Classis by Video: Technical Edition

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Awhile back I wrote a blog with suggestions on how a classis might meet by video. That blog had a major assumption built in: time. Time to try things out. Time to test it. Time to move forward slowly but surely. Covid-19 has taken time away for classes that are choosing to meet rather than delay or cancel meetings. That’s not all bad, as being thrust into a new experience can expedite learning and create an atmosphere of grace as we work things out together. 

So this blog is not a reflective post on the merits of meeting by video. I'm working on the assumption that you are meeting sometime in the near future and you just want some rough-and-tumble battle-tested advice on how you can make that meeting happen. It's long, but I'm trying to be thorough so you get as much of the experience possible. I'm also sure there are missing pieces or I'm unclear in some of my explanations. That's a great chance for you to ask about it or dig around yourself. Let's learn together.

Where has this been tested:

  • I met with Stated Clerks and other guests two separate times and we did some “mock” classis meeting stuff. We tried it out. We found some issues to resolve. Those meetings deeply shaped the classis experience.
  • A pre-classis meeting to test it out. It showed some additional flaws that saved us a significant degree of headache in the actual meeting (eg. the inability to do polling in a breakout room).
  • At a classis meeting: I had the chance to be the Zoom host for a classis meeting last Saturday. Thankfully, almost all the kinks had been worked out by that point.

How the classis meeting worked:

  1. We used Zoom, and I would recommend it. There are a ton of other video options, and tech changes fairly rapidly. So if you’re reading this in a few months or years, don’t assume Zoom is best. But if you’re meeting as a classis in 2020, do make Zoom your choice and buy a Pro license.
  2. We had multiple people involved in running it. I was the host (the meeting used my Zoom account), and there were three co-hosts: the chair, the recording clerk, and another tech support person. I would recommend something similar. It allowed me to build the breakout rooms (you must be the full host for that) while the other tech guy unmuted people when they spoke. We were clear ahead of time what our roles would be (so various people weren't muting/unmuting people, etc.).
  3. Credentials were gathered ahead of the meeting by email/form. That generated the email list to send out the Zoom info to. Having a list of delegates and registrants was very helpful. If you don’t normally do credentials ahead of time as a classis, I would suggest you consider it in normal circumstances but would say it’s highly recommended for meeting by video.
  4. Participants were told that every individual person needs to join on their own device. No sharing. This is critical for the voting (see below). They also needed to join on a device, not just call into the meeting. However, if the internet is spotty, be aware that there is an option to join a video meeting on your device but use your phone as your speaker/microphone. Note, this is not the same as simply calling into a meeting...you must join on your device first and then use phone audio to connect. It will give you a participant ID that will link your video to your phone audio.
  5. The classis meeting started at 10am. We told everyone to log in between 9:15-9:45. We enabled “waiting room” and told everyone in the invite email that they would start in the waiting room. This allowed us to welcome small batches of people as they showed up.
  6. When we added people from the waiting room into the main meeting, we did this:
    1. Ensure they are all connected to audio properly. Get them to say something. Not everyone was connected to audio when they arrived. It’s helpful if you have their phone number or they have yours (if you’re running the tech) and encourage them to call you. When I got on the phone with someone, I just told everyone to wait. They were patient. It was worth doing. 
    2. Click “Participants” on the bottom menu. Next to Mute, Video, etc. People needed to be told to move their mouse around on the video screen to see that bottom bar (it disappears). Once they click it, and they can see all the participants, we directed their attention to the bottom where “Raise Hand” is. We told them that this would be how they get into a speaker cue should they wish to speak. We told people to raise their hand. We did not move on until every single person had their hand raised. Some people raised their physical hand. This was a good learning-check so they understood they needed to click the button “raise hand.” This also helped us find out that some people couldn’t hear us since they didn’t raise their hand. Led to good trouble shooting. Then we had them all lower their hand.
    3. We had them find themselves on the participant list and showed them how to change their name. We requested everyone ensure their name is their first and last name. 
    4. We had them open up chat so they could see it, but we did not rely on it much for the meeting at all. We relied on people raising hand to speak.
    5. We told them they would all be muted. We decided to make the selection that people could NOT unmute themselves. So when they wanted to speak, the chair recognized them and one of the hosts unmuted that person. This is probably unnecessary, as once everyone is muted they probably only unmute themselves when recognized anyway. But be ready to mute people when they are done talking in case they forget. And be ready, as a host, to lower peoples’ hands as well since they will probably forget.
    6. We did this “welcome” process over every time we invited people in from the waiting room. When we got to the end of the first round, we just invited everyone who was waiting. Because we can’t keep track, and because repetition is learning, we had absolutely everyone raise/lower their hands every single time we got to that point in the intro. 
  7. Voting: we voted using Zoom Polling. Highly recommend. Our goal in this meeting would be that someone could join the Zoom call and not have to go anywhere else. Polling allows you to deploy a poll and it pops right up on someone’s video where they can vote, hit submit, and done. Easy. Note: the poll MUST be created in the web interface, and I would recommend doing it prior to the meeting. We created and used only one poll for all our voting: yes/no/abstain. Every time you launch/relaunch the poll, it clears all previous results. Anyone who is a host/co-host cannot vote, but can watch the live results. When everyone voted, the chair announced simply whether the motion passed or failed. The clerk recorded the actual results privately, and at the end the chair ruled that the records of voting numbers would be destroyed. 
  8. Motions: before each vote, and during the meeting when motions were introduced, the clerk screen-shared the motion that was being discussed and then the motion being voted on. Generall, screenshare takes over the Zoom call, so you can’t leave it up there during the whole discussion. But we made sure that before anyone went to the yes/no/abstain vote the motion was shared in this way.
  9. Executive Session: the meeting I was part of had one agenda item (an Article 17). Since only delegates were given the link, there weren’t a whole lot of other people at all. But if you are doing a classis meeting with executive session, I would recommend this same process: we kept all the delegates in the main zoom room, and while the meeting was happening I built some Breakout rooms. One for Synodical Deputies, and another for guests. At one point, the classis executive had their own. We set it up that when breakout rooms were open, everyone assigned to a room went there automatically (not “click here to join” so that we knew they were where they needed to be). The reason for not putting the delegates themselves in a breakout room is that you can only run a Zoom Poll in the main session and we needed to have a vote. Also, we made the setting that participants could not leave the breakout room and come back into the main session on their own. This created a couple headaches, but worked overall. At one point, we had the synodical deputies just leave the meeting from their breakout room altogether and just rejoin the main meeting like they joined in the first place via the waiting room. The challenge with breakout rooms is you can’t close them individually and you can’t invite people back into “unassigned” main room. So you either close all breakout rooms or you leave them all open. 
  10. Point of Order: this was a challenge since raising your hand put you in the cue and people could not unmute themselves. We suggested that if someone had a point of order to put it in the chat box.

