Technology to Make Virtual Feel Less “Virtual”

TechChange CEO, Nick Martin, has been leveraging technology to make learning easier in some of the hardest to reach places in this world. He’s not just using any technology, he’s using some very cool technology which, even if you’re not able to implement the same solutions in your organization, may at least be able to inspire you with some new ideas for how to make virtual learning a little less virtual.

Because some of this technology is something you’re better off seeing, we’re going to do something a little different with today’s podcast. Nick won’t just be talking about some of these technologies, but he’ll be sharing his screen and showing it to you as well.

If you would like to simply LISTEN to the podcast instead of watching the video, you can do so here:

Transcript of the Conversation with Nick Martin

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to a very special edition of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning & development in bite-sized chunks. Today, we’re experimenting with something that’s going to be a little different with video in addition to the audio, because we’re joined by guest Nick Martin, who’s the CEO of TechChange who has some very cool things that he’s going to be showing us in just a few minutes. Thank you, Nick, for joining us. 

Nick Martin: Hey, Brian, great to be here and really excited to be connected to your community and your listeners and, yeah, looking forward to this.

Brian Washburn: I’m really excited. So, Nick, you’ve been working with some of the biggest organizations that are doing world-changing stuff that I can think of. You know, these are organizations that are out there to make people’s lives better all over the world. Today, we’re going to be talking about the topic of how technology and learning initiatives can change the world. I’m kind of curious from where you stand and your experience, how do you think learning plays a role in making this world a better place?

How Does Learning Play a Role In Making This World a Better Place?

Nick Martin: Brian it’s such a good question. You know, so I run this company TechChange. We’ve been at it for 10 years, trying to figure out how to help largely, like, humanitarian, international development, global health organizations do capacity-building better. And, you know, when we started this it was all about how can we build the best compliance course, you know, to make sure that our staff are trained at scale in all kinds of operational tasks and responsibilities? And I think if we look back across this decade, we’ve really seen training and learning has evolved so much. Like now we really are using it as a way to engage with our communities. And whether that’s trying to distribute a vaccine and build capacity for health professionals or trying to figure out how to think about gender bias and data collection. Like we’re seeing all these new cases where, really they need a course or a workshop or some kind of blended or synchronous learning experience to not just build skills, but actually build relationships and share knowledge in ways that make all of our lives and our work more effective. So, that’s what we’re seeing.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, and it’s really interesting. It’s one of those things where, you know, I’ve interviewed for jobs before and I’ve spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector, but when I would interview for jobs at for-profit organizations, they would ask me, you know, “you’ve always, kind of, been in a role to, kind of, save the world. How would you feel about, you know, doing something that makes, you know, geeky things for geeky people?” or whatever it might be. And my response was always, “in a learning and development role, you have an opportunity to change people’s lives”. Like you mentioned, right? Whether it is, you know, figuring out how to distribute vaccines better or simply giving somebody a better process so they can do something more efficient. It’s a quality of life– I think learning goes into quality of life. People spend more waking hours at their work than they do any place else during the week. So if we can make that life a little bit better, I think it spills over outside of the workplace too.

Now we’ve all been sitting behind our screens for the past year, right, trying to connect virtually. What are some of the ways that you have found where we can connect via internet, but it feels less computer-based, it feels less virtual?

What Are Some of the Best Ways to Connect Via the Internet in Ways that Feel Less “Virtual”?

Nick Martin: It’s such a good question, Brian. You know, back in March, you know, when the pandemic hit, we were about to facilitate an in-person workshop for some large government clients that work on public health. And we were asked very quickly to turn this in-person workshop into a virtual one. And the feeling was “no way are we going to spend six hours online together at the same time! That sounds like death!” And certainly those of you who are listening or watching, you know, that you’ve been in those meetings all year. You know, those can be painful. But listen, I think that it’s like anything – if it’s designed well and it’s intentional, it can be so powerful. And we’ve really used a lot of tools creatively this year, with Miro and Mural and, you know, getting people to really think beyond just the “Zoom fatigue” and the “Zoom experience” to, kind of, bring their whole selves to the table. Some of that is just good, old fashioned human L&D facilitation and some of that is how far can this tech take us? What can this tech open up that is new and different and unusual? And, you know, I think everybody started to Zoom, but I still think there’s so many ways that we can be using this medium to do more and to do different. And so, happy to share some more specific examples as we go, but that’s just, you know, my initial thought there.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And I’d love to see some examples. You know, we’ve talked before and you had a chance to show me a bunch of stuff that’s not Zoom. And so, I think that people would be really curious and really hungry for, you know, what else is out there that people can be exploring that’s not Zoom, it’s not WebEx, it’s not just, kind of, a traditional virtual, you know, environment or platform? And as we’re thinking of this, and as you’re thinking of what examples to kind of pull up here, I’m kind of curious from where you sit – what’s been the most impactful technology that you’ve found to help with your learning programs over the past year or so?

