Connecting the Dots in an Onsite-Online World: Metatrends in Travel, Life, and Learning

Having the unusual experience of jumping from one professional conference to a second this week is providing learning experiences most of us rarely encounter—and one that shines an extremely bright spotlight on what it means to live, work, and learn in a completely blended onsite-onsite world.

nmc.logo.cmykAfter leaving San Francisco on Monday, I was completely immersed in the New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Project Summit on “The Future of Education” in Austin, Texas from mid-day Tuesday to mid-day Thursday. Trying to capture even most cursory set of highlights of the discussions held on Tuesday and Wednesday meant absorbing highly stimulating and challenging ideas from some very bright colleagues from schools, colleges, universities, museums, and libraries all over the world—then condensing them into blog–sized posts late at night before returning to the intellectual arena the following day for even more of the same.

Making the transition from Austin to Seattle Thursday evening to attend part of the American Library Association (ALA) 2013 Midwinter meeting at first suggested the need for a major shift in thinking. I assumed ALA_Midwinter_2013I was leaving behind the education summit themes of wicked problems including the need to rethink higher education, rethink online learning, and deal with how we effectively incorporate technology into learning. Diving into the ALA conference, I suspected, would instead focus on a different set of wicked problems, including the roles libraries play in a variety of arenas including lifelong learning, information literacy, intellectual freedom, and the overall development of communities—geographically defined communities as well as global online communities.

It didn’t take long to realize that there were dots to be connected between the two conferences and the two sets of wicked problems—and one of the major connections is the technology that makes it possible to jump between two such conferences so seamlessly.

Some of the subtle connections rapidly became apparent as I started running into colleagues in the Washington State Convention Center here in Seattle late this afternoon in hallways, reception lounges, and more formally organized activities; the conversations we had were amazingly similar to those in which I participated during the education summit—the need to rethink what we’re doing, abandon some of our core assumptions, and take advantage not only of our face-to-face opportunities to explore and act upon the challenges we are facing, but also to draw offsite colleagues into the conversation via tweets and twitter feeds, posts on Facebook, and other online extensions of the onsite conversations.

There were also the completely unsubtle reminders that geographic barriers are far less constraining then they were even ten years ago—barriers often reduced or completely knocked down by how quickly relationships are established in one arena (e.g., virtual communications), extended into a physical setting, and then extended even further in both settings.

My latest moment of revelation came this evening when I connected the dots between meeting, for the first time, an NMC Horizon Summit attendee Tuesday because we were both live-tweeting the summit from different parts of a meeting room housing approximately 100 attendees. By mid-day Wednesday, she and I had managed to engage in face-to-face conversation, then continued the conversation via the Twitter feed throughout the afternoon, and then ended up across a dinner table with eight other colleagues that evening. We said good-bye to each other early Thursday afternoon in Austin—and then unexpectedly were face to face again this evening while walking the exhibits floor at the ALA Midwinter meeting—an event drawing thousands of people from libraries across the United States. But even that isn’t the remarkable and marvelous part of the story. We ran into each other twice in that huge exhibition area this evening, and it was only during our second encounter that I realized the colleague with whom she was traveling is a member of an ALA committee that I chair—a colleague, I should add, that I’ve only met face to face one time, and with whom I will be having lunch tomorrow before our committee meeting begins. Turns out the two of them are rooming together here at the conference, and neither of them had known how the three of us were connected until we met on the exhibits floor.

While all of this may sound like some freakish “who would have thought it” sort of encounter worthy of little more than a “wow, how strange” sort of reaction, I believe it speaks to something far deeper and more important in our world of rapid travel, seamless onsite-online communication, and learning. It speaks to our natural inclination toward socializing and learning since a thirst for learning drew us to these events; our need for affiliation anywhere we can find it; our drive to create, nurture, and sustain community wherever and however we can develop it; and our willingness to continually push the envelope on what it means to “meet” somebody, engage with somebody, and build upon relationships that, without attention, could begin to grow and then quickly wither away if left unattended. It also speaks to the almost magical, mystical nature of how we forge connections in a world of countless interweavings through a variety of means— not the least of which is the creative and effective use of social media tools—with an eye toward solving some of those wicked problems we continued exploring at the NMC education summit.

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