’t hear that anymore.”
Castañeda is one of a group of people at EDC who are designing technology-rich, virtual environments that help health professionals connect in meaningful ways. He stresses that moving a meeting online is not as simple as just setting up a bunch of webcams—designers have to think about the sequence of events and be ready to keep participants continually engaged.
When Goddard decided to trade in her face-to-face meeting for a virtual one, she called in Castañeda to work closely with the CAPT team. They managed to pare down the three-day face-to-face conference to three 3-hour virtual sessions while maintaining the conference’s essential learning objectives.
Castañeda built a virtual conference space that incorporated a text chat, audio breakout rooms, and support for slideshow presentations. And to minimize the number of technical issues that participants might face during the event, he delivered basic technical assistance before the conference even began.
“You need to keep the technology in the background for events like this,” says Castañeda. “The technology can get in the way if it gets too obvious, for example, as soon as something fails.” By providing advance support, Castañeda could ensure that the content of the meeting was not lost in a flurry of individual technical problems or because of participants’ differing levels of familiarity with virtual environments.
The intense work continued once the conference started. Goddard and Carol Oliver, the chief of training and technical assistance for the CAPT, needed to make remote participants feel the same level of connectedness and community as they would in a face-to-face meeting.
“We made a deliberate effort to find ways to include people and build community,” says Oliver. “We were accustomed to bringing people together face to face, and here we were paring it down and moving online. So from a content perspective, we asked ourselves, ‘How are we going to slice the pie?’ And that actually became the theme of the event.”
The pie theme worked. As an icebreaker activity on day one, the organizers asked the participants to respond to the question “What is your favorite kind of pie?” in the meeting’s virtual chat. It was an easy win—it mimicked some of the lighter moments from a face-to-face meeting, while it also helped build familiarity with the virtual tools.
“It’s so easy to focus on content when we plan events,” says Castañeda, “but I think a lot about the human element. The human aspect of these meetings is what makes it appeal cognitively and also what appeals to the heart.”
The event was a resounding success. After meeting virtually, participants offered positive reviews about the organization, quality, and technology support of the meeting. And although they never saw each other face to face, many participants said they felt included and connected.
Not only was the meeting received well by the participants, but SAMHSA also liked what it saw. Soon after the meeting, Goddard learned that SAMHSA was going to fund three additional conferences—all virtual.
“There’s a real art to the design of virtual conferences. I didn’t appreciate how important that was,” says Goddard. “I felt more connected in this conference than I have in any other webinar, and I think the design was a big part of that.”
Originally published on July 8, 2013