Thursday, April 23, 2020

Re-Imagining Meetings

Now that our local genealogical society realized their only choice was to take a deep breath and leap into the world of online conferencing services as the answer to our statewide quarantine order, I've had a few thoughts pursue me following our videoconferencing experience. Although I've since had a flood of ideas about how to innovate, once we've all gotten over the hurdle of using this new technology, first and foremost is the realization that spending a full hour watching nothing but a talking head and a sheet of paper via a tiny computer screen just doesn't cut it. It doesn't matter if the speaker is our favorite in the whole world, nor whether we feel this month's program provides the most compelling subject. It is just hard to focus attention on a screen when all that's really happening is having one person speak.

So, naturally, as my mind wandered from the elation of successfully pulling off an online meeting, I began thinking of how, exactly, we could adapt our face-to-face meeting agenda to better fit the medium we are now having to use. I'm not going to go all out and say with Marshall McLuhan that "the medium is the message," but it is quite impossible to escape noticing how videoconferencing technology—especially in this age of quarantine—is built to bring people together. Why hold them apart by insisting that they all sit still and watch one stranger do all the talking?

Especially now that we have low-cost technology at our fingertips, and most members able to access this in their own homes, we need to explore the capabilities of these tools and imagine how they can be best put to good use for the benefit of our genealogical societies.

Small group meetings are an obvious answer, enabling a select subsection of our membership to have interaction among themselves without cluttering up the airwaves with too many people talking all at once. But even in larger groups, discussions and interaction can be achieved with the preparation of some firmly-established ground rules.

Even more than that, thinking ahead to design an alternate meeting format will allow the process capabilities of the technology to shine. For instance, on one service provider (Zoom), meeting hosts can ask a discussion question, then with a click of a mouse, send participants into "breakout rooms" to participate in group discussion with a smaller, randomly-assigned, group of fellow society members, before being called back to the main meeting to proceed to the next step.

I think of possibilities for small work groups tasked with developing society plans or projects—anything from the more simple goals for a team of putting together next month's newsletter to the more ambitious effort of the board developing a five-year plan—all which can be achieved online in video-conferencing settings. I think, also, of how a society can now format more interactive classes on a wide range of "how to" topics—for instance, employing split-screen viewing along with Zoom's "screen share" option for demonstrations—not only for members but also to offer, perhaps as a fundraiser, genealogy workshops for our communities. After all, the libraries where our societies used to offer such services are now closed to the public, but we can overcome such physical barriers.

This videoconferencing medium cries out for a mindset which takes the theory of "interactive" and transforms it into the reality of offerings for our society members and leadership. Personally, I can't wait to start experimenting with new ways to use our Zoom channel to reconnect with our members and—in hopes of returning to a life beyond quarantine—expand our society's capabilities to serve the broader communities who have an interest in genealogy as well as those who want to pursue family history research in our region.

Note: While I have mentioned one particular videoconferencing service, I'd like to clarify that I have no affiliate marketing connection with that company nor any other such service providers. There are several companies which offer these services, some even for free. Both our nonprofit society and my personal business have opted to use this one service based on personal choices, not based on any financial reimbursement for our recommendations.

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