What Have You Recently Found to Be the Most Impactful Learning Technology?

Nick Martin: Yeah, it’s a good question, Brian. I think maybe it’s choice. It’s maybe less not one technology that stands out just the ability to connect dots between technologies. And to think about the right tech for the right experience and to have essentially a roster and a playbook that we draw from that really gets clients where they need to be. In general, I am really trying to push our clients towards more synchronous and blended experiences. I was trying to do that before the pandemic. And I think the pandemic has opened up a number of ways of thinking and increased a, kind of, tolerance for new ways of engagement beyond just the self-paced courses that L&D is famous for. And that’s really– that comes from our experience in corporate training and organizational training, moreso than– we’re not really in K-12 or higher ed in that sense. So that is one caveat there.

But, no, I think we are certainly seeing some. I’m happy to share a couple that we love just to, kind of, give people a flavor for, kind of, how we’re thinking about that horizon of engagement. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Let’s take a look. 

Nick Martin: Okay. Great. So Brian, the first thing I want to show you is a tool called a Social Hour. And essentially Social Hour is a– think of it like a virtual lounge and you have the opportunity to name tables, move freely between tables. It’s kind of like if breakout rooms in Zoom had a much better, kind of, visual interface to an experience, this is kind of what you’d get. And this is a great partner of ours. So, imagine you, kind of, pick your table and then inside the table, it is like a mini breakout group, except that in our model, we’re actually able to kind of connect all of our participants’ profile data and information from our learning platform directly to it. And people are willing to, kind of, are able to move freely between among tables in really creative and collaborative ways. And so, again, I just think trying to really reconfigure that breakout room experience I think is really exciting. 

And then if you really want to get creative about virtual engagement, we’ve done a lot of work designing 3D worlds in a tool called Mozilla Hubs. This is a conference that we ran called The Global Digital Health Forum. And this is actually the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor near Washington, DC. And you can enter these on your VR headset or on your desktop. No download needed. You can get all kinds of great authentications and permission sorted, so you can, kind of, restrict who comes into these. But you have the ability to move around and to experience a world. 

And Brian, if you were in here right now, we could get about 40 people in a room at a time. You and I could talk, but then if you decide, you want to go down and you want to explore this area down below, and I stay here. Well, we keep talking, it would actually be harder for us to hear each other the further away we get. That’s the kind of stuff that recreates all the excitement and the awkwardness of the in-person experience. I think we’re going to see more of that as things go.  Look, I know this is kind of different and unusual for folks. I’ll show you my avatar here. This is actually one I think I designed. Kind of look like me, a little bit. I don’t know. It has a little more hair than me, but you can see here. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah, your head shaved.

Nick Martin: Yeah, exactly. So, yeah, personally, I’m very excited about this horizon. I think, you know, I think we’ve got to find ways to try different things beyond Zoom to engage. And I think these are just two examples of ones we’re excited about. 

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn: Well, and it’s really interesting. And one of the things that I forgot to do as we got started, I got so excited about the video nature of this was, oftentimes we, we make sure that people get to know our guests through a six-word biography.

And the reason I bring this up right now is because mine with this topic of, you know, how technology and learning initiatives can change the world – my six word biography with this topic is “I’m stuck on technology from 2015”.  You know, that’s kind of my– I started using WebEx back in the early 2000’s when it came out and then things moved over to Adobe Connect and now we’re on Zoom. Now, what you’re showing is very different. First of all, I’d love to hear your six-word biography, but then I’d love to get into a little bit more about the importance of people just, kind of, figuring out what else is out there. 

So Nick, if you could just introduce yourself and your career in six words, especially, now that people, kind of, saw the kind of technology that you’re working with. Go ahead and introduce yourself, you know, with that very brief biography.

Nick Martin: You know, for me it would be “building beautiful virtual courses and events”. If I had two more words, I would add “engaging” in there too “and engaging” because I think for us it’s really, you know, there are so many ways to do bad courses.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. 

Nick Martin: Anybody listening has, you know, lived a life in L&D and knows that well. But for us, that kind of beautiful aspect, that well-designed aspect combined with engagement is really what we need to be doing. And I do feel like, if we think about the, kind of, the national and the United States or the global conversation around e-learning this year, particularly focused around in K-12 and around higher ed, it just feels like people gave up so quickly on virtual learning. 

Just because, you know, they weren’t doing it right or they didn’t really, kind of, put in the effort to make it beautiful, make it engaging. You know, the pockets of creative L&D people that I know that are doing stuff, are doing phenomenal stuff. And I think we’re not highlighting and raising those examples up enough. We’re really just focused on college professors that didn’t really know what they were doing, were forced to teach on Zoom, it didn’t work. Therefore, somehow all online learning and e-learning is a waste of time or isn’t as good as in person. So, I think these are more sophisticated conversations we have to be having. You know, I think we as L&D professionals need to do more to help shape and provide examples to those conversations. And I’m looking forward to being part of that. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. Now you showed just two examples that have my wheels going, right? And I have a feeling that is going to be the case for other people who are watching this. 

