May 6, 2020 – When Theresa Elliott walked into work at the State Bar Center in early March, she knew she was facing a challenge unlike any in her 25 years in adult education.
Elliott joined the State Bar of Wisconsin last September as part of its Professional Development team – which develops State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE® books, CLE seminars, and conferences – bringing with her extensive experience in adult education and product/service development.
That experience was put to the test in March when, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, her team suddenly faced a new, unexpected challenge – to quickly move every PINNACLE program to online delivery using remote presenters. After the State Bar suspended indefinitely all in-person programming, the team ramped up its use of technology to educate members about the fast-breaking developments surrounding the pandemic.
Elliott reflects on a similar experience spearheading distance learning for an organization of 22,000 employees following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“9/11 started the question: How can we teach differently?” Elliott said.
This is a moment in history “where chaos happens,” Elliott said. “And the chaos is shaping the future.”
Three Career-defining Themes
Elliott says three “themes” have defined her career, and all three are applicable to her State Bar work: shaping adult learning, assessing product quality, and managing product development and process improvement.
“Here at the State Bar, I’m asking what members need, when they need it, and how we can efficiently get it to them,” she said.
Before joining the State Bar, she was vice president of the Public Service Commission (PSC) and administrator of its Division of Business and Program Management. There she developed an education program for staff and leaders that included a virtual learning library.
From 2013-18, Elliott was director of government affairs for Sentry Insurance in Madison, building and guiding a team that lobbied on bills in 50 states. Prior to that, she served as business development leader and director of education for American Family Insurance.
Philip Hinkle, State Bar media production coordinator, joins the team in testing the remote systems for CLE seminars on March 13, 2020, just prior to the stay-at-home order.
Effecting the Next Level of Learning
With its mission to support lawyers in their practices, it is vitally important to keep current on new ways for adults to learn, says Elliott. Her team continually researches, tests, and implements new and better forms of delivering information to help members stay on top of the constant pace of change.
“We’re looking at new products and services that help our members be more effective. We’re seeking things we have not thought of yet,” Elliott said.
“Each adult learns differently, and that differs from how the next generation will learn,” Elliott said. “We constantly ask, are we teaching in ways that incorporate different learning styles?”
Elliott is leading her team in visioning the next stages of adult learning, which she believes will revolutionize learning for lawyers. “In the future, in addition to books and seminars, education will be multileveled, allowing lawyers to engage with authors and presenters and each other in ways we don’t have right now.”
Elliott's team members on March 13, 2020, test the system for hosting remote CLE sessions, just prior to Wisconsin's stay-at-home order.
Turning on a Dime
PINNACLE’s recent transition to online-only programming brought on by stay-at-home orders required shifts not just for the State Bar seminar planners and production team, but also for the lawyer-presenters delivering their information. Speakers typically put hours of effort into their presentations, doing practice runs before colleagues and agonizing over the minutia of their PowerPoint slides.
Ordinarily, it takes two to three months to put together a CLE seminar, whether in-person or remote,” according to Elliott.
But the planning process changed completely in March, as the team realized that the fast developments surrounding the pandemic and the flurry of governmental orders and legislation meant there wasn’t time to linger over details of polish. In the days immediately before the shift to home, the team tested the capacity of existing delivery technologies and identified what team members – hosts, planners, and those doing other behind-the-scenes tasks – needed to do from their home offices.
The team settled into remote work on March 17. One week later, they were rolling out a series of 13 virtual town hall forums covering 20 different areas of practice to help practitioners get answers to the challenges caused by the Coronavirus outbreak.
“We’re breaking the rules for how to create, market, and attend a seminar,” Elliott said. “It was imperative for us to get information to our members as fast as possible. We stripped our normal processes down to bare-bones.”
Tim Clark, State Bar seminars manager, acts as host on April 22, 2020, during PINNACLE's Act 185 CLE session. The online seminar was planned and delivered to quickly get information to members.
Presenters are learning to teach their colleagues while facing their computer screens, rather than a live audience, in their living rooms – without weeks of preparation.
“Now they were in their homes, with family around them, sharing their expertise to a camera with technicians making adjustments to sound and visuals.”
Within a week of Gov. Tony Evers signing 2019 Wisconsin Act 185 into law in mid-April, which provides for temporary changes to unemployment and worker’s compensation in Wisconsin, the PINNACLE team put together, marketed, and presented a one-hour CLE session on the new Act.
“We’ve learned that it’s okay to put together a fast presentation to get information out quickly to our members. And that it’s okay if everything isn’t polished,” Elliott said.
“To me, this type of presentation is more engaging than something that’s made to look flawless,” Elliott said. “It’s very effective and in-the-moment. From a learning perspective, I find that I’m more a part of it.”
Some Trivia about Theresa Elliott
Here are a couple interesting facts about Elliott:
Elliott was a major player in getting Wisconsin to shift to the 70-mph speed limit on Interstate Highways. That’s a great topic to ask when you meet her – once we can see each other in person again.
Ask her about her unconventional cooking skills! Elliott's family owned a restaurant when she was growing up, and she learned how to cook from the head chef, who emphasized using all your senses to determine when food is done.
Limburger may be her favorite cheese. Elliott grew up in Monroe, where this pungent cheese is made. Have you been to Baumgartner’s in Monroe for a Limburger cheese sandwich?
Do you have ideas or comments for Theresa Elliott? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (608) 250-6154.
This Brand-new World
The brand-new world of coronavirus and social-distancing is effecting change in all aspects of professional life – and most especially in the digital realm. The necessity of conducting business and learning remotely has given a push from using print hard-cover books to the digital books of PINNACLE's Books Unbound® library. Benefits of shifting from hardcover to electronic books include getting more immediate updates and the ability to access them whether at court, in the office, or at home.
"This shift was already underway, but with more attorneys now working from home, it is more difficult to access the print books at the office," Elliott said. "We have seen more lawyers successfully converting to digital books."
Shannon Green is communications writer and photographer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.
Regardless of when our communities can fully open again, how we learn is forever changed.
“COVID-19 laid the ground work for us to move into a more sophisticated virtual world and expedited our members’ ability to function online,” Elliott said. “We’ve proved that members can get information effectively from their home or office.”
“Everyone is learning how to do this at the same time – we are all learning what it takes to function and become more comfortable in a remote-learning world,” Elliott said. “Due to COVID-19, we are learning to use our technology to its fullest capacity.”
“Today, we have the capacity to conduct presentations from anywhere in the world. When we are physically back in the office, we will hit the ground running with this next generation of learning,” Elliott said.
For those preferring an in-person learning experience, Elliott expects that some programming eventually will shift back to traditional learning. After all, networking matters, she says. “But we will use the lessons they’ve learned to boost our ability to reach more members more efficiently.”
“By delivering more material online, which our members can access from the comfort of their own homes, we will better meet their needs.”