The Fourth Place Revisited: Creating an Instant Onsite-Online Social Learning Center (Part 2 of 2)

It’s not often that we have the opportunity to produce learning objects as part of a learning opportunity, but that’s exactly what an engaged group of learners (library directors from the state of Virginia) achieved last week during the final two-hour session of the Library of Virginia’s two-day Directors’ Meeting in Richmond, Virginia that Maurice Coleman and I helped facilitate.

By the end of our time together Friday morning, all of us not only had collaborated to create a blended (onsite-online) social learning center that had onsite participants seamlessly engaged with several online colleagues in discussions about the future of libraries and learning and learners, but we had also used the wisdom of the group to capture and produce a viewable record of the conversations that took place via Twitter by using Storify.

How we achieved those results as a temporary community of learners drawn together and supported by Library of Virginia Continuing Education Consultant Cindy Church and her colleagues provides a wonderful example of social learning at its best and most creative. It also provides a wonderful case study of how any trainer-teacher-learner can promote and nurture what we’ve been calling the new Fourth Place in our world—social learning centers that can exist onsite, online, in onsite-online combinations, and even in unexpected places, 39,000 feet above the surface of the earth, when the conditions for social learning are in place.

The creation of our onsite-online social learning center last Friday was a response to necessity: those library directors clearly needed something far different than what Maurice and I had planned to offer, so the two of us, after our Thursday afternoon sessions with them, completely threw out what we had prepared and, instead, spent Thursday evening contacting colleagues who are active and innovative users of social media tools in libraries and others settings. The results were spectacular, and improv was at the heart of much of what we accomplished.

Our new plan for Friday morning was to take the existing meeting room space in the Library of Virginia there in Richmond and transform it into a setting where social learning could occur. We decided to begin with a Twitter feed (#lvadir12, for Library of Virginia Directors’ Meeting 2012) that would connect onsite participants to Bill Cushard, Buffy Hamilton, David Lee King, and Jill Hurst-Wahl so that our online colleagues, well-versed in social media tools and learning, could explore options with the onsite participants. That Twitter  feed, aggregated via TweetDeck, was projected onto a screen in the front of the room; it was also visible to the many onsite participants who followed and contributed to it via their own mobile devices—a stunning example of how quickly we all are adapting the Bring Your Own Device movement into our workplaces and other venues.

Maurice and I also, on the spur of the moment, decided to take advantage of onsite wireless access to connect onsite participants to our online partners via a Google+ Hangout—a plan that had to be abandoned when the wireless access proved to be inadequate for what we were trying to do. Even that disappointment, however, provided a useful learning experience: it helped everyone to not only see and understand the advantages and challenges of trying to incorporate social media tools into learning, but also to see how easy it is, in the moment, to change course and use what is available to produce effective learning in a social context. As Maurice himself observed, we learn as much from our failures as from our successes.

Anyone reading the Storify transcript—it appears in reverse chronological order, so requires that we go to the final page of the document and work out way back up to the top to follow the flow of the exchanges—quickly obtains a sense of how dynamic this sort of learning can be. While there was an overall structure to the discussion, there was an equal amount of on-the-spot adjusting to themes that turned out to be important to the onsite and online learning partners. All of us were learning from each other—an achievement well-documented in that moment when we tweeted out a request for help in capturing the Twitter feed and immediately received Buffy’s suggestion that Storify would produce what we needed.

There was also a clear focus on being engaged in something more than an ephemeral discussion to be forgotten as soon as it was finished. The final segment of the conversation produced commitments by the library directors themselves as to what they would do to apply lessons learned when they returned to their libraries.

Among the offerings:

  • “We will ask our community how we can help them.”
  • “We will ask people how they want to hear from us.”
  • “We will designate staff time to learning-opportunity development.”

And in a wonderful moment of laying the foundations for the concrete results that the best learning opportunities can produce, one discussion group said “We commit that we will post on our listserv, within six weeks, one thing we have done from this session”—thereby assuring that this particular social learning center will remain in existence for at least six weeks after participants formally left the physical site to return home.

If that sounds like a surefire way to demonstrate how social learning centers can produce tangible, sustainable results, then we all will have benefitted from the creation of this particular example as we look for ways to create and nurture our own. And we’re well prepared to further explore the concept of social learning centers as a new Fourth Place (after the first three places—home, work, and social settings where members of a community informally gather) in libraries or any other setting where learners gather in Intersections to enjoy each other’s company while learning from each other.

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