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To support the goals of the Division, the Committee is launching a blog on the TAWWA.org website to highlight existing utilities and programs across the state. This blog will provide valuable information on existing programs and highlight how more information on the programs can be obtained, thus creating an online database of water education resources.

 

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Making a Splash Online, While Telecommuting

Posted By Karen E. Menard, Friday, June 5, 2020

 

Education Division – Consumer Outreach Committee Blog

All Things H2O                                    June/July 2020 Issue

 


 

Making a Splash Online, While Telecommuting

 

Like many, over the past few months my home has become my office. In 2019 BC, (before Covid-19) my job as a horticulturist with Texas A&M AgriLife’s urban water program, Water University, required me to split time in the office at one of the country’s premier research facilities, traveling around the region and sometimes across the state promoting water conservation and stormwater protection through public outreach programs, offered by Water U and sponsored by our many amazing partners.

 

Over the past five years, you could say my job at AgriLife has “helped” me adapt to working from places that were not my desk; whether that was a cozy couch at an event, an old wooden chair in an unfamiliar public library,  a dusty park bench, or more often than not … my beat up truck where I shared office space with random plants and disheveled papers, using my phone as a mobile hot spot. While primarily using flexible workspaces might not have been my first choice, I’d grown used to telecommuting without really thinking about what that term meant. (or even that it had a name)

 

Diving into the Home Office

 

So, in mid-March, when my Water University colleagues and I were deemed less-than-essential, and were advised to work from home, I feel like I was somewhat ahead of the curve. I mean, of course change is always a little stressful, but for the most part I think we took the news in stride. Others were dealing with far worse and I feel blessed to still be working.

 

I must admit, the first few weeks took quite a bit of adjustment. I think most of us are probably in similar situations, trying to find the best way to balance family and work. With schools and daycares shut down and limited access to family and friends who are part of our normal support network, we are all getting used to wearing quite a few hats.

 

For me that means trying to teach folks how to grow plants and save and protect of water resources-- in between diaper changes, the dogs barking at the Amazon driver, while my wife and I tag team back and forth amid conference calls and online meetings. She’s also working from home and is my newest coworker. Which I must say, somewhat surprisingly, has not been too bad. Now that we’ve found an ebb and flow routine (that is anything but ordinary), our work streaming full speed ahead. She’s actually really helped me develop some social media outreach logistics and goals, which has been great. –And that balances out the fact that I’ve learned, I might be married to the office loud talker. Of course, I’m mostly kidding, but you learn new things about spouses when y’all really see each other in the trenches of a work environment. (I love you honey!) It has really helped that I know and like her coworkers and vice versa. So, any inter-office interruptions are met with warm greetings and understanding.

 

Trial and Error: Pooling Resources to Develop a System That Works for Us

 

As you might have seen, Water University has transitioned to all online “virtual” classes.  This made sense, not only because it fit in with our mandated state and local guidelines, but also because it kept our familiar model going with the least amount of changes. We’ve mulled over moving to online classes in the past, and had even dipped our toes into WebX programming for professional trainings, but we had been reluctant to completely abandon face to face classes. One challenge (which we had anticipated) was the technology barrier that exists for many folks not used to online programing. Who has time to learn the intricacies of each proprietary platform? There’s of course a learning curve any time you adopt new technology as a tool in the virtual classroom, both for the entity providing the education. In our current situation I was even more concerned about alienating some of the aging demographic, which is typically our core audience.

 

We considered an evolution to virtual classes with video conferencing programs like WebX, Go To Meeting, Microsoft Teams or solely utilizing the Zoom platform. But after thoughtful discussion and a few trial runs, our Water University team came to the consensus that using a means of communication that the majority of our base was already familiar with, made the most sense for our public outreach classes. The tipping point in that decision was taking advantage the public’s familiarity with Facebook and YouTube, with the added bonus that we already had a base of followers on those platforms that we could build on. We also tried to develop more consistency by posting our virtual classes at the same time each Tuesday, Thursday, and one Saturday a month. I do think this is helping us develop a little bit of a following. We’ve seen many of the same “attendees” tuning in for multiple programs and even sharing the events on their own pages, which has expanded our reach.

 

I also feel like having an alternative to Facebook has been important. When cross promoting our Facebook Live events (and look-lives) on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn we often get responses from individuals who emphatically do not use Facebook, but ARE willing to watch to same presentation on our YouTube channel.

 

Pro Tip:

One thing I constantly promote (and cannot emphasize enough) to those aiming to enhance their impact on social media, is for your organization to have accounts on each social media platform. While it is not a necessary to be extremely active on every platform, having an account (with the same username) allows you to cross promote events, engage with a different audience, and most importantly address both complements and critiques of your entity on each platform. If you are not on that social media channel telling your story, you can be certain someone else is.