Now, what would you say or what kind of advice would you have for people who are like, “well, that’s really cool, but we don’t have tech backgrounds. We’re not coders. We don’t have a huge budget. That stuff looks really expensive. How do we get started doing something that’s not Zoom, right? We’re stuck with Zoom, that’s what our company has”. Or “we’re stuck with GoToWebinar or whatever it may be”. 

Advice on How To Get Started Using New Virtual Technologies

Nick Martin: Sure. Look, the life of an L&D professional embedded in an organization is one of, generally, isolation and trying to do as much as you possibly can, Swiss-army-knife-style, to solve whatever’s coming at you from your leadership. I get that. But, look, I do think that a lot of this, Brian, is like making the case to leadership that we are in a new world order, right? Like this, this is not – even with vaccine rollout – we’re not going back to a pre-COVID world where everything is as it was. 

So, I do think there’s a bit of a, like, we need to manage up with the people that are making decisions around money and budgets and stuff like– L&D is going to be a heck of a lot more important going forward. So, how do you politically angle for that? How do you choose platforms and technologies that actually have relevance for multiple events and multiple courses, right? And trying to do that. And I’m a big fan of saying, “Look, we spend millions of dollars on conferences as, you know, L&D professional organizations and international development. Like, what are we doing? Like, we’re– crazy carbon footprint and we’re spending too much money. Like, I know people like to see each other in person, but that’s the case? That’s going to be the thing we choose to spend our money on?” So, you know, I think we’ve got to get savvy as a group of professionals. We got to make the case better. And you have a great opportunity to do that. 

Brian Washburn: I love this conversation and I would love to have another conversation in the near future to take a look at some of the other technologies that you’ve been just, kind of, stumbling upon or creating. Because I think that conversations like this help move people like me from technology from 2015 into what’s possible. And I think  that those two words “what’s possible” are some of the most important words that an L&D professional can think about if they truly do want to make an impact on this world. 

Get to Know Nick Martin

Brain Washburn: Nick Martin, CEO of TechChange, do you have a few minutes for a speed round before we go?

Nick Martin:  Hey, Hey, let’s do it.

Brian Washburn: Alright. So when it comes to actual presentations, what’s your go-to food or snack before you deliver a presentation? 

Nick Martin: I’m a trail mix guy, but I like, I like cashews and some dried pineapple. 

Brian Washburn: Yeah. It’s funny because some people go healthy, right? And that will kind of give people the energy. Other people are like, “give me a chocolate bar” and “give me the sugar rush before we go”. I love that answer. What’s a piece of training tech that you can’t live without?

Nick Martin: Oh yeah, I saw that question. I was thinking about that. I mean, I think the TechChange platform for me, I mean, again, I’m biased because I’ve built this whole company around a learning model, but you know, it’s just been instrumental whether I’m teaching in person or online. And we’ve designed this, you know, to kind of meet the needs of where teachers are and that’s exciting to me.

Brian Washburn: Do you have any recommendations on what people should be reading or listening to these days?

Nick Martin: I’m not a big reader, even though I’m an English major. I OD’d on reading early on in my journey. But, I do listen to a lot of podcasts. I’m a big fan of Dear HBR, which is really more on, you know, workplace challenges and issues and leadership. You know, I spend an enormous amount of time on LinkedIn looking at what people are up to in the L&D space and have a couple, you know, people that I follow pretty religiously who are posting jobs and opportunities and insights related to L&D that I find really, really exciting.

Brian Washburn: Who are a couple of those people that people should be following on LinkedIn?

Nick Martin: Yeah, Cara North is one, Heather Sternshein is another, who I really think is great; she’s at UNC doing – working at the online business school. And maybe I can send you a list, Brian, and I can, you know, hopefully share a few more. 

Brian Washburn: That’d be great. And before we go, obviously we want to give you an opportunity to put in any shameless plugs out there. 

Nick Martin:  No look, I think it’s really like we’re, you know, it’s been a very busy year for us at TechChange helping a lot of our partners. We tend to work mostly with non-profits and folks trying to turn to do good in the world. But, if you’re an L&D person out there and you’re looking to kind of learn more about some of the things we’re seeing and learning, and maybe check out some of the work that TechChange is doing and see if it could be relevant; reach out. I’m always just excited to chat with folks and say, you know, here’s what I’m seeing, what are you seeing? And see if we can find some common ground or find a way to work together. 

Brian Washburn:  I love this conversation and I want to continue it.  Nick Martin, CEO from TechChange, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you, everybody, for tuning in to this very special video edition of Train Like You Listen, which is a weekly podcast that can be found on Spotify, on Apple, iHeartRadio, wherever you get your podcasts. If you happen to like what you hear, go ahead and give us a rating. And that’s how people will find us. So, until next week, happy training everyone. 

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox.  Sign up today for a free demo at soapboxify.com.

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