New Digital Test Kitchen Facilitates SU’s Emergence into Synchronous Online Learning

At Singularity University, we have a culture that supports experiments and rapid learning. As part of our ongoing Test Kitchen initiative, SU Faculty experiment with interesting areas of study to pressure test ideas and teaching methods prior to incorporating them into SU program curriculum.

Recently, we launched our first Digital Test Kitchen (DTK) to explore synchronous online learning and engagement as another mechanism to extend the reach of our Faculty, experts, and innovators in the SU community. Online learning has become an integral part of the education and corporate landscape worldwide, and improved technologies are making it a go-to growth strategy for any organization. Therefore, rather than leveraging a traditional webinar event in which participants passively listen, we designed the DTK to be an interactive learning experience for participants.

Organizations often play into the misconception that online learning is easier or takes less time and therefore may assume shifting to online learning will increase the bottom line. However, good online learning may initially require more time and planning to ensure the embodiment of best practices in online design. Building the capacity of individuals to design, deliver, and facilitate online learning engagements can decrease the time needed if sound pedagogical principles are part of the capacity building for everyone involved.

Let’s explore how this first DTK was planned, designed, and launched to understand both online learning as well as lessons learned.

Starting with the outcomes in mind

Our first DTK featured Be-Novative, a novel platform developed by Priszcilla Várnagy, winner of a 2012 SU Global Impact Challenge. The first step in planning the DTK was to clearly define learning outcomes: what learners should know and be able to do by the end of the session.

As with any educational experience, in creating a learning opportunity grounded in pedagogical research, it’s critical to establish clear learning goals that provide measurable data to indicate whether a participant can demonstrate the desired learning outcomes. After much discussion, two outcomes emerged from the initial planning:

  1. At the end of the session, participants should be able to effectively use the Be-Novative platform by participating in an ideation challenge and exploring ways that the platform might be used in their particular context.
  2. At the end of the session, participants will be exposed to online, large and small group interactions and learning through the use of the Zoom conferencing platform and its breakout rooms feature.

Synchronous Online Learning

Planning a relevant learning experience

Once we determined the desired outcomes, the planning could begin. A common misstep when planning a learning experience is to start the design process with the information that is to be shared with participants, rather than what they will do with that information. The latter design approach is called “job-embedded learning,” and it emphasizes professional learning grounded in teaching practice and student achievement, which can also be applied to corporate education. Making learning relevant to the roles of the participants and having them think about how the learnings apply in their own context ultimately creates deeper connections to the learning.

Robust technology-enabled learning must meet three criteria:

  1. It must directly address the identified needs of the audience.
  2. It should incorporate the principles and features that research has found lead to real learning and improvement.
  3. It should make smart use of technology to optimize learning and amplify offline efforts.

The team planning the DTK wanted to create an authentic experience using the Be-Novative platform by having participants engage in a challenge that was set up for this 90-minute session. This format would allow participants to both gain an understanding of the philosophy of the platform as well as use it while thinking about how it might be used in their own specific context. The session was structured with small pieces of learning, followed by an opportunity to process. Best practices in face-to-face learning call for a “10-2” format: ten minutes of input, and two minutes to process. However, online learning follows more of a “5-2” format, with no more than five minutes of input broken up with two minutes to process.

Factoring in relevant technology considerations

Engaging in online learning activates the executive function of the brain differently than face-to-face learning. Participants are looking at the screen, hearing from the presenter, reading or typing out content in the group chat room, and using emoticons. (One can also add in a bit of anxiety for some learners using an online mode of delivery!) Planning for online delivery includes reducing the amount of text on a screen, speaking slowly and clearly, intentionally directing participants to the tools of the technology, providing handouts with directions for participant engagement components, and, as described above, frequently stopping to process the information. We intentionally built these elements into the design of the DTK.

Just as with classroom teaching, effective educational practices differentiate instruction and move between instruction, data-gathering, small groups, independent practice, and collaborative problem-solving to ensure that participants are able to achieve stated learning outcomes. Technology can make such active, customized learning easier through increased expert availability, the use of videos and sample lessons, and making other learning objects accessible. These benefits also make space for different learning styles and interactions that are in alignment with each learner’s preferences. What’s more, online professional development can allow participants to reflect and discuss before responding.

Our program design took sound online learning principles into consideration by providing digital breakout rooms with facilitators in each room, allocating one person to manage the technology for both delivery of the DTK as well as handling tech support issues from participants, having additional experts from Be-novative on hand, and providing a series of different experiences and tasks.

Lady using her laptop

Final preparations, walkthrough, and show time!

The last part of the planning entailed a walkthrough of the DTK. The designers and presenter met twice before the actual DTK to discuss transitions, processing, timing, potential problems, flow, handouts, invitations, and much more. As with any learning experience, mitigating challenges before they arise only happens with preparation and planning.

We held the DTK on March 21, 2019, with a total of 62 participants. SU CEO Rob Nail provided a warm welcome to participants and expressed strong support for this type of learning. Participants were able to log into Be-novative, use the platform as part of their learning, and engage in conversation with small groups in Zoom breakout rooms and in a whole-group setting. Comments in the chat during the session and follow-up feedback showed that participants had a very favorable experience and enthusiasm for this type of learning. The Be-novative platform was also a huge success: 25 participants in seven countries submitted 86 ideas and scheduled 15 follow-up calls with Be-novative to explore different use cases moving forward.

Learnings and feedback

As with any new adventure, there are learnings to be had that can lead to improvements and better experiences for future endeavors. Here are some of the highlights of the learnings we took away from this experience, including direct attendee feedback:

Strengths Areas for Growth
Excellent opportunity to connect with people in the SU ecosystem, with six countries were represented! Facilitators had not used the platform before, so there were some challenges in supporting participants in the breakout room.
“Love the breakout rooms and different way to use Zoom” Be-Novative groups and Zoom groups were not the same, which created some confusion during the session.
“I was SO impressed by the facilitation and production of this DTK, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.” “Could send the agenda link and sign up info in advance so we could all be on the same page and logged in when the session starts.”

What’s next?

The first DTK set a bar for online learning. We might look at having Faculty deliver future talks online, using the online learning principles of “chunks of learning” with processing time and small groups for deeper discussions or other interactive activities. Others in the SU community might use the DTK as a means to work together to solve global grand challenges within a structured discussion protocol. Developing relationships with peers and colleagues across the country and the world can also enhance collaboration, communication, and collegiality. In follow-up conversations with Prisczilla, other ideas emerged from her conversations with participants, such as to use Be-novative within a conference, meeting, or at the various International Summits delivered by SU partners as a back channel to generate additional ideas in real time.

Online, there are far more potentially like-minded peers than any person can access within his or her own community. But it’s challenging to develop relationships online, and learning can be hampered by online communities of practice that lack structure. Online communities require careful facilitation to encourage initial engagement and collaboration, to foster bonds across the group, and to ensure that all participants are getting what they need. Online learning demonstrates an awareness and understanding of how people learn from one another, offers facilitators’ expertise in the moderation of online communities, includes coaching, and provides appropriate technical support to ensure participants make the most of what’s available. The possibilities are limitless.

As SU moves forward as a learning organization focused on the impact on the communities it serves, online learning engagements like the DTK can play a prominent role. Enabling active participation, extending opportunities for people to converse with others outside of their networks, extending access to a growing global network of  Faculty and experts, and providing a strong pedagogical foundation have the potential to elevate SU as a leader in online learning.