Caption: Find, follow and subscribe to Water University online by searching @AgriLifeWaterU or visit WaterUniversity.tamu.edu for our full course list and videos.

 

Going Live is Best, But Sometimes a Little Draining

 

We’ve all seen the BBC clip that went viral where the guys kids interrupt a national news segment, as his wife famously and hilariously slides in to wrangle them back out of the room. We’ve seen similar situations again and again over the past few months and its completely understandable and relatable. My own wife has even suggested that we let that happen at our house! Now, if it happens, it happens --but if at all possible, I like to avoid interruptions during our 1-1.5 hour online classes. You just never know if the doorbell is going to ring, the baby starts crying (or laugh-squealing), or someone in your household needs you for any number of reasons. That and you might need to sneeze or take a bathroom break!

 

It might disappoint some of y’all who have watch our online classes, but I might as well pull back the curtain now. Not all of our “Live” classes are always live. Now, I’ve never lied and said they are. And many of them actually have been live, but personally, I find it less stressful to pre-record (and sometimes even edit) a program from time to time. It’s a little trick I picked up from doing a number of pre-recorded news segments and living with a wife that’s a television producer. Not only does this allow me to plan ahead and edit out interruptions, but it also allows me to pay more attention to the questions and comments when the video does air. You see, I re-watch every “Look Live” class live and give detailed real-time (actually live) responses in the comment section. This also allows me to quickly post links to resources and tools I talk about during the class. One time we did have someone figure it out and they complained. I guess they felt like they weren’t getting their money’s worth! (Our classes are free and taught outside of normal work ours.) In all seriousness, for the most part this format has really helped me stay on top of things, even if it is a bit more work. It also allows me to have dinner with my family during out classes that run 5:00- 6:30 most Tuesday and Thursday nights, which is something that could rarely happen pre-pandemic. Now, I just answer a few questions in between passing the potatoes and doing the dishes and its win/ win.

 

Education and Outreach: Getting to H2knOw the “New” Tools of Trade

 

So, you might be thinking, “How do you go live, without being live?!”. There are a few work-arounds that will do the trick, but the easiest way is to record a presentation and upload that video as a scheduled “Premier”. Both Facebook and YouTube use the same terminology. Each is slightly different, but basically, you just upload a video of your choosing to each platform, set the time you want it to “Premier” and voila!  They post very similarly to “Live” events, and like live events, send notifications to your followers/subscribers that you are premiering a video. In fact, Facebook actually uses the term “Live” in some of its promotions. The other option I use is a bit more complicated and uses an opensource program called OBS Studio (Open Broadcaster Software). OBS allows you to record and/or stream to platforms like Facebook or YouTube as “Live” events. It’s a bit challenging to figure out at first, but after a few YouTube tutorials, you can have it down in no time. We really live in an amazing time of technology. Just last week, someone was asking me if I could use OBS to do something. My response, “You can do pretty much anything you could ever imagine. The key is figuring out what to type into the Google search bar or the YouTube search bar.” In fact, oftentimes, all you need to type is “how to” and the first 3 letters of what you are thinking and a creepy (but effective) auto prediction already has you beat.

 

Caption: While there are a number of paid tools to help you record video and stream “Live”, OBS Studio is open-sourced which means its free to use for programs with a leaky budget.

 

Recording Videos: A Different Way to Enjoy a Stream

 

Most of our classes are PowerPoint based. You can actually record presentations with audio in PowerPoint itself, which actually works pretty well going slide by slide. I’ve found there is sometimes a little lag time between slides, so pausing before you go to the next slide is a good idea. You can then edit and re-edit for a program that is pretty seamless. The end product is just a video of your voiced-over presentation. It’s clean and easy. PowerPoint also has a feature that lets you automatically record real-time subtitles which works, but doesn’t get every word quite right unless you talk slow. Still, it’s pretty impressive.

 

While recording voice overs in PowerPoint works well, we’ve found that videos with people in them tend to feel more relatable and get more engagement across every social media platform. So, at Water University we actually incorporate a video of the presenter as we simultaneously go through the slides. This can be done through the aforementioned OBS Studio but I find Zoom has a friendlier interface for this application. It’s a simple as starting a Zoom meeting with yourself, sharing your screen and PowerPoint presentation, and clicking record. I recommend playing around with it and see what works for you, but I’ve been pretty pleased so far. And again, a few YouTube tutorials will have you up and running in no time! Zoom also allows you to truly stream “Live” to both Facebook and YouTube. But again, because most of the time I am pre-recording, I set the videos that I’ve recorded in Zoom to “Premier” on Facebook and YouTube or use OBS studio to stream them “Live”.