Non-technical observations:

  1. My impression was that the technical side of the video meeting went very smoothly. People were able to participate effectively. There are some relational components missed since everyone’s not all in the same room together, but it might also create more of a feeling of safety for someone to raise their hand and speak. Overall, I think the deliberative process was equal to what the experience would have been in person. We just miss the informal relational times in between, etc.
  2. Video can amplify confusion. It won’t create confusion (if done well), but it can put it right in front of everyone. In person, we can lean over and ask someone next to us for clarification. Or, leaders can tell people to take a quick break while they sort things out briefly (we did do this, but it wasn’t as seamless). And the restlessness that can come with confusion (“what are we voting on right now?” sorts of things) doesn’t have as much of an outlet. My recommendation: make extra pains to choreograph your meeting, planning out all the movements. This is valuable for any meeting like this, but especially important for video.
  3. Run a mock meeting: get a group together before the meeting. Test making a decision together. Put people in breakout rooms. Try joining by phone audio if needed. Screenshare something. Get someone to raise their hand and have the chair call on them. Unmute them and let them speak. Basically, whoever is involved in hosting the meeting, don’t let the actual meeting be your first time. AND, test it with some people who could be delegates and less technologically adept. They are key people to learn with.
  4. I would recommend to not use Google Forms or another polling option outside of Zoom polls. When we tried this in a test run, there were people who had a hard time getting to the form, and then didn’t know what to do with the fact that Zoom seemed to have disappeared (it was just hidden because their web browser was overtop of it). Doing absolutely everything within Zoom itself makes life much easier for everyone. Join the meeting, and just be present.
  5. Do take the time at the beginning of the meeting to ensure everyone is able to participate. Encourage those who are less familiar to join as early as possible before the meeting to work out kinks. But using this time, and expecting there to be frustrations, gives an opportunity to show grace and kindness both in attending to participants’ needs and ensuring that they can be fully part of the meeting before it starts.

That is all for now. I’m sure there are more learnings out there that I missed, and I’m happy to keep you all updated along the way as more learning develops. Like I said at the beginning, this is just a technical post assuming you’re doing a classis meeting by video.

Classis by video is possible to do. And, if you attend to these technical pieces, you should be in good shape.

Also, please know: if you are planning to meet by video, I am here to help. I can have individual conversations with you as the chair/president of the meeting and/or the person who is running the system to help you in any way possible. This includes if you chose something other than Zoom or are exploring hybrid video-person options. If you do meet by video, I’d also love to hear your experience. Don’t hesitate to touch base, either by leaving a comment below or emailing me at [email protected]

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Awesome advice Al. Thanks!