 

Caption: Zoom allows you to record video while simultaneously sharing your screen. We feel like the picture in picture approach engages a wider audience drawn to a real person, rather than just a voice.

 

And that’s my secret. I’m definitely no video wizard and although the videos we are putting out have increased our reach and engagement, there is still much room for improvement. We are constantly trying to enhance what we do to increase awareness of issues related to water and to be more effective with our educational programing. One of the best ways we can do that is by constantly trying to bring a better end product to the public. Our Water University team often sends each other videos that we enjoy, that have some cool feature or are really informative, and we try to adapt that technology with a message that promotes saving and protecting our water resources. I would encourage you to do the same. You know what looks good and what doesn’t, what you think is cool or cutting edge an what looks antiquated. With that discerning eye, try to evolve what other industries are doing and mold them to fit your needs.

 

Lights, Camera, Audio: Tips for Staying Afloat While Working from Home

 

Again, I am by no means and Audio/ Visual or social media expert. I deal with plants and water, but there are a few tips that I’ve picked up from the pros, that have really helped me increase the production value of a video, whether that’s something to upload for social media or even just the next teleconference.

 

Set the Camera at Eye Level.

(or maybe a little higher) Low angles are not your friend. Make sure your camera, whether its your cell phone or computer’s web cam is even with your eyes. Using an inexpensive tripod or even a stack of books will do wonders.

 

Caption: Your laptop’s web camera can produce decent video if the camera is positioned at eye level or slightly above. This is the setup that my wife uses when interviewing people for television segments over

Zoom.

 

Caption: Taller folks like me, might require a few more books to get the webcam to eye level!

 

Get the Light Right

Good lighting will not only make you look better, but it can also improve the clarity of your video and prevent graininess. NEVER be backlit. A light or window directly behind you is the worst position from a lighting standpoint. Try to position yourself so at least some natural light is shining directly on you from the front. If you have done your best and still are not well lit or have shadows on part of your face, but a desk lamp so that the light shines directly on your face. Move the light around until there are the least amount of shadows. If the light is too harsh, consider using a handkerchief as a buffer. You may even what to invest in a light ring.

 

Caption: A bright light or window directly behind you is the worst position from a lighting standpoint.

 

Caption: This is the video quality that my computer’s webcam picks up it the same position, dark and grainy.

 

Caption: Good lighting aimed directly at your face from behind the camera produces the best results. If natural light is not an option, consider purchasing a supplemental light like this light ring.

 

Caption: Good lighting makes all the difference. Here the video that is produced is more clear and easier to watch.

 

Create an Interesting Background.

(But not too interesting) Your background should be dynamic but not cluttered. You want people to look at you, but a simple decluttered bookshelf or simple wall creates interest. Lighting is more important, so you might be limited when you position yourself with a window in front of your face-- but do the best you can.

 

Mic Check 1,2,3

Newer computer and cell phone microphones are not to terribly bad when used indoors. Talking a tad louder than normal and enunciating can help, but you might still hear a hollowness, like you are talking in a can. If you are shooting outside, and there is any bit of wind, using an external mic with a wind sock is a good idea. They are relatively inexpensive, can be interchanged with your computer, a digital camera, cell phones, or whatever you are shooting video with.

 

Caption: An inexpensive microphone can do wonders for your audio quality! In addition to improving computer audio, they can also be used to capture better cell phone audio if you are shooting video through your cell phone.

 

 

About the Author:

 

As a social media influencer in the green and blue industries with over 30,000 followers across multiple social media platforms, Daniel has been featured in both “Greenhouse Management, Maximum Yield as well as Garden Center magazines as one of the “TOP 25” pages to follow. He was also listed as one of the “TOP 100” twitter pages in all of Texas by Twitaholics. 

 

A horticulturist with Texas A&M AgriLife's Water University program, Daniel strives to provide professionals and the public with the most current research-based information on water efficient landscape management. Focused on a holistic approach to water management, Cunningham specializes in native plants, edible landscaping, rainwater harvesting and utilizing landscapes as habitat for beneficial wildlife. 

 

Keep up with Daniel by following his @TXPlantGuy social media pages, or look online for his latest articles in the Dallas Morning News, weekly Sunday morning segments on NBC channel 5 or listen online to 95.3 the Range Saturday mornings for tips on how to get the most out of your lawn, landscape, or vegetable garden.

Tags:  AgriLife  Daniel Cunningham  telecommuting  Water University  working from home 

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